|Date(s):||May 1, 1866 to May 3, 1866|
|Tag(s):||African-Americans, race, Violence, Riot, Death|
|Course:||“The Civil War and Reconstruction,” Juniata College|
|Rating:||5 (1 votes)|
On May 1, 1866, increasing tension amongst the civilians of Memphis, Tennessee reached its breaking point, as both white and black citizens engaged in a riot that led to the death of African-Americans and destruction of their homes. The Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper reported; “women and children have been burnt alive with the dwellings of the negroes.” Although the riot lasted several days, the initial engagement that triggered the subsequent events of the riot can be traced to a single altercation.
The parties involved included two groups, one contained four Irish American police officers, while the other was composed of a significantly larger number of African-American Union veterans, some of whom were intoxicated. The police officers were tasked with dispersing the black veterans from their location, but when asked to do so, “The ex-soldiers stubbornly refuse to disperse,” stated historian Stephen Ash. In an effort to relieve themselves of the emotionally heightened situation, the police officers withdrew from the crowd and traveled toward a new location, during which they were followed by several individuals from the group of black veterans. The veterans desired to further intimidate the already frightful police officers by firing their weapons into the air, but in a misinterpretation, the police believed the men were firing at them, and fired back into the crowd. This led to an exchange of gunfire with the officers, but the only officer that was injured was John Stevens, who accidentally shot himself in the leg.
Several of the black men from the group chased two of the fleeing police officers, resulting in the critical injuring of one officer, the escape of another, and the death of a black veteran. As information of the encounter spread, several mobs of white citizens, from an array of occupations, converged upon the predominantly black area of South Memphis. The black veterans in the group were ordered to return to their barracks in Fort Pickering, leaving the rest of the African-American community exposed to the violent acts of the mobs.
Over the next several days, violent beatings and killings involving innocent African-Americans occurred. According to Ash, white mobs mainly targeted black individuals in military uniforms. Unfortunately for the black community, the violence was not limited to those in federal uniforms. As the Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper reported several of the vicious attacks imposed upon innocent civilians, “A poor old negro of seventy years…was knocked down and his tongue cut out by the roots.” A letter recollecting the events of the prior days, revealed by William D. Kelley, stated; “Negro men have been shot down in cold blood on the streets...The most prominent citizens stand on the streets and see negroes hunted down and shot, and laugh as it is a good joke.”
Overall, the Memphis riot, according to historian Eric Foner, accounted for forty-eight deaths, five women raped, and the destruction of several prominent buildings in South Memphis, such as homes, schools, and churches. The Memphis riot undoubtedly provided a barrier in the Union’s overall plan for Reconstruction by further dividing white and black Americans through conflict.