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A Forgotten Episode of Southern History



Rob Hardy


Historian Steven V. Ash introduces his new book, A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War (Hill and Wang) with a surprise: there has never before been a book about the riot. Even more surprising is that there are lots of primary sources for a historian to mine, for the incident was well documented at the time by investigations afterwards. The three days and nights of violence against former slaves are almost forgotten; Memphis, Ash says, was awash in centennial commemorations of the Civil War, but when 1966 came around, there was silence about the massacre. Ash speculates that maybe the sesquicentennial in 2016 can be made different, and if it is, the difference will surely be due to his dramatic and thoroughly documented book. Ash has given a comprehensive portrait of the riot, describing the complicated social forces that went before, the horrifying days of the massacre itself, and the significant effects on national politics. 




The riot was a product of many changes in Memphis and southern society after the war. The biggest change was that there were no more slaves, and as unfair as slavery had been, it had proved to be relatively stable. No one had figured out the role that the freed slaves were going to play. Slaves from the country might dream of having their own farms, and there was a persistent rumor that the federal government would be awarding former slaves "forty acres and a mule" taken from their former masters. As it turned out, they had little option but working in the employ of those who had formerly owned them, and in vain did they assert that they deserved all the rights of white workers. Memphis was a draw for such freedmen. It had schools run by the Yankee missionaries that had come specifically to raise blacks by means of education. It had the Freedmen's Bureau, a branch of the national agency meant to enable a smooth change from slave to citizen, helping with labor contracts, caring for the helpless sick, aged, and orphans, and so on. Memphis had a presence of the US Army to help ensure stability. It also had, in even greater profusion, Yankees who had come down to make their fortune (called "carpetbaggers" by the natives), starting business which would need employees. The former slaves who came to Memphis jostled with plenty of other groups, like the former rebels, who preferred to call themselves the "old citizens," and who naturally saw the Freedmen's Bureau, the Army, and the carpetbaggers as meddling, perhaps dangerous, interlopers. There were newly-arrived Irish-Americans who made up much of the city's political leadership and most of its policemen and firefighters; the Irish had a particular beef against former slaves who competed with them for menial work. They and the former rebels had a special animus against blacks who had been Union soldiers,  




What happened to start the troubles on 30 April 1866 will never be fully understood, but it was a small tiff on the city's southern boundary. Some drunken members of the recently disbanded 3rd Colored Heavy Artillery exchanged words and blows with police, and that was that, each group eventually going its own way. The small spark led, however, to mob action, with hundreds of policemen and other citizens, almost all Irish-American, taking the opportunity to beat, kill, rape, and rob from black men, women and children. Rumors that the "vicious negroes" were fighting back and were rising to take the city were adopted as true by the city's newspapers, which reported the riot with wild inaccuracy. The Memphis Daily Argus said, "There can be no mistake about it, the whole blame of this most tragical and bloody riot lies... with the poor, ignorant, deluded blacks." The Memphis Daily Avalanche declared the policemen "towers of might and purpose and courage" under the headline "THE LAW OUTRAGED BY NEGROES." 




What actually happened was just the opposite. There was little black resistance to the overwhelming violence committed largely by the police and other government members. A tally afterwards shows what happened: 46 black people were killed, 75 injured, a hundred were robbed; and as the mob took to arson, ninety homes, four churches, and twelve schools were burned to the ground. There were exactly three whites who died in the riot; one accidentally shot himself, one was shot by a fireman who mistook him for black, and one was shot in a bar by a fireman for the unspeakable offense of talking affably to a freedman. Mayor John Park, an Irish immigrant, was ineffective at stemming the violence, mostly because he just kept drinking; it is no surprise that he was sympathetic to the rioters against the freedmen. General Stoneman, head of the US Army garrison in the city, had excelled in the Civil War, but found his Memphis assignment boring and he declined to get involved in quelling the riot. He had too few troops, he said when the sheriff asked for help, and anyway, Memphis had repeatedly asked that federal troops be withdrawn as it said it could take care of its own problems. Eventually, and grudgingly, after much bloodshed and arson did he allow his men to be deployed and order restored.  




No rioters were ever arrested. None went to trial. It was acknowledged in Memphis that no jury would grant a verdict against a rioter. Once it was clear that the violence had been overwhelmingly imposed by whites upon blacks, the newspapers insisted that the blacks started it and were the cause of it because of their misbehavior and demands since they became free. The Avalanche assured its readers that the riot had ensured "that the Southern man will not be ruled by the negro... from the lessons these brutes have lately received, we think it will be many a day before a riot will occur here again." No freedmen who suffered harm, theft, or arson was ever recompensed for the loss. There was no change in federal or military procedures to ensure that such a riot did not happen again or in other cities. The extensive investigations after the riot were forwarded to General in Chief of the Army Ulysses S. Grant, who sent them to the Secretary of War and then to President Andrew Johnson, who forwarded the report to the Attorney General, who recommended that it be returned to the Secretary of War for filing, and said that the states had to handle such matters on their own. 




Ash shows a larger historical picture of how "the Memphis riot, having helped usher in the extraordinary experiment of Radical reconstruction, also helped obliterate it and pave the way for its successor, the New South era of black disenfranchisement and Jim Crow segregation." It was one of many factors tipping the balance of power against President Johnson, who was soon to be impeached. But the riot was eventually forgotten; the stories Americans told of reconstruction had little place for the Irish thugs in Memphis, and as Ash writes, the Memphis riot may have seemed in the days of lynching "but a distant precursor to present horrors, a faded sepia image among the fresh portraits rendered in blood-red." Let his remarkable, exciting account and explanation bring the riot back to its place in history. 




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