The Memphis Massacre of 1866.

It was one of this nation’s most vicious and horrific events.

It is unknown to many Americans, buried under the debris of contempt, misinformation and disinformation in regards to the Black experience in America.

It started on April 30, 1866 in a jostling incident between Black militia men and White Irish policemen. One of the White police officers tried to arrest one of the Black ex-militia men when approximately fifty Black ex-militia men came to the Black soldier’s defense and to prevent the officer from jailing him. A fight ensued, shots were fired. Various accounts of the shooting varied, but, the horror was only beginning.

The violence engulfed the entire city of Memphis, with the Black community targeted for destruction.

This became the excuse for a White mob to go on a murderous rampage throughout the Black community for three days, from May 1, 1866 and ending on May 3, 1866. The massacre ended only when the federal government intervened.

The Civil War forever changed the racial composition of Memphis, TN. On the afternoon of May 1, 1866, long seething tensions between the former enslaved Black residents of southern Memphis, Tennessee and Irish immigrants erupted into a three-day massacre  known as the Memphis Riot of 1866.  The massacre began when a white Irish police officer attempted to arrest a black ex-soldier and an estimated fifty blacks showed up to stop the police from jailing him.  Accounts vary as to who began the shooting, but the altercation that ensued quickly involved the whole of the city of Memphis, Tennessee.  The victims initially were only Black soldiers, but the violence quickly spread to other Blacks living just south of Memphis. White Northerners who worked as missionaries and school teachers in black schools were also targeted.

Alfred Rudolph Waud; Harper’s Weekly, 26 May 1866Tennessee State Library and Archive: Tennessee Virtual

During the massacre, 46 Black women, men and children were murdered, with White police joining in the massacre, as well as giving free rein to Whites to attack, maim, and murder Black people. Two White men lay dead, one the result of another White man shooting him (he was mistaken for ” a damned yellow nigger”) and another from a self-inflicted gunshot. Four Black churches, twelve schools and unaccountable homes were burned to the ground.  There were seven Black women and girls who were raped and 285 people were injured.  Over one hundred houses and buildings burned down as a result of the massacre and the neglect of the White firemen.

Black Americans attacked in Memphis Riot of 1866.jpg

Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, Alfred Rudolph Waud; Harper’s Weekly, 26 May 1866Tennessee State Library and Archive: Tennessee Virtual Archive

No arrests were made.

During this era, Black womanhood was discounted as less than human, less than woman, and as “unrapeable.” One of the following testimonies of the atrocities bear this out:

FRANCES THOMPSON (colored) sworn and examined By the CHAIRMAN:

2919. State what you know of the rioting. [Witness] Between one and two o’clock Tuesday night seven men, two of who were policemen, came to my house. I know they were policemen by their stars. They were all Irishmen. They said they must have some eggs, some ham, and biscuit. I made them some biscuit and some strong coffee, and they all sat down and ate. A girl lives with me; her name is Lucy Smith; she is about 16 years old. When they had eaten supper, they said they wanted some women to sleep with. I said we were not that sort of women, and they must go. They said “that don’t make a damned bit of difference.” One of them then laid a hold of me and hit me on the side of my face, and holding my throat, he choked me. Lucy tried to get out of the window, when one of them knocked her down and choked her. They drew their pistols and said they would shoot us and fire the house if we did not let them have their way with us. All seven of the men violated us two. Four of them had to do with me, and the rest with Lucy.

2913. Were you injured? I was sick for two weeks. I lay for three days with a hot, burning fever.

Excerpt from Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, by Gerda Lerner, Vintage Books, 1973, page 174.

In May 1866, in the aftermath of the Memphis Massacre, a congressional delegation was created, and headed by Elihu B. Washburne, it gathered testimony from over 170 eye witnesses to and victims of those three days of racial terror. The truths that Washburne and his delegation collected and took seriously helped change the course of our nation’s history:



The change in political climate, galvanized by response to the race massacre, eventually enabled former enslaves to obtain the full rights of citizenship.

On May 1, 2016, a commemoration was held finally honoring the many victims of the massacre.

The sign, a private marker placed by the NAACP, and approved by the National Park Service, as it now stands in Army Park.

The sign, a private marker placed by the NAACP, and approved by the National Park Service, as it now stands in Army Park. PHOTO SOURCE

Rev. Keith Norman, president of the Memphis NAACP, prayed “God, we thank you for this moment of being reconciled with history,” as dozens gathered around the national historical marker that took a year to erect and 150 years to enact.

One hundred and fifty years later.

One hundred and fifty years later, these many victims of white supremacist racial hatred never received justice, but in the N.A.A.C.P. erecting this marker to remember them, in so doing them this respect and honor, they can hopefully rest in peace.



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