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Memphis Race Riot of 1866

On May 1-2, 1866, Memphis suffered its worst race riot in history. Some forty-six African Americans and two whites died during the riot. A Joint Congressional Committee reported seventy-five persons injured, one hundred persons robbed, five women raped, ninety-one homes burned, four churches and eight schools burned and destroyed, and seventeen thousand dollars in federal property destroyed. Hundreds of blacks were jailed, and almost all other freedmen fled town until the disturbance ended. For two days, white mobs, which included policemen, firemen, and some businessmen, attacked the freedmen's camps and neighborhoods.

The riot started after an alarm went out that African American soldiers from Fort Pickering, on the south boundary of downtown Memphis, had killed several policemen who tried to arrest a black soldier. In response to the reports, Union General George Stoneman disarmed the soldiers and locked them in their barracks, leaving nearby freedmen's settlements vulnerable to the white mobs that soon attacked women, children, and defenseless men, as well as the northern missionaries who served as ministers and teachers for the freedmen.

The Memphis riots reflected the anger and frustration felt by many white citizens and particularly former Confederates, who had suffered the agony of a bitter defeat at the hands of a black and white Union army. Irish immigrants, who had sided with the Confederacy, especially hated the freedmen who dominated the skilled and unskilled jobs that had previously served as a mechanism for upward mobility in the Irish community. Some downtown businessmen participated in the mob because they resented the hordes of penniless freedmen on the streets. Other rioters wanted revenge for the Union occupation. The use of African American soldiers as patrolmen with power to order whites to "move on" was especially galling to many. Finally, the riots reflected the attitudes of most white citizens toward the former slaves who were then free and soon demanding equal rights.

One outcome of the Memphis riot (and a similar riot in New Orleans) was the congressional move toward Radical Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans passed a Civil Rights Bill and the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and due process to former slaves. Tennessee was forced to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before being allowed to return to the Union (July 1866). Paradoxically, the former slaves became citizens, voters, and officeholders in part due to the Reconstruction acts passed in response to the race riots in Memphis and elsewhere.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » February 21, 2011