A City Divided

A riot in Memphis that helped change U.S. history.

There are two major questions to ask of the three days that rocked Memphis in 1866, and Stephen V. Ash, author of A Massacre in Memphis (Hill and Wang) asks them in his prologue and in the book’s closing pages: Why is “The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War,” according to the subtitle of Ash’s book, so little remembered? And why has there been no book-length study of the event — “one of the best-documented episodes of the American nineteenth century” — until now?

In answer to the second question, Ash, professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee and author of several noted books on the Civil War South and Reconstruction, writes:
“[T]he extraordinary sources that the riot left in its wake are the kind of thing historians who study the nineteenth century long for, yet they simultaneously vex the historian, whose job it is to analyze, synthesize, and contextualize, to make order out of chaos. . . . [T]he Memphis riot raises challenging questions about the history historians write.”

But in answer to the first question — why the riot, which took place May 1-3, 1866, is so little remembered, even among the citizens of Memphis — Ash doesn’t have a ready answer. But he does have an observation to make and a course of action to recommend.

After searching back issues of The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar for the first week of May 1966, Ash “found not one explicit reference to the riot a century earlier.” Though, it’s true, The Commercial Appeal made brief mention of certain events in its feature “News of Bygone Days.”

What course of action does Ash recommend? A memorial marking the Memphis riot in time for its sesquicentennial in 2016. It would be a memorial “to rectify this lapse of memory, to acknowledge publicly the ‘screams and groans of the dying victims at Memphis,’ and to allow their ghosts at last to rest.”

Erection of such a memorial isn’t Ash’s job. As a researcher, however, he’s more than analyzed, synthesized, and contextualized this dark episode in Memphis — and national — history. He’s written one of the finest histories of the city we are ever likely to have. A Massacre in Memphis not only sheds light on a “charged moment” in American history. In one of Ash’s aims, it writes “ordinary people back into that history.” A novelist could hardly have handled this material more vividly and with greater dramatic force.

To set the scene: In early 1866, Memphis was a crowded city of some 40,000 inhabitants, and it was a thriving but filthy city — a cloud of dust when it didn’t rain; a “muddy quagmire” when it did. A Union stronghold since 1862, it counted 20,000 freed blacks among its population, including members of the 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, newly mustered out of the service but still waiting to be paid and living inside or near Fort Pickering, south of downtown.

As for the remaining population: There were native whites or “old citizens”: conservative, loyal to the Confederate cause, and paternalistic in attitude but loath to grant African Americans the rights and privileges of full citizenship.

There were Yankees: Union military officers, newly arrived ministers and teachers, representatives of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and men on the make: merchants and bankers.

And in addition to Germans and Jews were the Irish, who made up one-fifth of the population. Some, such as Eugene Magevney, had been among Memphis’ earliest — and most respected — citizens. Others, such as Mayor John Park, had risen to the ranks of the city’s leading officials. Of the 177 men on the city’s police force, 162 were Irish. Of the 46 men of the fire department, 40 of them were Irish. Others were wage laborers who vied with blacks for low-paying jobs. But many among the Irish were, as Ash describes them, “in Memphis but not of it” — a “floating population,” the majority of them illiterate, and, in the minds of many native-born, Protestant whites, scarcely to be counted as white at all. Which doesn’t excuse but to some extent explains the virulent racism of the city’s Irish officials, policemen, and firemen. After years of police brutality against African Americans and street skirmishes between blacks and poor whites, that violence erupted full force — south of the city, then north to Court Square, then east to the city limits — on May 1st through 3rd.

“[T]he extraordinary sources that the riot left in its wake are the kind of thing historians who study the nineteenth century long for, yet they simultaneously vex the historian, whose job it is to analyze, synthesize, and contextualize, to make order out of chaos. . . . [T]he Memphis riot raises challenging questions about the history historians write.”
— Stephen V. Ash

Ash isn’t one to take sides in this story. He bases his book’s findings on the copious eyewitness accounts collected after the riot. And so he is careful to begin his story of the riot itself with an incident on Causey Street, near the city’s southern boundary, on the afternoon of April 30th: A group of disgruntled, drunken members of the 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery exchanged words with approaching white police officers; one of the policemen clubbed one of the blacks with a revolver; another soldier struck that policeman with a stick; a stone or brickbat was thrown at the soldiers; and more taunts were exchanged. But the two groups eventually parted ways.

The next three days and nights, however, saw an unchecked, full-on assault against black men, women, and children by as many as 300 policemen and citizens professing to be acting officially — mob violence, in other words, and in Ash’s words, “it bears reiterating that the rioters were almost all Irish-American.”

Mayor of Memphis John Park — born in Ireland and a smart, hardworking, and affable former businessman, according to Ash — was now notorious for his public drunkenness and ineffective at stemming the tide of random violence. U.S. Major General George Stoneman, stationed in Memphis, failed to intervene. And the city’s daily newspapers (most of them conservative mouthpieces for the local elite) succeeded in boldly misrepresenting the events of the day. A headline in the Avalanche, “THE LAW OUTRAGED BY NEGROES,” for example, was followed by: “The police deserve the very highest credit for the gallant conduct they exhibited in enforcing the majesty of the law when the messengers of death were hurled at them on all sides . . . . Our noble policemen are towers of might and purpose and courage.”

“Towers of might and purpose” they certainly were. Ash concludes that the rioters were responsible for 46 blacks killed, 75 blacks injured, 100 blacks robbed, multiple rapes of black women, and the destruction, including the burning, of four black churches, 12 black schools, and 91 dwellings. Black bystanders were targets too of the roving white posses, who at one point fired on and wounded a patient at the Freedmen’s Hospital, who happened also to be a paraplegic.

Three whites, though, died in the violence: one from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, one by a white store-owner who mistook a fireman for a black man, and one who was killed in a saloon after he was seen engaging in the unforgivable: talking to a freedman.

Were any of the rioters ever arrested and brought to trial? Were any of those who suffered personal harm or damages to their property ever repaid for their losses? No, on both counts, because, on the local level, Mayor Park had no interest in arresting the wrongdoers, and he wasn’t legally authorized to compensate riot victims. Late that summer of 1866, though, came one arrest: of Park himself. The charge: drunkenness and disorderly conduct after the mayor got into a fistfight with an alderman at a supper to benefit Memphis firemen. (Park was fined $11.)

Was federal, military action ever taken to assure that what happened in Memphis didn’t happen in cities across the post-Civil War South? No, again. And Ash explains why in pages that guide readers along the path of a House investigation in Washington concerning the events in Memphis. That investigation’s findings went from Ulysses S. Grant, general in chief of the army, to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, to President Andrew Johnson, to Attorney General James Speed, who recommended that the report be returned to Stanton for filing. These matters, Speed wrote, were for states to handle.

Other matters, history tells us, did not fall into the category of states’ rights, and among them was passage of the 14th Amendment, thanks in no small part to the national attention paid to — and outrage over — the Memphis riot. Newspapers across the country had offered daily updates on the violence, and among those publications was Harper’s Weekly, which illustrated the events in Memphis — “albeit fancifully,” Ash admits — on its front page.

But the Memphis riot figures in an additional chapter of American history, one in reaction to the policies of the Republican Party’s Radical reconstructionists. Stephen V. Ash in his excellent A Massacre in Memphis says it best, so leave it to Ash to conclude on the ultimate impact of what happened in Memphis, May 1st to May 3rd, 1866:
“Pressured by Northerners who had grown disgusted with the seeming inability of the freedmen and their scalawag and carpetbagger friends to maintain order in the Southern states and govern them honestly, the federal government eventually stopped intervening to protect the Republican governments, standing aside as the last of them fell. The Rebel ‘redeemers’ promptly undid nearly all the progressive accomplishments of the Republican regimes . . . and gradually relegated blacks to the bottom tier of a new racial caste system that endured into the second half of the twentieth century. Thus did the Memphis riot, having helped usher in the extraordinary experiment of Radical reconstruction, also help obliterate it and pave the way for its successor, the New South era of black disfranchisement and Jim Crow segregation.” 


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