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THE MEMPHIS RIOTS OF 1866 DEEGEE LESTER for three days in May, 1866, Memphis, Tennessee resembled a battle zone. Beginning as an altercation between Irish police and discharged black soldiers , the violence spread rapidly, engulWng South Memphis. Flames illuminated the night skies as terriWed black women and children huddled in shanties or scrambled to escape the conXagration. Brandishing revolvers and torches, and emboldened by large quantities of drink, the rioters unleashed long suppressed anger and hatred. Their actions magniWed the vulnerable position of freed blacks, the tenuous position of President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies and the changing social structure of the urban south. Memphis emerged the latest and worst in a series of riots throughout the south during 1865–66; yet, oddly, state and city histories give only passing mention or ignore the event entirely. This may reXect a “wasn’t us” attitude. Because the sons of Erin and the sons of Ham composed the larger and more conspicuous portion of the rioters, and because city government and law enforcement lay in the hands of Irish immigrants, upperand middle-class whites successfully distanced themselves from the violence . Despite the tremendous loss of life and property, and the political repercussions for President Johnson, a Tennessee native, the Memphis riots of 1866 remain largely ignored in Tennessee history. The riot was more than a rumble between the city’s social outcasts and traditional “have-nots.” Underlying the racial tension of Memphis after the Civil War, the dynamics of changing demographic, social, political , and economic conditions reveal a glaring postwar power vacuum. On the one hand, the riot illustrated a continuity of the city’s antebellum ethnic problems and politics. On the other hand, it showed discontinuity by THE MEMPHIS RIOTS OF 1866 59 marking the historical point at which ethnic problems and politics began slowly to be replaced by the problems and politics of race.1 Events unfolded quickly. On May 1, 1866, groups of discharged black soldiers received their Wnal pay and wandered into South Memphis to celebrate both holiday and completion of duty as federal occupational forces. The May Day revellers alternately cheered, joked, taunted, and scuZed throughout the morning and into the afternoon. There later emerged no less than Wve versions of the incident which sparked the three-day riot. All versions, however, agreed it was the attempt by Memphis police oYcers Sullivan and O’Neal to arrest one or more black veterans, which erupted into Wghting and gunWre. Within moments, a running battle ensued as the black crowd chased the police back into Memphis.2 It was at this point, so the Daily Memphis Avalanche informed its readers, that “the Negroes commenced their devil’s work by Wring on every white person they could see.”3 By 5:30 p.m., the police, joined by a “posse” of white citizens, invaded South Memphis. An unnamed oYcial source reported that the Memphis police force was “ . . . joined by a large number of the lower classes for the . . . purpose of assisting in arresting the oVenders of the law, but upon arriving at the scene of the disturbance a general onslaught was made upon the Negroes. . . . “4 Experienced black soldiers forced a brief retreat by whites, followed by a third, more violent wave which struck at 10:00 p.m. and continued through the night and the following days before arrival of federal troops. OYcial statistics later released by the Joint Congressional Committee to investigate the Memphis Riots listed 48 dead and 75 injured, in addition to 100 robberies, 5 rapes, and over 100 buildings destroyed, including 91 homes, 4 black churches, and 12 Freedman schools.5 Throughout the three-day riot the reports of various oYcials starkly contrasted with the exciting accounts provided by local newspapers. Major THE MEMPHIS RIOTS OF 1866 60 1 Kathleen Berkeley, “Ethnicity And Its Implications for Southern Urban History: The saga of Memphis, Tennessee, 1850–1880,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, L: 4 (Winter, 1991), 193. 2 Bobby Lovett, “Memphis Riots: White Reaction to Blacks in Memphis, May 1865–July 1866,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, XXXVIII: 1, (Spring, 1879), 20. 3 Daily Memphis Avalanche, May 1, 1866, p. 3, col. 1. 4 New York Times, May 17, 1866...


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