On this dayApr 30, 1866

White Police, Mobs Kill and Terrorize Black Residents in Memphis, Tennessee

Harper's Weekly

On April 30, 1866, white police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, assaulted  Black soldiers, setting off a wave of horrific violence against Black community members. In total, white police and mobs killed nearly 50 Black people, raped at least five Black women, and burned down around 100 buildings in South Memphis, the part of the city where the majority of Black people in Memphis lived.

Following the Civil War, Memphis and other large southern cities were popular destinations for newly emancipated Black people seeking safety, resources, and opportunity. Memphis was a particularly sought-after location because it was the site of a Freedmen’s Bureau office and a location where federal troops were stationed, and the Black population in Memphis quickly surged.

On April 30, many Black Union soldiers stationed in Memphis completed their service but had to remain in the city for a few days to receive their pay. Black soldiers had become the target of violence by police officers and by other white members of the public who resented their presence. On the night of their discharge, three Black soldiers were confronted by four white policemen, who forced them off the sidewalk. This caused one of the soldiers to fall, and a policeman stumbled over him in the street. The policemen began attacking the soldiers, brandishing knives and striking the men with their pistols.

News of an altercation between the white policemen and Black soldiers quickly spread throughout the city, and white citizens of Memphis embellished the encounter and seized upon it as a pretext for organized violence. In the afternoon of May 1, angry white mobs set out to inflict terror upon South Memphis. City Recorder John C. Creighton called on the mobs to “kill every damned one” of the Black residents and to “burn up the cradle.”

For the next several days, white mobs indiscriminately beat, robbed, tortured, shot, raped, and killed Black women, men, and children. The mobs set fire to dozens of Black homes—many with residents still inside—and destroyed all of the city’s Black churches and schools.

Black survivors of the brutal violence later testified before a Congressional committee formed to investigate the massacre. One woman recalled that, when her 16-year-old daughter tried to save a neighbor from his burning home, a white mob surrounded the building and shot her to death when she exited. Another witness reported seeing a white mob fire weapons into the Freedmen’s Hospital, injuring multiple patients, including a small paralyzed child.

Black residents received little protection from local authorities during the attacks, as the city’s mayor was reportedly drunk during the massacre, and many law enforcement officials were members of the mob. “Instead of protecting the rights of persons and property as is their duty,” the Freedmen’s Bureau’s investigation later concluded, “[local police] were chiefly concerned as murderers, incendiaries, and robbers. At times they even protected the rest of the mob in their acts of violence.” Even Union troops stationed in the city claimed their forces were too small to take on the deadly white mobs. According to the Freedmen’s Bureau report, the mob only dispersed after several days “from want of material to work on” after most Black people had hidden or fled into the countryside.

Though many of the perpetrators were known, none of the white people who carried out the Memphis Massacre were arrested or tried for their actions. Even after the massacre’s toll of death and destruction was clearly revealed, Memphis’s white community refused to take responsibility, and the Freedmen’s Bureau investigation reported that most white people only regretted the violence’s financial costs.

In the wake of the massacre, one quarter of the Black population of Memphis permanently fled the city.

Read more about the history of racial violence during Reconstruction in EJI’s report, Reconstruction in America.

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