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How Three Days of Violence in Memphis Helped Shape the Constitution

On May 1st, 2016, the National Park Service and the Memphis NAACP placed a historical marker at the edge of a small Downtown park commemorating the 1866 Memphis Massacre. The Associated Press called it, “a significant step for a city and state that haven’t been eager to come to terms with their history of race relations.”

When we talk about the challenges we face as a city today, it’s impossible to understand them without confronting our painful past. The story of Memphis and that of black Memphians is fraught with pain, inequity, and frustration. We continue our Black History Month coverage by taking a look at one of the darkest moments of our city’s history which would go on to shape a national conversation. We’re doing so again with help from Dr. Earnestine Jenkins, Professor of Art History at the University of Memphis Department of Art. It is graphic and heartbreaking, but it’s a part of our city’s history that we all need to know.

Content Warning: Describes extreme violence including rape.

The Memphis Massacre of 1866 by Dr. Earnestine Jenkins

On the afternoon of May 1, 1866, tensions between black and white residents in South Memphis erupted into three days of violence known as the Memphis Massacre of 1866. Lasting from May 1 to 3, it was exacerbated by a white police officer’s attempt to arrest a black soldier. Initially, the victims were mostly black soldiers. However, the violence spread throughout the black neighborhoods south of Memphis. Black civilians in the city were attacked on the streets, and in their homes, churches, and schools. White missionaries who worked in the black communities were also attacked.

As the violence spread, black citizens were left without protection. The black soldiers of the Third United States Colored Heavy Artillery regiment were ordered back to Fort Pickering. Memphis police and firemen openly participated in the violence. Memphis Mayor Jon Park would not request state or federal assistance. Fires burned in black neighborhoods and there was no assistance forthcoming to stop the looting or violence. The white mob killed and raped black men, women, and children. It was not until the third day that U.S. Army commander George Stoneman declared martial law and ordered black and white troops to restore order.

A joint Congressional Committee thoroughly investigated the riot. Forty-six black people had been killed, and two white people died in the conflict. Five women were raped: Frances Thompson; 14-year-old Lucy Smith; Rebecca Ann Bloom; Lucy Tibbs; and Harriet Amor. The committee also reported that over 100 black people had been robbed, 75 were injured, and 91 homes, 8 schools, and 4 churches burned by white civilians. 

Rachel Hatcher “suffered one of the “most cruel and bloodiest acts of the mob.” Only 16 years old and described as remarkably intelligent and of excellent character, Rachel had become a school teacher of small children. Rachel was fired upon by the mob when she tried to escape from a burning house. “Her clothes soon took fire and her body was partially consumed, presenting a spectacle horrible to behold.”   

Together with the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 in July in which 44 blacks were killed, the Memphis Massacre strengthened the position of Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress, who argued that more needed to be done to protect freed people in the South. The events led to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which in granting full citizenship to former slaves defined citizenship for all Americans.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (Section 1-Amendment XIV-U.S. Constitution)

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