1866 Massacre Author Says Riot Has Important Lessons

By Bill Dries

When historian Stephen V. Ash went looking for source material on that most difficult of events to piece back together – three days of mob violence in a 19th century Southern city – he expected a challenge.

“To me, it’s a dictionary definition of a massacre.”

–Stephen V. Ash

The May 1-3 Memphis massacre of 1866 is an event historians have always been aware of. But outside of historians, it is not a well-known story even in the city that will mark its 150th anniversary in May.

But in the aftermath of the violence in which 46 people died, many more were injured and every black school and church in the city was burned to the ground, there were three federal investigations.

And it was in those reports that Ash, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, found an abundance of detail that fueled the research at the heart of his book, “A Massacre in Memphis.”

“The sources are so extraordinarily rich,” Ash said. “It is, in fact, one of the best documented episodes of the entire century. … Hundreds of witnesses, many of them testified at great length and in great detail. And their testimony was recorded verbatim.”

Ash spoke last week at Rhodes College to a standing-room-only crowd at the Bryant Life Center, one in a series of events being organized by Rhodes, the University of Memphis and the Memphis Branch NAACP commemorating the anniversary of the massacre.

Rhodes College history professor Tim Huebner speaks Tuesday, March 22, at the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar Ave. The program starts at 5:30 p.m.

Ash said historians have long understood that the massacre brought about “Radical Reconstruction” – a heightened federal oversight of the Confederate states of the Civil War in which Congress took control of the oversight from President Andrew Johnson.

Ash’s book was published in October and is garnering more attention as the anniversary nears.

The state historical marker to be unveiled in South Memphis on the May anniversary became an issue when the state panel decided to use the phrase “race riot” as well as “massacre” on the marker.

The Harper’s Weekly illustrations in the wake of the 1866 Memphis massacre are the only images of the three days of violence in which 46 people died and every black church and school in the city was burned to the ground.

(Harper’s Weekly; 26 May 1866)

Ash is aware of the controversy and says both terms are accurate.

When asked about the two terms at Rhodes, Ash directed the questioner to the title of his book.

“To me, it’s a dictionary definition of a massacre,” he added.

Ash also left no doubt that the rioters, those who roamed the streets of the city for three days shooting and clubbing black citizens on sight, were almost exclusively the city’s Irish working class, including the police force which made up most of the mob at the outset of the violence.

Black Memphians were “powerless to resist,” Ash said, adding that no rioters were ever prosecuted.

A confrontation just outside the city limits between four police officers and several dozen black soldiers recently mustered out of the service was the spark. The soldiers had been disarmed when they mustered out of the U.S. Army, but some of them had other guns. When one of the soldiers fired a pistol in the air, the police fired into the crowd of soldiers igniting tensions that were already present.

“It reminds us of something that we often forget which is … the central role of racism and racial violence in shaping our nation’s history,” Ash said. “It brings to light the experience of common people in history.”

Ash said the witnesses whose accounts were transcribed talked about more than the events of three days in May 1866. They also talked about their lives in slavery and their newfound freedom. White citizens interviewed also talked of their reaction to that freedom.

“These witnesses – hundreds of them – came from all walks of life,” Ash said. “Many of these witnesses were poor and illiterate, the kind of people whose voices are rarely heard in the surviving documents we have of the 19th century.”

The attention that followed the violence, including the federal investigations, ended one phase of Reconstruction and began another. And another wave of violence that followed ushered out Radical Reconstruction for an era of white supremacy and new Jim Crow racial restrictions.