1866 Memphis Massacre Anniversary Draws Historians

By Bill Dries

South Street is now named G.E Patterson Boulevard in one of two name changes since the thoroughfare was a dirt road trod by horses and the wagons they pulled.

The city’s first historical marker specifically on the 1866 Memphis massacre was unveiled Sunday, May 1, by Memphis branch NAACP president Keith Norman and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The only reminder of the street’s status as an epicenter of the violence 150 years ago this month that killed 46 people and burned every black church and school in the city to the ground is a plaque unveiled Sunday, May 1, in Army Park.

The plaque by the NAACP and the National Park Service recounts the Memphis massacre that is being remembered this week and later this month with a series of observances by historians.

An afternoon forum Monday, May 2, at the National Civil Rights Museum featured University of Tennessee Knoxville history professor Stephen V. Ash, who wrote the first book-length treatment of the incident in 2014.

In the last year, the book has become popular with Memphians and led to the effort behind the plaque unveiled Sunday.

“The brutality of these attacks was almost beyond comprehension,” Ash told those at the forum sponsored by the Memphis branch NAACP, the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association and the Park Service. “It remains one of the bloodiest and most destructive riots in American history.”

It was also profoundly influential in the country’s move to a policy of “radical reconstruction,” as historians call it, as well as the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly granting citizenship and all of its rights to former slaves two years after the massacre.

The city’s academic historians from Rhodes College and the University of Memphis have been a part of organizing anniversary events that began in March when Ash spoke to a capacity crowd of several hundred at Rhodes College.

Those historians were also part of the presentations at Monday’s forum that went into detail about the context that led to the violent outburst a year after the end of the Civil War, as well as the rich detail of witnesses’ accounts.

Those accounts from three separate investigations started immediately after the violence were a wealth of material that led Ash to wonder why no one before him had done a book on the incident.

“It’s the general public that forgot about it,” Ash said. “Historians never did.”

That was the case with Memphis attorney Phyllis Aluko, who encountered the event for the first time when she read Ash’s book.

“It really affected me,” said the Memphis native. “I thought that these unknown victims who have made all of our lives better through their sacrifices need to be acknowledged. The marker was the only way I could think of to bring some level of moral justice.”

It was Aluko’s effort, starting a year before the anniversary, that led to the plaque. Civil War history and its aftermath have been a hot political topic for the last three to four years in Memphis.

University of Memphis historian Beverly Bond is among the academic historians who in those last three to four years have become more vocal and better organized in challenging the version of events long promoted by Confederate heritage groups.

“I think it says that Memphians are really interested in knowing about this history,” she said of the public interest in March when Ash first spoke in Memphis at Rhodes. “This is an event that hasn’t been on their radar. They didn’t really understand it. And now they’ve heard about it and they want to know what it was. It says a lot about the community trying to figure out who we are and how we got to this point.”

Bond detailed the rape of a black woman by a white mob noted in the transcripts of the congressional investigation – the words of the witnesses transcribed verbatim.

The woman testified and so did two white women who lived nearby.

One told investigators the woman attacked did not resist while another said the men held her at gunpoint and also robbed her and that the other white woman saw the same thing she did.

“Women were resisting,” Bond said. “They were changing the narrative.”

It began as newly freed African-Americans began coming to Memphis after the city became Union territory in 1862, and continued after the war’s end. Women with children accounted for an estimated half of that population.

“Racial paradigms were shifting,” Bond said.