Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot
2 illustrations in: Harper's weekly, 1866 May 26, p. 321
Some white Americans responded with violence to the successes of Black Americans in the early Reconstruction period. Republican legislators understood that they must use the federal government (through programs like the Freedmen’s Bureau) to reinforce civil rights after the Civil War because there were many white Americans who sought to keep Black Americans from experiencing true freedom. One such event that convinced Republican legislators took place in Memphis, Tennessee. In May 1866, white residents of Memphis killed more than forty-five Black residents while also burning the Black churches and schools in the city. City government officials took part in the violence, with one even urging white residents to arm themselves to kill their Black neighbors or drive them out of the city. This sort of large-scale violence against Blacks happened in multiple cities throughout the South in the early years after the Civil War. What does this violence tell you about how certain white southerners responded to the new position of freedom enjoyed by Black Americans?
The massacre in Memphis began when working-class white residents attacked Black veterans whom they feared would become competition for jobs (now that the U.S. government no longer employed them as soldiers). White perpetrators went on to target non-veterans as well, and a contemporary newspaper reported that “The Negroes were hunted down by police, firemen and other white citizens, shot, assaulted, robbed, and in many instances their houses searched under the pretense of hunting for concealed arms, plundered, and then set on fire…” In addition, several Black women reported being raped. During the Civil War, approximately twenty thousand Black Americans moved to Memphis. It appears that this migration and the accompanying community-building, along with the number of Black veterans who owned weapons, prompted resistance among many white residents who resented these changes. Ultimately, President Johnson did not condemn the violence or move quickly enough to order federal protection against the massacre.
Two sketches in a news publication depicting the violence in Memphis. One shows a burning building belonging to an African-American, the other the murder of multiple African-Americans in their neighborhood.