A year after the Civil War, in May 1866, widescale violence erupted in Memphis. White mobs led by police brutalized the Black community, beating and shooting any Black person they could find, but especially targeting Black Union soldiers who had just been discharged. At least 46 Black men, women and children were killed, 75 others were injured, and at least five women were raped. Every single Black school and place of worship in the city was burned, and many homes were reduced to rubble.
When word of the Memphis Massacre reached Washington, D.C., Congress launched an investigation. The 400-plus page report included statements from hundreds of witnesses, both Black and white, painting a detailed picture of the carnage. The massacre and its investigation would directly lead to the expansion of Reconstruction support for Black people, and the passage of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one of the most important civil rights protections in American history.
But considering its critical importance to civil rights, why is the Memphis Massacre virtually unknown? What caused this outburst of violence, and how does the event still affect us today? In this Season Two of Civil Wrongs, we’ll be diving deep into the history of the massacre, the events leading up to it, its long-lasting legacy, ties to police violence today, its obscurity in school curricula, and much more.
You’ll first hear samples of what victims of this tragic event had to endure. It’s incredibly rare for the voices of Black men and women from this era to be written down. But the congressional report has a multitude of firsthand testimony and eyewitness accounts from Black people who managed to escape death. Take, for example, Allen Summers, a Black veteran who testified how he was shot and beaten nearly to death before a white doctor from the North was able to convince the mob to move on. The doctor and another Black man carried him to the safety of a nearby home, where his life was saved.
Many South Memphis homes like the one Summers was carried to were burned down during the massacre, but no structures in the Black community sustained as much damage as schools and churches. A coordinated effort was made by the white mobs to completely destroy every single place of education and culture that the recently emancipated Black community used. With places of gathering for the community turned to ash, it was the mob’s hope that Black families they couldn’t kill would leave the city. And while some understandably fled after the massacre, many thousands remained, and formed the foundation of the Black community Memphis has today.
Listen to the first episode, “Tragedy and Resilience: Stories of the Memphis Massacre,” to hear more stories of victims and survivors of the Massacre.
Cover art credit: Ephraim Urevbu
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