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The War is Over But the Violence Goes On

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Hallelujah -- the war is over!

Six hundred thousand people are dead and the South lay in ruins, but the chains of slavery have been broken! African Americans, for the first time in history, are free! Free to live where they want to live and work where they want to work and do what they want to do. Free to worship the god of their choice and marry the man or woman of their dreams. Free to educate themselves and their children. Free to stop and smell the roses. Free to dance. Free to laugh. Free to speak. Free to be.

And most white Southerners can't stand it.

They want a return to the time when blacks were the subservient race. When they could be bought and sold in marketplaces and forced to work for non-existent wages. When they doffed their caps and said "Yes massa, no massa" to show respect. When they "knew their place" and could be beaten if they forgot it.

Road

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts / ... suddenly, out the corner of my eye, I see a neon red HOT NOW sign that fills my heart with indescribable joy.

Are you sensing a conflict here? Well, it quickly grew from bad to worse. The more African Americans flaunted their new liberties (such as walking on the same side of the streets as whites), the angrier Southerners grew. So they dug out the old "Slave Codes" that kept African Americans in human bondage for centuries and changed the word "slave" to "freedman." With that single stroke of a pen, they wiped out nearly all the rights that blacks had gained through the Union victory in the Civil War.

Under the so-called "Black Codes," no African American could own a weapon - not even soldiers who risked their lives for the nation during the war. They could only testify in court cases involving other blacks. If they married a white or were caught in the street past curfew, they'd be thrown in prison. Their children, meanwhile, could be "hired out" to whites (who were usually their former owners).

The bulk of the Black Codes, however, revolved around issues of employment. In South Carolina, for instance, blacks could not pursue any form of business without a court license (which were nearly impossible to obtain). Other states had codes that forced blacks to accept whatever job offer a white employer made or else they'd be considered "vagrants" - a crime punishable by steep fines or jail.

Blacks and the Irish fought for jobs along the Mississippi River
Blacks and the Irish fought for jobs along the Mississippi River

Each of these codes helped plantation owners lure former slaves back to the fields for paltry wages. Indeed, it seemed that slavery had never ended in the Deep South. Animosity between African Americans and white Southerners started brewing, and one fateful night in Memphis, it boiled over.

Before we go into the so-called "Memphis Riot of 1866," let's talk about the word "riot." What sort of image does it conjure up? Chaos? Mayhem? Two sides taking a disagreement into the streets? Now let's get a mental picture for the word "massacre." What do you think of? Terror? Bloodshed? A well-armed group killing one that is defenseless?

Keep these pictures in mind as we delve into the events of May 1 to May 3, 1866.

Stephanie hangs with the Memphis police
Stephanie hangs with the Memphis police

As soon as the Civil War ended, freed slaves moved to cities like Memphis in droves - both to escape oppressive plantation life and to seek out new opportunities. Most were willing to work for very low wages, which pleased everyone but the Irish. Having been at the bottom of the social and economic totem pole for several decades, the Irish had carved a niche for themselves in several lines of blue-collar work. Blacks and Irishmen became fierce competitors for jobs - and, within time, enemies. Yet the Irish retained one trump card: They dominated the police force.

For a while, blacks had a trump card of their own: the United States Colored Troops. More than 170,000 African Americans fought for the Union Army in the war and a number of them moved to Memphis afterward. They were leaders in their community, and often supported both their immediate and extended families financially. Not surprisingly, many whites despised them too - and not without reason. I read several accounts of black soldiers breaking into white-owned stores and demanding free food and alcohol. They also interfered with the duties of police officers. Whenever a black man was arrested, these soldiers were quick to intervene - by force if necessary.

Remember the animosity we talked about earlier? It's about to boil over.

The violence started at the intersection of Beale and Main
The violence started at the intersection of Beale and Main

On April 29, 1866, the last regiment of black soldiers in Memphis was mustered out of service. Their arms - and status - were stripped away. The very next day, a black veteran refused to step off the sidewalk to let a white policeman pass. Accounts vary on what happened next, but within hours, violence had spilled onto the street. Unarmed black veterans were the foremost targets that first day, but on the subsequent two, whites moved on to the black community at large. They invaded black neighborhoods, robbing everyone in sight and setting churches, schools and houses on fire. When blacks tried to escape the burning buildings, they were shot at. Women were raped. Children were beaten. Men were killed.

In addition, nearly every public institution that waved an American flag in its window was burned to the ground and some white Yankees were attacked. This "riot," then, was not only an act of aggression against blacks but against the North as a whole.

Now let's look at the rioters themselves. Although the Irish dominated the city's police force, they only accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the rioters. At least 40 percent had been born in the U.S. Moreover, they were a fairly upper-class mix - artisans, professionals, shop keepers, and even some city officials. In many instances, they actually knew the people they maimed and murdered. When investigators interviewed members of the black community after the riots had taken place, nearly all could identify their attackers. Sometimes, they were their own neighbors.

Remember our definitions of riots and massacres? What does this sound like to you? Consider the final tally: By May 4, two whites and at least 46 blacks were dead. Between 70 and 80 people were wounded, the majority of whom were black. Five black women had been raped. More than 100 people had been robbed, most of whom were black. Four churches, 12 schools and 91 houses had been burned - and guess what? All of them were black.

And these riots/massacres didn't just occur in Memphis. That same year in New Orleans, whites killed 35 African Americans and injured more than 100 - with the compliance of local civilian authorities and police. Dozens more small-scale riots/massacres took place throughout the South.

Stephanie and Dr. Kenneth Goings
Stephanie and Dr. Kenneth Goings

Could there be a silver lining to these racial tensions? Well, according to Dr. Kenneth Goings, a professor of African American history at the University of Memphis, they may have helped open the dialogue to race relations. "People are much more aware of race in the South than in the North. We actually talk about it here. In fact, I think race relations are much better here than in the North as a whole."

There is no marker commemorating the race riots, but there is a statue of Elvis
There is no marker commemorating the race riots, but there is a statue of Elvis

And yet, when Daphne and I retraced the path of the rioters in downtown Memphis, we could not find a single historical marker about it. At the intersection of Beale and South street - where the violence started - the only statue in sight was one of Elvis.

Beale Street is now a strip of bars and live music clubs
Beale Street is now a strip of bars and live music clubs

As we continued down Beale Street, however, I found reason for Dr. Goings' optimism. There was a phenomenally diverse group of people on the street that night. A healthy mix of both blacks and whites had gathered to enjoy live jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was perhaps the greatest tribute of all to the victims of May 1 - 3, 1866. At last - we're getting better at getting along.

Stephanie

Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org

 

Links to Other Dispatches

Nick - Sojourner's Truth marches on
Daphne -- A couple of aliens and a not-so-grand wizard
Teddy -Reading, writing, and making freedom real
Stephanie - African American Home on the Range
Rebecca-Americans torturing Americans
Kevin - Welcome to New York. Now get in line for delousing