These excerpts of historic documents are included as background to the 360° vignette in Violence and Hatred, specifically the Memphis Massacre. Shortly after the massacre the Freedmen’s Bureau, the U.S. Army and the United States Congress began investigations. Included below is the full report by the Freedmen’s Bureau and a selection of affidavits made by eye-witnesses. The spelling and syntax in these documents are historically accurate. The full Congressional report is available at the Library of Congress at http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/ampage?collId=llss&fileName=1200/1274/llss1274.db&recNum=10
On May 7, 1866, General Oliver O. Howard, the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, ordered his aide-de-camp, Major T. W. Gilbreth, to go to Memphis to conduct an investigation of the massacre. Working with another Freedmen’s Bureau agent, Col. Charles F. Johnson, Gilbreth delivered the report to General Howard on May 22.
Report of an investigation of the cause, origin, and results of the late riots in the city of Memphis made by Col. Charles F. Johnson, Inspector General States of Ky. And Tennessee and Major T. W. Gilbreth, A. D. C. To Maj. Genl. Howard, Commissioner Bureau R. F. & A. Lands.
The remote cause of the riot as it appears to us is a bitterness of feeling which has always existed between the low whites & blacks, both of whom have long advanced rival claims for superiority, both being as degraded as human beings can possibly be. In addition to this general feeling of hostility there was an especial hatred among the city police for the Colored Soldiers, who were stationed here for a long time and had recently been discharged from the service of the U. S., which was most cordially reciprocated by the soldiers. This has frequently resulted in minor affrays not considered worthy of notice by the authorities. These causes combined produced a state of feeling between whites and blacks, which would require only the slightest provocation to bring about an open rupture.
The Immediate Cause
On the evening of the 30th April 1866 several policemen (4) came down Causey Street, and meeting a number of Negroes forced them off the sidewalk. In doing so a Negro fell and a policeman stumbled over him. The police then drew their revolvers and attacked the Negroes, beating them with their pistols. Both parties then separated, deferring the settlement by mutual consent to some future time (see affidavit marked "A"). On the following day, May 1st, during the afternoon, between the hours of 3 and 5, a crowd of colored men, principally discharged soldiers, many of whom were more or less intoxicated, were assembled on South Street in South Memphis. Three or four of these were very noisy and boisterous. Six policemen appeared on South Street, two of them arrested two of the Negroes and conducted them from the ground. The others remained behind to keep back the crowd, when the attempt was made by several Negroes to rescue their comrades. The police fell back when a promiscuous fight was indulged in by both parties.
During this affray one police officer was wounded in the finger, another (Stephens) was shot by the accidental discharge of his pistol in his own hand, and afterward died. About this time the police fired upon unoffending Negroes remote from the riotous quarter. Colored soldiers with whom the police first had trouble had returned in the meantime to Fort Pickering. The police was soon reinforced and commenced firing on the colored people, men, women and children, in that locality, killing and wounding several.
Shortly after, the City Recorder (John C. Creighton) arrived upon the ground (corner of Causey and Vance Streets) and in a speech which received three hearty cheers from the crowd there assembled, councilled and urged the whites to arm and kill every Negro and drive the last one from the city. Then during this night 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, during which no resistance so far as we can learn was offered by the Negroes. A white man by the name of Dunn, a fireman, was shot and killed by another white man through mistake (reference is here made to accompanying affidavit mkd "B").
During the morning of the 2nd inst. (Wednesday) everything was perfectly quiet in the district of the disturbances of the previous day. A very few Negroes were in the streets, and none of them appeared with arms, or in any way excited except through fear. About 11 o'clock A. M. a posse of police and citizens again appeared in South Memphis and commenced an indiscriminate attack upon the Negroes, they were shot down without mercy, women suffered alike with the men, and in several instances little children were killed by these miscreants. During this day and night, with various intervals of quiet, the nuisance continued.
The city seemed to be under the control of a lawless mob during this and the two succeeding days (3rd & 4th). All crimes imaginable were committed from simple larceny to rape and murder. Several women and children were shot in bed. One woman (Rachel Johnson) was shot and then thrown into the flames of a burning house and consumed. Another was forced twice through the flames and finally escaped. In some instances houses were fired and armed men guarded them to prevent the escape of those inside. A number of men whose loyalty is undoubted, long residents of Memphis, who deprecated the riot during its progress, were denominated Yankees and Abolitionists, and were informed in language more emphatic than gentlemanly, that their presence here was unnecessary. To particularize further as to individual acts of inhumanity would extend the report to too great a length. But attention is respectfully called for further instances to affidavits accompanying marked C, E, F & G.
The riot lasted until and including the 4th of May but during all this time the disturbances were not continual as there were different times of greater or less length in each day, in which the city was perfectly quiet, attacks occurring generally after sunset each day. The rioters ceased their violence either of their own accord or from want of material to work on, the Negroes having hid themselves, many fleeing into the country.
Conduct of the Civil Authorities
The Hon. John Park, Mayor of Memphis, seemed to have lost entire control of his subordinates and either through lack of inclination and sympathy with the mob, or on utter want of capacity, completely failed to suppress the riot and preserve the peace of the city. His friends offer in extenuation of his conduct, that he was in a state of intoxication during a part or most of the time and was therefore unable to perform the high and responsible functions of his office. Since the riot no official notice has been taken of the occurrence either by the Mayor or the Board of Aldermen, neither have the City Courts taken cognizance of the numerous crimes committed. Although many of the perpetrators are known, no arrests have been made, nor is there now any indication on the part of the Civil Authorities that any are meditated by them.
It appears the Sheriff of this County (P. M. Minters) endeavored to oppose the mob on the evening of the 1st of May, but his good intentions were thwarted by a violent speech delivered by John C. Creighton, City Recorder, who urged and directed the arming of the whites and the wholesale slaughter of blacks. This speech was delivered on the evening of the 1st of May to a large crowd of police and citizens on the corner of Vance and Causey streets, and to it can be attributed in a great measure the continuance of the disturbances. The following is the speech as extracted from the affidavits herewith forwarded marked "B" . . . "That everyone of the citizens should get arms, organize and go through the Negro districts," and that he "was in favor of killing every God damned n____r" . . . "We are not prepared now, but let us prepare and clean out every damned son of a bitch of a n____r out of town . . . "Boys, I want you to go ahead and kill every damned one of the n____r race and burn up the cradle."
The effect of such language delivered by a municipal office so high in authority, to a promiscuous and excited assemblage can be easily perceived. From that time they seemed to act as though vested with full authority to kill, burn and plunder at will. The conduct of a great number of the city police, who are generally composed of the lowest class of whites selected without reference to their qualifications for the position, was brutal in the extreme. Instead of protecting the rights of persons and property as is their duty, they were chiefly concerned as murderers, incendiaries and robbers. At times they even protected the rest of the mob in their acts of violence.
No public meeting has been held by the citizens, although three weeks have now elapsed since the riot, thus by their silence appearing to approve of the conduct of the mob. The only regrets that are expressed by the mass of the people are purely financial. There are, however, very many honorable exceptions, chiefly among men who have fought against the Government in the late rebellion, who deprecate in strong terms, both the Civil Authorities and the rioters.
Action of Bvt. Brig. Genl. Ben P. Runkle, Chief Supt., Bureau R. F. and A. L., Sub-District of Memphis
General Runkle was waited upon every hour in the day during the riot, by colored men who begged of him protection for themselves and families, and he, an officer of the Army detailed as Agent of the Freedmen's Bureau was suffered the humiliation of acknowledging his utter inability to protect them in any respect. His personal appearance at the scenes of the riot had no affect on the mob, and he had no troops at his disposal.
He was obliged to put his Headquarters in a defensive state, and we believe it was only owing to the preparations made, that they were not burned down. Threats had been openly made that the Bureau office would be burned, and the General driven from the town. He, with his officers and a small squad of soldiers and some loyal citizens who volunteered were obliged to remain there during Thursday and Friday nights.
The origin and results of the riot may be summed up briefly as follows:
The remote cause was the feeling of bitterness which as always existed between the two classes. The minor affrays which occurred daily, especially between the police and colored persons.
The general tone of certain city papers which in articles that have appeared almost daily, have councilled the low whites to open hostilities with the blacks.
The immediate cause was the collision heretofore spoken of between a few policemen and Negroes on the evening of the 30th of April in which both parties may be equally culpable, followed on the evening of the 1st May by another collision of a more serious nature and subsequently by an indiscriminate attack upon inoffensive colored men and women.
Three Negro churches were burned, also eight (8) school houses, five (5) of which belonged to the United States Government, and about fifty (50) private dwellings, owned, occupied or inhabited by freedmen as homes, and in which they had all their personal property, scanty though it be, yet valuable to them and in many instances containing the hard earnings of months of labor.
Large sums of money were taken by police and others, the amounts varying five (5) to five hundred (500) dollars, the latter being quite frequent owing to the fact that many of the colored men had just been paid off and discharged from the Army.
No dwellings occupied by white men exclusively were destroyed and we have no evidence of any white men having been robbed.
From the present disturbed condition of the freedmen in the districts where the riot occurred it is impossible to determine the exact number of Negroes killed and wounded. The number already ascertained as killed is about (30) thirty; and the number wounded about fifty (50). Two white men were killed, viz., Stephens, a policemen and Dunn of the Fire Department.
The Surgeon who attended Stephens gives it as his professional opinion that the wound which resulted in his death was caused by the accidental discharge of a pistol in his hands (see affidavit marked "B"). Dunn was killed May 1st by a white man through mistake (see affidavit marked "B"). Two others (both Policemen) were wounded, one slightly in the finger, the other (Slattersly) seriously.
The losses sustained by the Government and Negroes as per affidavits received up to date amount to the sum of ninety eight thousand, three hundred and nineteen dollars and fifty five cents ($98,319.55). Subsequent investigations will in all probability increase the amount to one hundred and twenty thousand dollars ($120,000.00).
(signed) Chas. F. Jackson
Col. And Insptr. Genl. Ky. & Tenn.
T. W. Gilbreth
Aide-de-Camp. “Reports of Outrages, Riots and Murders, Jan. 15, 1866 – Aug. 12, 1868”
This is a selection from the hundreds of eye-witness accounts of the massacre given to the investigating committees.
Ditts, Rachael A. - Affidavit - States that the riot began in a fight between the Negroes and policemen. Saw policemen brake his pistol over one Negroes head.
Before me personally appeared the undersigned Miss Rachael Ditts and being duly sworn deposes as follows:
My name is Rachel Ditts. I live on Causey St. No. 152 in the city of Memphis.
I saw the commencement of the riot on Monday April 30, 1866. The Negroes tried to get away. I saw one of the Policemen brake his pistol over the head of one of the Negroes. I do not know the origin of the difficulty. The first thing I saw the Negroes running and the Police after him. The Negro made no resistance but tried to get away. On Tuesday I saw the crowd pass my house (Police and citizens).
I saw the Police strike some of the colored persons on the head who were entirely innocent.
(sgd) Rachel A. Ditts
Subscribed and sworn before me this the 9th day of May 1866.
(sgd) Michl. Walsh
Supt. and AAA Genl. and P. M. Freedmen
Ditts, Mrs. S. E. - Affidavit - States that she witnessed the assault on Negroes by policemen without any provocation on the part of the Negroes.
Personally appeared before me the undersigned Mrs. S. E. Ditts who upon being duly sworn deposes as follows:
My name is Mrs. S. E. Ditts, I live in the city of Memphis, Tenn. My place of residence is at No. 152 Causey Street. On the evening of Monday, April 30th, 1866 I saw four policemen pass the place I resided, while several Negroes were near, and the Negroes stepped off the sidewalk to allow the policemen to pass. The police followed the Negroes when one of the colored men fell and a policeman fell over him - the policeman then drew out their revolvers, when the colored men started down the street. One of the policemen followed and struck one of the Negroes on the head with his pistol, breaking it (the pistol). One of the colored men then hit one of the policemen, then a third policeman hit that man (colored) with a brick. The party then parted, the policemen going one way and the colored men another.
(sgd) S. E. Ditts
Lt. W. H. Kendrick
Capt. and A. A. G.
Subscribed and sworn to before me this the 18th day of May 1866.
Before me personally appeared the undersigned, Palzy Tolliver and being duly sworn deposes and says as follows.
My name is Palsy Tolliver, I live on South Street in the city of Memphis, Tenn. About a week before the beginning of the late riot a colored soldier was standing near a house had been burned on South St. A policeman said to him "that is all you are good for, burning houses." The soldier replied that he was not guilty of burning houses. This enraged the police and he beat the soldier with his club and took him to the Station House. On the evening of the 1st of May 1866 I saw some 25 or 30 soldiers who were making a loud noise. Some 3 or 4 policemen came up to arrest them. I saw Recorder Creighton in a buggy nearby. The police attempted to arrest the soldiers and they refused to be arrested. Soon after shooting commenced but I could not say which party began first. On Sunday evening before the riot began, a policeman was passing near the corner of South & Main street and stumbled. A soldier standing nearby laughed and the policeman knocked him down with a brick. The soldier then knocked the policeman down with his fist. Some other soldiers came up and took the soldier to the Fort.
On Monday before the riot commenced a couple of colored soldiers were walking on Causey St. and were pushed off the sidewalk by two white men. Some words passed between them and two policemen came up to arrest the soldiers, they refused to be arrested and one of the policemen struck one of the soldiers over the head with his pistol, breaking it in pieces.
Palzy (X) Tolliver
Subscribed and sworn to before me this the 9th day of May 1866.
F. M. H. Kendrick
Capt. & Asst. Insp. Genl.
Before me personally appeared the undersigned Mrs. Samuel Cooper being duly sworn deposes as follows.
My name is Mrs. Samuel Cooper, I live in the city of Memphis, Tenn. On the night of the 3rd of May 1866 a number of white men set fire to my property while I was in it. It was occupied by Colored people. My husband and Mr. Glascow put the fire out and were shot at by the mob. Mr. Glascow was a teacher in a Colored school and resided in the same building.
My husband was force to leave the city as the mob informed me that if they caught him they would kill him as they would not have any "damn abolitionist here." He is yet out of the city. We were compelled by the mob to sell our things. The damage by the fire amounted to about $50.00.
(signed) Mrs. S. Cooper
Subscribed and sworn to before me this the 16th day of May 1866.
(signed) M. Walsh
Capt. And A. A. A. Genl.
and Prov. Mar. Freed.
Before me personally appeared the undersigned Mandy Wilburn and being duly sworn deposes as follows. My name is Mandy Wilburn I live in the city of Memphis, Tenn. On the night of the 2nd of May 1866 Fred Hyman (white) and a party of men came to my house occupied by myself and husband Edward Wilburn, broke in the door, came in and search the house and abused me very badly. The house next to ours had been set on fire and from it ours caught. It was on fire when they came in. My husband (Edward Wilburn) went out to try and put it out and they shot and wounded him in the side, they took from us $37.00 in money. The house and all the contents in it burned up, loss would amount to $300.00.
Mandy (X) Wilburn
Subscribed and sworn to before me this 10th day of May 1866.
(signed) M. Walsh
Capt. & A. A. A. G.
& P. M. Freedmen
Before me personally appeared the undersigned Anna George and being duly sworn deposes as follows:
My name is Anna George. I live in Memphis, Tenn. On South St. near Mr. Ryan's grocery. On the 1st of May 1866 while standing at the door of the Ryan's grocery I saw a big fat Policeman called "Reddy" attempt to arrest a soldier for being drunk. The other soldiers prevented the arrest. The officer then left and said "I'll see you before daylight" and went to Causey St. where there were several white policemen. After joining the policemen alluded to and holding a few moments conversation with them, they all returned towards the colored men who ran towards the Fort and as they were running the police fired a number of shots at them and kept following and firing. I followed and saw three colored men dead, three more shot. Then the col'd men exchanged shots and immediately broke & ran again. I saw "Reddy" & "Johnson" (policemen) firing at the colored men.
On the next morning the 2nd I saw a number of white men shoot and kill two colored soldiers who were passing along quietly attending to their own business. I then saw the mob fire the col'd school house at the corner of South & Causey Sts. and also bring furniture out of the houses of colored people and throw it into the fire. The houses were owned by white people. In the evening they set fire to the houses and I went to see it.
I saw the girl Frances Johnson who was shot and groaning, her mother was upbraiding the mob when they took the girl who was still alive and threw her into the fire and shot at her mother who ran away. The girl was burnt to death.
There was quite a number of police with the crowd, they were encouraging them to go on. The police had badges on at the time and did not arrest anyone.
Anna (x) George
Subscribed and sworn to before me at Memphis, Tenn. this 18th day of May 1866.
(sgd) Michl. Walsh
Capt. & A. A. A. G.
& P. M. Freedmen
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Tennessee
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869
National Archives Microfilm Publication M999, roll 34
"Reports of Outrages, Riots and Murders, Jan. 15, 1866 - Aug. 12, 1868"