The father of the family in this scene represents a U.S. Army soldier, a member of the 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery who has been wounded during the violence taking place outside. His unit was established in Memphis in June 1863 and stationed at Fort Pickering, the command post for the U.S. Army occupying Memphis. Many of the African American soldiers at Fort Pickering were from Memphis, and their families lived in the Black neighborhoods near the fort. On April 30, 1866, the unit was mustered out of the army and the soldiers who lived nearby returned to their families. Many of them were still wearing their uniforms, their only clothes. That afternoon a fight broke out between the police and a group of Black former soldiers, leading to three days of anti-Black violence known today as the Memphis Massacre.
Like the other women in this scene, the mother of the family is in particular danger. During the massacre, a white mob rampaged across Memphis and at least five black women were raped. At a congressional investigation the women came forward and testified before the committee, making a courageous, detailed statement against sexual violence. Nevertheless, no one was convicted and no reparations were made to the victims. Later, in the 1890s, Memphis journalist Ida B. Wells led a campaign against lynching and for sexual justice, insisting on the rights of black women to equal protection under the law. After a mob destroyed her newspaper office and threatened to kill her, Wells left Memphis, but she had brought international attention to the subject of violence against African Americans in the South.
In 1866 when the massacre took place, Ulysses S. Grant was the general in chief of the U.S. Army, which was criticized for its slow response to the terrible events in Memphis. In 1868 Grant was elected president with the slogan, “Let us have peace.” But across the South, White resistance to Black citizenship during Reconstruction often turned violent, leading to the rise of white vigilante groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. Horrified by the Klan’s vicious terrorism, in 1870 Grant pushed Congress to pass the Enforcement Acts, giving the president the power to send troops to the South to protect the rights of Blacks. Under the acts, Klansmen were prosecuted in federal court and more than 600 were convicted; it seemed, briefly, that peace might have been achieved. But locally based militias continued to inflict violence on Black people and, under pressure from Southern Democrats, the federal government began to withdraw troops from the South. Civil unrest increased, and for decades to come, during the era known as Jim Crow, Black Southerners remained under threat of severe violence. The Klan gained new power and thousands of lynchings took place. It is estimated that 3500 people, mostly Black, were lynched between 1880 and the 1950s.
For three days - from May 1st to May 3rd, 1866 - a White mob violently assaulted Memphis’s Black community, burning Black schools and churches and attacking the homes of African Americans. Forty-six Blacks and two Whites died, and over one hundred buildings were destroyed by fire. Two months later, on July 30 in New Orleans, another violent attack on Blacks by Whites took place, at the site of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention. Thirty-four African Americans died. For many Northerners, the massacres proved the failure of Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction policies, and in 1867 the newly elected Republican Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, enfranchising black men and beginning the period of Radical Reconstruction.
This woman represents a member of the family who is living with her kinfolk. Memphis was crowded and expensive, and extended Black families frequently shared living spaces. Freedpeople who had relatives stationed at Fort Pickering depended upon the soldiers’ salaries, but pay was often slow in coming. Black women took in washing to supplement the family income, and some worked as seamstresses or were employed by Whites as cooks and maids. Black families in Memphis competed with the Irish for low-paying jobs, adding to the racial tension in the city that reached a boiling point on the first of May.
In 1866 the Irish population of Memphis numbered in the thousands. Many Irish immigrants had arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s and ‘50s, escaping famine in their native land. As some of them moved to the South they aligned themselves with the Democrats and adopted their anti-Black views. The Memphis police force was mainly Irish and had a history of conflict with the Black U.S. Army soldiers from Fort Pickering who occupied the city. In the months before the massacre several violent clashes occurred between Black soldiers and the Memphis police. One such incident led to the rampage of the first three days of May.
The daughter of this family exemplifies a young freedwoman who has learned to read and write, and assists in one of the twelve missionary schools for freedpeople in Memphis. Most of the twenty-two missionary teachers in Memphis at this time were White, but there were three Black teachers, all graduates of Oberlin College in Ohio. One of them, Horatio Nelson Rankin, taught the soldiers at Fort Pickering when he first arrived in Memphis. Like many missionary teachers, he had support from the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission. By 1865 he was teaching freedchildren in Collins Chapel, a building owned by the Black Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Collins Chapel was destroyed by arson during the Memphis Massacre, but it was rebuilt and became a center for civil rights and African American cultural life. Today worshippers at Collins Chapel form the oldest Black congregation in Memphis.
This soldier is a member of the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Pickering, who has been sent to take freedpeople to safety. Union forces captured Memphis on June 6, 1862 and took over the fort, which had been built by the Confederate Army on land once inhabited by the Chickasaw Tribe. The U.S. Army occupied the city until the end of the Civil War in 1865 but retained a presence in Fort Pickering after the war. Once the Black soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery mustered out on April 30th, 1866, only 185 soldiers, all White, remained at the fort. The commander of this small force was Major General George Stoneman. When the outbreak of violence against Black Memphians began, Stoneman initially resisted sending his troops to restore order in the city. Only after two days of mayhem did Stoneman intervene, ordering men from the 16th to patrol the streets and take freedpeople to Fort Pickering. After the massacre, Stoneman set up a commission to investigate the riot. 122 witnesses testified and Stoneman compiled a report that he sent to Washington. News of the massacre resulted in a congressional investigation and strengthened the case for passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted citizenship to freedpeople.
After the U.S. Army occupied Memphis on June 6, 1862, thousands of enslaved people escaped nearby plantations and took refuge in the city. They were often penniless, bringing with them only the clothes they were wearing and a little food, such as these sweet potatoes, a staple of the Southern diet. Before the Union occupation, fewer than 4,000 Black people lived in Memphis. By 1866 the Black population had grown to around 20,000. Although life in Memphis wasn’t easy, in almost all cases it was preferable to enslavement on a plantation. Many enslaved people who made their way to Memphis during the war were housed in “contraband camps” set up by the U.S. Army. They were called contraband because the enslaved were considered to be captured enemy property.