Do you know what happened 147 years ago today?
May of 1866, not long after the end of slavery in the south, several white policeman were arresting a Black man, a group of African-American union soldiers got involved, shots were allegedly fired at the group of Black men and a riot broke out in Memphis, Tennessee. Groups of white policeman and white civilians stormed through Black neighborhoods and began assaulting Black people at random. People were dragged from their homes, people were robbed, property was destroyed, churches, homes and schools were burned.
The tension between whites and Blacks in Memphis had been brewing ever since 1862 when Memphis was captured by Union forces. At the end of the civil war, Reconstruction began and the Freedmen’s bureau and other Northern groups were assisting the recently-emancipated Black population. Many white police officers held special resentment toward the freed Blacks, especially those who fought on the side of the union.
The freedmen’s bureau reported that many Black people had complained of being harassed by white police officers and arrested for false offenses prior to the riots of 1866. On May 1, 1866, the tension was escalated when the incident between the Black men and the white police officers occurred. After the Black soldiers intervened in the arrest, a crowd of white onlookers gathered and began fighting with the Black men and a riot was initiated. The majority of those killed were Black and most of the property damage was done to the Black areas. Several Black women were raped.
In one incident, two Black women were held captive by several white men in their home.
Sixteen-year-old Lucy Smith and 26-year-old Frances Thompson, who had been enslaved in Maryland, were sharing a home Memphis, where they resided on Gayoso street at the time of the riot. They made their living by sewing, ironing and washing clothes. They had managed to save at least $300.00.
About 1am on the Wednesday morning of the riot, seven white men awoke the women by entering their home uninvited. Two of the white men identified themselves as police officers. The white men began interrogating the two women . When one of the white men noticed red, white and blue quilts that the women had sewed in their house, they asked who the quilts were being made for. The women replied that they had made them for the Union soldiers. This angered the white southern men and they cursed at the women and assured her that “no Union soldier would ever have them hanging on their bed.”
One white man said, “you n*ggers have a mighty liking for the damned yankees.”
Their anger was further compounded by the fact that Frances Thompson, who was originally from Maryland, had a picture of a white Union officer named General Joseph Hooker, who commanded the Union Potomac Army, on a table.
For the next four hours, the men extorted the women, verbally abused them, robbed them of their $300.00 and choked, beat and raped both women. Four men raped Thompson and at least one raped Smith. When it was over, the men stole some silk dresses from the women and dumped their food into the bayou beside the house, then left.
The women later reported the assault to the freedmen’s bureau.
The riot continued for three days and two nights from May 1- May 3rd, it wasn’t until federal troops were dispatched that the riot was stopped. At the end, 91 Blacks and 2 whites had been killed, while countless others had been injured.