Not Just Tulsa: Remembering the Memphis Massacre of 1866

Updated: May. 31, 2021 at 6:48 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Monday and Tuesday mark the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the most violent racial incidents in American history.

It led to the destruction of a wealthy black neighborhood known as Black Wall Street.

But Tulsa wasn’t the only city that experienced a race massacre.

Memphis did as well in 1866.

“It was a very violent confrontation,” said Dr. Beverly Greene Bond, a University of Memphis history professor and co-editor of Remembering the Memphis Massacre: An American Story.

Bond says Memphis’ Black population began to increase rapidly during the Civil War after the city fell to the Union Army in 1862.

“Memphis becomes the site of a growing number of African-Americans who are coming into the city from the rural countryside, from parts of Arkansas, parts of Mississippi, parts of Missouri,” said Bond.

Bond says Irish citizens in Memphis, who made up a majority of the police force at the time, struggled with the idea of Blacks being free.

“So you have in Memphis a city that is in the process of change and a nation that is in a process of change,” said Bond.

In 1866, what started as a minor confrontation between white Memphis police officers and black Union soldiers led to a mob of white men attacking and destroying black neighborhoods.

Bond says two commissions, including one appointed by Congress, investigated the massacre.

“This is where we get all the information on the Memphis Massacre,” said Bond.

More than 90 homes, four churches, and twelve schools were burned.

Several Black women were raped.

Forty-eight people died. Forty-six of them were Black.

Bond says the incident, which lasted multiple days, had been historically referred to as a riot, but she says historians have now abandoned that term.

“This is not a riot, unless you want to describe it as a white riot,” said Bond. “This is a massacre of black people in the community.”

Bond says the Memphis Massacre helped spur Congress to clearly define African-Americans as U.S. citizens with the adoption of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

In 2016, the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP dedicated a historical marker in Army Park at G.E. Patterson and S. Second.

Bond says it’s important all Americans know about this dark chapter of history along with other massacres like Tulsa.

“If you’re going to understand why we are the way we are today, for better or for worse, then you got to know where we came from,” said Bond.

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