About 153 years ago in early May 1866 a race riot exploded in Memphis during the early stages of Reconstruction.
Trouble began on April 30th when a regiment of black solders was mustered out at a nearby army post. As they waited for their discharge pay many celebrated and became inebriated. A street fight erupted between some of the soldiers and the police until each went their separate ways.
The next day a larger group of soldiers again gathered in the street, celebrating with intoxicants. Four policemen tried to disperse them, but the soldiers chased them away. Gunfire broke out and two policemen were shot. After the police obtained reinforcements several soldiers were killed before returning to the army post that evening.
While the black soldiers remained on the army post, police, firefighters and an armed posse of about 100 other whites deputized by the Sheriff attacked the city’s comparitively unarmed blacks. After a two day rampage, the local army commander declared martial law, even though the Memphis mayor requested that he intervene two days earlier. A total of more than forty blacks and two whites had been killed.
The synopsis above is best understood by examining context beyond the obvious racism that existed in the city at the time.
First, the initial post-war Memphis military commander repeatedly warned against using black soldiers in the garrison because it increased the potential for racial violence. Other military leaders, from General Ulysses Grant on down, agreed that black occupation troops should not be used in the South. Continue reading