Memphis. Racism, violence, displacement and the riots of 1866.


Photo: Fred Klonsky

Anne and I are here in Memphis, enjoying what the city has to offer in great barbecue and blues.

Last night we enjoyed both. I had the dry-rubbed brisket and we danced to Preston Shannon’s guitar while his band played 70s funk. He’s a local Memphis guy who is great. Anne bought his CD.

The main reason we decided to come to Memphis was to take part in tomorrow’s commemoration of the murder here of Dr. Martin Luther King 49 years ago.

Rev. William Barber will be the featured speaker. Barber leads the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina.

There is a plaque on what is now a bank building a block off the tourist mecca of Beale Street. It marks the spot where a Reconstruction school, created by the Freedmen’s Bureau, for Black students once stood and was burned to the ground in the anti-Black riots of 1866.

Following the war and as a result of Reconstruction former slaves and African American soldiers who had fought for the Union began to settle in Memphis. Tensions ran high, particularly between white Memphis police and the former soldiers.

After an altercation between the police and soldiers, mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through African American neighborhoods. Their homes and schools were burned to the ground.

Forty-six African Americans and two whites were killed. Seventy-five African Americans were injured.

Five African American women were raped.

Ninety-one homes, four churches and nine Freedmen schools were burned down.

The destruction of the nine Reconstruction schools are now noted simply by a plaque off of Beale Street

Following the riots, African Americans fled the city.  By 1870, their population in Memphis fell by one quarter compared to what it was after the end of the Civil War.

I’m struck by the familiarity of the pattern: Racism, police violence, displacement.


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