Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866

memphisriots_bgWelcome to the Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866 Project

This project, a semester-long series of activities culminating with an academic symposium, is designed to bring to public attention the massacre that rattled Reconstruction-era Memphis in May 1866. The massacre was the first of a series of bloody confrontations that erupted between black and white residents throughout the former Confederate states. As the first and one of the largest of these violent confrontations, the Memphis Massacre (or “riot” as earlier generations of historians defined it) played a significant role in prompting Congress to enact sweeping changes to federal policies and constitutional law, and it lent urgency to an ongoing national debate about the meaning of freedom and the rights of citizens. . In partnership with the National Park Service, the University of Memphis, and community and academic partners, our goal is to bring this foundational episode to light by situating Memphis and its tragic fault lines in what was a much larger and more tumultuous transition from slavery to freedom. Scholars have long viewed this period as a critical national turning point. We see this symposium and the public events leading up to it as the starting point for an enduring conversation, one that will serve as a model for how other communities might launch their own public discussions about Reconstruction and its legacies.

To understand Reconstruction requires a close examination of the often brutal struggles that marked the transition from slavery to freedom. Until now, most of these examinations have taken place within the academy. Unlike the Civil War, which has enjoyed large and sustained public attention for well over a century, Reconstruction has been the untold story. No statutes, no city or national parks, no markers or plaques or museums have ever been built to narrate the story of what Abraham Lincoln once called our new birth of freedom. Reconstruction is a cypher: an untold chapter in this nation’s history. Our goal is to break the silence and to make public the story of freedom’s unruly rebirth. In doing this, we will not only be teaching history, we will be making history.

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