Remembering Reconstruction: The Memphis Massacre of 1866

Originally Posted at Process: A Blog for American History


Drs. Susan O’Donavan and Beverly Bond

We’re a nation that loves our centennials and sesquicentennials. We celebrate wars; we celebrate statehood; we celebrate the founding of our nation and the founding of our schools and universities. MIT recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of its move from one side of the Charles River to the other, and the National Park Service, which turned 100 years old on August 25, has been celebrating all year long. That we’re fascinated by centennials and an increasing number of sesquicentennials is only human. They help us mark time, measure progress, and understand who we are and what we’ve been and done in the past. Because much of our national identity is tied to how we view those pasts, commemorations are by definition deeply political processes. Since it isn’t practical, much less feasible, to celebrate everything, centennials force us to choose, to weigh options, and to come to a collective decision about what’s important and, inversely, what’s not.

For 150 years Reconstruction has failed to make that commemorative cut. As a people we did not believe those tumultuous years that unfolded in the wake of the Confederate surrender have been worth the effort of public recognition. Why this has been the case is a question tangled up in a long history of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow. Written off in the early twentieth century by William C. Dunning and his students as a tragic error and then increasingly sealed behind an impenetrable wall of silence, Reconstruction has been the nonhistory, the nonevent. Yet as historians and those who read historians’ books and articles know, Reconstruction was a remarkably transformative period. It is the period in which the United States experienced that “new birth of freedom.” It was an era in which three constitutional amendments were debated, drafted, and ratified in the space of five years. It was an era in which the political universe was repopulated and in which ideas about governance were completely overhauled, laying the legal, social, political, and productive ground for who we have become as a people and as a nation in the twenty-first century. Evicting Reconstruction from of our public discussions is akin to leaving out the American Revolution, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, or Kennedy’s assassination. To overlook or ignore Reconstruction, to shutter and silence its history leaves much of who we are and how we came to be un- or at least underexplained.

Public perception is starting to change. Over the past few years a new generation of historians, led by Gregory P. Downs of the University of California, Davis, and Kate Masur of Northwestern University, have been working in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) to “push the era—in all its complexity—back onto the map of America’s collective memory.” As Greg and Kate explain in an essay that appeared in the April 29, 2015, issue of The Atlantic, the NPS is no stranger to dealing with the so-called hard histories—those that are easier to forget than to remember—and in early 2016 the agency released the first fruits of this effort, a slim anthology titled The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook. But telling hard histories requires more than one volume, no matter how brilliant and respected its contributors. It requires public action. So, as the handbook was going to press, the NPS also outlined a novel approach in their ongoing effort to break the silences that have long surrounded Reconstruction’s history. Strategically retreating from what have been chronically unsuccessful efforts to develop conventional interpretive sites—initiatives that require deep reserves of money and political will—the new plan is to mobilize communities to develop their own public programming, focused on specific episodes of large-scale race violence. This plan avoids the practical and ideological obstacles that have long stymied efforts to bring Reconstruction to the surface of our collective memory. Moreover, in opening investigations into the mob violence that repeatedly rocked the post–Civil War nation, the NPS’s new model invites a more thoroughgoing discussion about Reconstruction, its origins, its meanings, and its legacies.

As specialists of the nineteenth-century African American experience, we had been following these developments avidly, albeit from afar. We have long wanted to see Reconstruction take its place on our national historical landscape. In July 2015 our role as cheerful spectators ended abruptly when Greg contacted us through Facebook (where would we be without social media?!), asking if we would be interested in organizing a commemoration of what was among the first of those large-scale episodes of race violence: the three days of terror that swept Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1866. We couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Profoundly disturbed by what had just unfolded in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, and committed to the newly organized Black Lives Matter movement, we knew that the time had come to leave the sanctity of our university classrooms and to do more to engage with a much larger audience. As we understood it then, and continue to understand it today, we have a moral, ethical, and intellectual obligation to counter—publicly, repeatedly, and insistently—what remains a deeply entrenched and pro-Confederate narrative of racism, hate, and bigotry. We knew we needed to expand our classroom exponentially. Greg’s invitation on behalf of the NPS gave us that chance.

But how to make this happen was a puzzle. Because this was a first-of-its-kind program, we had no model to fall back on. We didn’t have the advantage of the acres of battlefield parks and marbled statuary that can be used to frame Civil War histories. Of the 400-plus NPS units in existence in July 2015, not a single one was devoted to any aspect of Reconstruction history. We were on our own, or so we initially thought. What we did not know last summer but came to understand by the fall was that we had a very big and eager community standing right behind us. We were floored by the fierce outpouring of enthusiasm for our project from its very beginning. Memphians, we discovered, were desperately hungry for a more inclusive past. Tired of a history dominated by dead Confederates, a monument to one of whom still looms over city center, citizens of all backgrounds, classes, and complexions greeted news of our commemorative efforts with open arms, open minds, and open wallets. “We want in” was a common refrain. So determined were some members of the Memphis community to engage with our shared past that they had already begun to act on their own initiative, striving to tell bigger, broader, and sometimes much more painful stories of the place we all call home. The Memphis chapter of the NAACP, for instance, had already launched an effort to place a marker recognizing the more than forty black men, women, and children who died at the mobs’ hands during the 1866 massacre. Inspired by the work being done by Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama, another group had begun to identify and mark the locations of lynching sites throughout the surrounding county. These organic movements more than made up for the absence of a larger commemorative framework in which to work. We knew that we had a much bigger and more important advantage: we could tap into and graft our project onto increasingly organized local interest in the black past.

Much of the fall semester was taken up with project development, starting with fundraising. mm_programPutting together a project on the scale we wanted would not be cheap, especially since we knew from our earliest conversations with Tim Good (superintendent of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historical Site and our NPS point of contact) that we wanted to do something big, like a capstone symposium that would bring academics and the community together in a historic conversation about Reconstruction’s history. Susan, however, is no fundraiser, which meant the responsibility for underwriting our endeavor fell almost exclusively to Beverly. And good thing for us and the Memphis Massacre Project that it did. A native Memphian, Beverly’s deep personal and professional roots in the community made her the ideal person to take the lead in raising funds and assembling an impressive network of community and academic partners. This is not to say that another person could not have come and accomplished something similar, but having Beverly as our public representative saved us time by opening more doors more quickly. We also realized that opening one door often pried open subsequent doors. Money and support begot more of the same. We began with a promise of financial support from the NPS and funding from our home institution, the history department at the University of Memphis. The former was rather open ended and the latter was accompanied by an understanding that more funds might be forthcoming if needed. These initial investments of interest and support emboldened other groups and organizations to link their projects to ours, helping us knit together a diverse and community-wide commemorative initiative. This cascading process began with a visit to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Memphis. His backing was followed in short order by offers of money, programming, and contributions in kind from other university departments, colleges, and centers. The provost’s office contributed too, giving us important visibility by making our project the subject of a promotional video. Buoyed by this outpouring of support and realizing we could easily achieve the necessary matching funds to make us competitive for external grants, we contacted the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and Humanities Tennessee. Beverly’s current or past affiliation with the boards of these organizations gave us the advantage of familiarity with their program interests, funding opportunities, and leadership, and those connections paid off. By December we received substantial grants from each. As to be expected, however, both agencies encouraged us to expand our efforts beyond the academic symposium and to do more to work directly with the Memphis community. We responded by reaching out to other local organizations and we continued to coordinate our efforts with the Memphis NAACP too. Word was soon circulating through the metropolitan area about our project. Staff columnists from the Memphis Commercial Appeal reached out to us, and so too did individuals who believed deeply enough in what we were doing that they dipped into their own pockets to make personal contributions. Not all our partners were financial sponsors or event hosts, but by January, the Memphis Massacre Project could boast of a packed calendar, one that was designed to reach every corner of the Memphis community: from lawyers to leaders to students and their teachers and everyone in between.

What Beverly raised, Susan spent. As the newcomer and with something of an affinity for logistics and spreadsheets, Susan assumed responsibility for all the nitty-gritty, background work that goes into putting on a program of any scope or size. She took charge of the project’s marketing and media operation: working with a professional graphic designer to create a project “brand,” serving as de facto webmaster for the project website, and setting up our Facebook page. She also took the lead in organizing the symposium—from lining up space and speakers to choosing the kind of food we would serve at the keynote reception. Above all, Susan kept the project under budget. The easiest part of this work was recruiting scholars to present at the symposium. Starting as late as we did, we were delighted to find that our “dream team” would be available on the third weekend of May 2016. Response to our invitational letters in October was enthusiastic and fast. Much as our community partners had, our colleagues “wanted in.” Before classes broke for the holidays in early December, the symposium program was complete.

While we were showing ourselves to be proficient community builders, fundraisebeverly-andre-and-susan-croppedrs, logisticians, and media wranglers, it was clear that we had no business tinkering around in the wild world of social media. Yet we were increasingly aware that a digital presence was key to the project’s success; we simply did not have the funding to underwrite television and radio advertising. We needed social media, and we needed to create a lasting digital identity. We had already begun to envision our website as the digital analog of more conventional interpretive site: a museum, a schoolroom, a library, and a forum in which to encourage an ongoing discussion about a long-overlooked part of our past. One of our major funders, Humanities Tennessee, had also suggested that we create a “blog,” a genre with which neither of us had any expertise. Recognizing our shortcomings, we turned to our colleague Andre E. Johnson of the department of communication. A master communicator, blogger, tweeter, and minister as well as a recent addition to our university faculty, Andre had a lot to contribute. That he writes about a well-known black leader of the Reconstruction era, Henry McNeal Turner, and is the founder and managing editor of the popular Rhetoric, Race, and Religion blog, as well as an activist in the Memphis Black Lives Matter movement didn’t hurt either. Andre soon rescued the project’s social media machine, set up our blog, and began tweeting our plans and activities to the world. Looking back, it is clear that recruiting Andre was one of our better decisions. With one foot firmly in today’s racial struggles and the other planted just as firmly in the world of Reconstruction, Andre was ideally positioned to help our audience make connections between their stifling experiences of racism in the twenty-first century and the experiences of those who survived and then testified to the mob violence that nearly wrecked our city in May 1866. Thanks to him, our tweets have also been “storified” and archived on the Memphis Massacre blog, along with video of the symposium and media accounts of our work and the work of our partners.

On February 1, 2016, our partners at LeMoyne-Owen College kicked off what would be a semester-long series of public events, talks, book discussion, and exhibits with a public lecture by Dr. Bobby Lovett on black education in the post-Civil War era, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony in tribute to the college’s precursor, Lincoln Chapel, a school that had been founded by the American Missionary Association, destroyed during the massacre, and soon rebuilt, like other African American schools in town. Over the next three months the Memphis Massacre project organized and coordinated as many as six events per month. With one exception, all of these events were free and open to the public. In a deliberate attempt to attract as wide an audience as possible, we scheduled the events around the city and at varying times. We held book discussions over lunch and after dinner; public lectures could be attended in the early afternoon, late afternoon, and evening. Venues were varied: we gathered to talk about Reconstruction’s hard history at the Memphis Public Library, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Orange Mound Gallery, and Rhodes College, to name just a few. To better facilitate attendance, we created a dedicated Memphis Massacre Project email address (thanks to the University of Memphis) and maintained a joint calendar, with descriptions, driving directions, and contact information on the Memphis Massacre Project website. Our “Upcoming Events” page, updated at the beginning of each month, contained the same information in narrative form. Facebook was indispensable when it came to advertising. We encouraged attendees at all events to haul out their phones and start tweeting, using our hashtag #memphismassacre1866. We took photographs, most of which are still on our phones (did we say this is an ongoing project?), and recorded video. Before long any lingering “town and gown” division had been obliterated. A lecture by Stephen Ash at Rhodes College in March drew a standing-room-only audience of people of all ages, classes, and careers from across Memphis and Shelby County: college students, secondary school students, educators, professionals, business people, clergy, and parents.

Over the course of the semester the conversation developed. Initially our audiences were simply dumbfounded and shocked that white mobs had spent three days ripping through the city, leaving a trail of murder, mayhem, and rubble in their wake. Gradually, as is the case in any classroom, that initial shock evolved into a desire to dig deeper into this hitherto-unknown story: why Memphis? Why were black soldiers the primary target of the mobs’ rage? Why did a congressional investigation result? By late spring we were debating questions about causation, racism, slavery, and above all, legacies. For an audience steeped in contemporary debates surrounding policing, race, gun control, and democratic politics, what happened in Memphis in May 1866 resonates deeply. It is also a history that shows us that we can—and have—taken different roads. White disdain is not inevitable. Black truths, for instance, mattered in Memphis in May 1866, and our audiences marveled at the determination and courage of black survivors who came forward to bear witness to the terrible injuries they had suffered. Women spoke eloquently of being raped, parents described watching their children die, and ministers and teachers told of the loss of all of the city’s black churches and schools to mob violence. That Congress and the nation listened further astounded our audiences. Memphis marked a critical turning point in our nation’s political and constitutional history. The violence unleashed by those white mobs helped to consolidate Congressional Republicans against President Andrew Johnson, ushering in the period that scholars call Radical Reconstruction.

That the Memphis Massacre had implications and consequences that transcended west Tennessee and the summer of 1866 may help explain why our project attracted attention from national media. But credit for that goes as well to the Memphis NAACP. While we were organizing public events, arranging and giving lectures, holding book discussions, and moving exhibits from one venue to another, our partners at the NAACP (led by attorney Phyllis Aluko and executive director Madeline Taylor) were working hard to convince a reluctant Tennessee Historical Commission that what happened in Memphis in May 1866 was a massacre and not a “riot,” the term long favored by white supremacists and Confederate apologists. As our two initiatives—one ostensibly pedagogical, the other more explicitly political—merged, we saw shifts along a couple of fronts. First, media interest in what started as a local discussion about the past and how best to commemorate assumed regional and then national dimensions. Op-ed columns in theCommercial Appeal multiplied as more and more staff writers turned their attention toward the post–Civil War past. Radio programs featured the Memphis Massacre Project, as did the Atlanta Black Star, the Atlantic, and the Nation. The Associated Press picked up our story, and C-SPAN came to town to film the symposium, two episodes of which are available in their Civil War video library. What we were doing in Memphis was without precedent. We were not just talking history, we were making history, changing with every discussion, lecture, and presentation the iconography of our collective memory.

memphismassacremarker-origSecond, our efforts yielded lasting commemorative and conceptual change. On May 1, 2016, the NAACP won its battle over the historical marker, unveiling what was the first and remains the only public marker to Reconstruction’s turbulent and transformative history. It stands in south Memphis, around the corner from the National Civil Rights Museum, marking the leading edge of what has been a long struggle for black freedom. In addition to this concrete change, we witnessed a conceptual and linguistic change. Our community no longer unquestioningly accepts language and ideas that were born of and for the benefit of Jim Crow. What happened in Memphis in 1866 was not a “riot.” It was a massacre, pure and simple. And it is as a massacre that Americans need to recall these events. For in those three days of white-on-black terror, when bodies fell and buildings burned, our nation turned a corner. It was a massacre that helped lay the foundation for our future.

Collaborative Partners, Memphis Massacre Project

  • Department of History, University of Memphis
  • Department of Communication, University of Memphis
  • College of Arts and Sciences, University of Memphis
  • African and African American Studies, University of Memphis
  • The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, University of Memphis
  • Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities, University of Memphis
  • University Libraries, University of Memphis
  • Office of Multicultural Affairs, University of Memphis
  • Department of History, Rhodes College
  • Africana Studies, Rhodes College
  • Communities in Conversation, Rhodes College
  • Center for African & African American Studies, LeMoyne-Owen College
  • Honors Academy, Southwest Tennessee Community College
  • Orange Mound Cultural Center
  • West Tennessee Historical Society
  • Memphis Public Library
  • Pink Palace Family of Museums, Memphis
  • Memphis Chapter, Association for the Study of African American Life and History
  • Teaching with Primary Sources, Middle Tennessee State University
  • Humanities Tennessee
  • Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area
  • National Parks Service
  • Other individuals

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