Race, Power, and Political Emergence in Memphis

By Sharon D. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2

Black Politics and Race Relations in Memphis During Reconstruction

INTRODUCTION

The era of access during the Reconstruction years is the focus in Chapter 2. During this period, three factors led to the black political emergence that occurred during the 1990s-black suffrage, the 1866 race riots, and the yellow fever epidemics. After 1867, black voters participated in the political system for the first time by electing local and state representatives. Despite the passage of laws which denied most Southern blacks the right of suffrage, blacks in Tennessee continued to vote. In other Southern states, blacks were disfranchised because of grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and white primaries. Blacks in the city of Memphis continued to cast bloc votes for candidates, form political groups, and mobilize voters after the end of federal Reconstruction.

During the spring of 1866, three days of rioting resulted in over $100,000 worth of property damage and forty-eight deaths. These riots were not the first racial uprisings in Memphis, but revealed the tension that existed in the post-Civil War years. The 1866 riots and subsequent racial conflicts resulted in a racially polarized political and social environment that continues to exist in Memphis. As a result of the yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s, Memphis gained a 50 percent black population. Middle-class whites, mostly of German descent, left the city and a disproportionate number of poor whites died during the epidemics. Thus by the turn of the century, Memphis was one of few Southern cities with a large population of enfranchised blacks.

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