"Your Old Father Abe Lincoln Is Dead and Damned": Black Soldiers and the Memphis Race Riot of 1866
Hardwick, Kevin R., Journal of Social History
Between May 1 and May 3, 1866, racial conflict erupted violently in Memphis, Tennessee. Irish policemen and firemen, together with white laborers and small businessmen, rioted in the southern part of the city. For three days they attacked the black residents living in the shanty settlement surrounding Fort Pickering, a Union military installation on the outskirts of the city. The rioters initially focused their attacks on the former soldiers of the Third United States Colored Heavy Artillery regiment, which had disbanded April 30 - the last of three black regiments to be mustered out of United States service at Memphis. On May 2 and 3, however, the rioters increasingly targeted the civic institutions and property of the black community of south Memphis, including schools, churches, and black-owned houses. By May 4, when federal military authorities declared martial law and detachments of white troops enforced order in the city, two whites and at least forty-six blacks had been killed, between seventy and eighty others had been wounded, at least five black women raped, more than one hundred people (mostly black) robbed, and four churches, twelve schools, and ninety-one houses burned.(2)
Contemporary observers attributed the violence to the unruly conduct of black soldiers in Memphis and to the longstanding animosity between blacks and the Irish, who competed for work as manual laborers. The Memphis Daily Avalanche, for example, argued, "it is only with the negro soldiers that trouble has ever existed.... With their departure, will come order, confidence, and the good will of old days. Had we had [white troops] instead of negro troops, neither this riot, nor the many lawless acts preceding it during the past six months, would have occurred." The superintendent of the Memphis Freedmen's Bureau, Major General Benjamin P. Runkle, stressed that "there was also a conflict of labor between the Irish hack-drivers, dray-drivers, porters, laborers, &c, and the negroes employed in the same occupations; there was a good deal of bitterness felt upon the part of the Irish, from the fact that these southern gentlemen preferred to hire negro servants." Another observer, Ewing O. Tade, a representative of the American Missionary Association, stated succinctly that "the late Memphis Riot was beyond a reasonable doubt instigated by the Irish Police of this city."(3)
The rioters, however, were a diverse lot, and their ethnic and occupational background does not support such a narrow, socio-economic interpretation of the violence. While the Irish overwhelmingly dominated the city's police force and fire companies, they represented only 50 to 60 percent of the identifiable rioters; at least 40 percent of the rioting mob, and quite likely more, was American born. Most of the rioters were artisans, professionals, and small shop keepers, not the "lower sort" and "rowdies" described by contemporary accounts. Only 27 percent of the identifiable rioters came from the occupational groups that observers considered most likely to be in competition with blacks for employment.(4)
Nor was the riot a spontaneous eruption of racial hatred. The contempt that many whites maintained for blacks, after all, was pervasive both before and after the riot. Racism cannot in itself explain the violence. To understand what happened in Memphis during the first three days of May 1866, the events of the riot must be placed within the local context of Memphis and its particular history as a center for the recruitment and administration of black military units.
Black soldiers, whose uniform conferred upon them the authority of the victorious Union army, occupied a particularly strategic and powerful position within the larger community of black people living in Memphis, and were prominent in the efforts of the former slaves to redefine their position within southern society. The freedmen sought to repudiate the strictures of the traditional order and to claim their independence. …