Saturday, January 13, 2018

“They All Fired at Her”

Cynthia Townsend (fl. 1845–1870)
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

“Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, During the Riot—Shooting Down Negroes on the Morning of May 2, 1866.” Engraving by American illustrator Alfred Rudolph Waud (1828–1891), from a hand-tinted edition of Harper's Weekly, May 26, 1866. Scan courtesy of Tennessee Virtual Archive.
On May 23, 1866, Elihu B. Washburne, a Republican Congressman from Illinois, wrote to his colleague Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and described the three-day riot that had overwhelmed Memphis at the beginning of the month:
It was a mob organized substantially under the auspices of the city Government, and the butcheries and atrocities perpetrated scarcely have a parallel in all history. Forty persons were killed, including some women and children fifty-three wounded and eight maltreated and beaten. Seventy-eight houses, churches, and schoolhouses were burned, & ninety-three robberies committed. As Genl. Stoneman well says, it was no “negro riot,” for the negroes had nothing to do with it but to be butchered.
In the four years since the Union army occupied Memphis on June 6, 1862, the black population had grown sixfold as refugees fled to the city. After the end of the war, tensions quickly mounted between white and black residents, exacerbated by occasional clashes between the local white police force and black Union soldiers garrisoned at Fort Pickering. “Many negro soldiers have, from time to time, been arrested by the police,” reported General George Stoneman, the commanding officer at Fort Pickering, located south of the city, “and many whites, including some of the police, have been arrested by the negro soldiers, and in both cases those arrested have not unfrequently been treated with a harshness altogether unnecessary.”

During the afternoon of May 1 a fight broke out when a group of four white police officers were ordered to break up a boisterous celebration of soldiers who had just been mustered out of the army. Greatly outnumbered, the police were taunted and manhandled by the soldiers—but “up to this point no weapon more dangerous than a stick or rock had been displayed,” writes Tennessee historian Stephen V. Ash in The Massacre in Memphis. Then shots rang out and one of the police officers collapsed after being hit in the leg. Unbeknown to most of the crowd, he had actually shot himself while trying to draw his weapon (and he would later die from his wound), but the spark had been lit.

In the initial altercation, then, only one man had been injured, from a self-inflicted wound, and as the two groups fanned out across the city another police officer was wounded. By early evening most of the soldiers returned to Fort Pickering. Dozens of policemen, local officials, and other citizens set out instead to terrorize the city’s black residents, virtually all of whom had played no role in the confrontation. “They are not just angry crowds now; they have become homicidal mobs,” Ash writes. A white doctor, formerly a surgeon in the Union army, later testified, “I saw no negroes fighting or shooting at all. All that I saw were running or trying to get out of the way”—a statement confirmed by several other eyewitnesses. Over the next three days, forty-six African American residents, many of them woman, children, and elderly men, were killed and dozens more were shot or severely burned. Three white citizens also died: in addition to the police officer who shot himself, a firefighter was killed by one of the mob ringleaders after being mistaken for a black man, and a third white man was murdered in a bar by a white patron for talking amiably to a black man.

On May 14 the House appointed a three-member select committee to investigate the atrocities. The committee, chaired by Washburne, heard from 164 witnesses, including Cynthia Townsend, whose disturbing testimony is included in the new Library of America anthology Reconstruction and is presented here as our Story of the Week selection. When the committee issued its findings on July 25, 1866, the majority report, signed by Washburne and his Republican colleague John M. Brownall, described the riot as “an organized and bloody massacre of the colored people” caused by racial prejudice and hostility toward the federal government. In opposition, George S. Shanklin, the Democratic member of the committee, concluded that future violence could best be avoided by restoring the political rights of former Confederates and abolishing the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress in 1865 to help former slaves.

No one was ever prosecuted by either the civil or military authorities for crimes committed during the riot.

Note: In her opening testimony Townsend mentions that she had finished paying for her freedom “a few days before they took this place,” meaning just before the Union army occupied Memphis on June 6, 1862. John Pendergrast, mentioned several times, was a grocer who, with his brother, two sons, and other family members and friends, operated a de facto headquarters for the posses and mobs that terrorized black residents during the riot. He was responsible for some of the massacre’s worst atrocities; he and his brother went into hiding soon afterward.

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