© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Civil Wrongs: Reflections on a Massacre, Part 3

Original artwork by Ephraim Urevbu, Urevbu Contemporary

"Civil Wrongs: Reflections on a Massacre" is a collaboration between WKNO-FM 91.1 and the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. For a deeper dive into this history, a 4-part podcast was written by the students in this story about the Memphis Massacre and its connection to current events.


CHRISTOPHER BLANK: In the parlance of detective work, this would be considered a cold case.

WAYNE DOWDY: We are off of Front Street in Downtown Memphis, near where Gayoso Street used to be.

BLANK: Memphis historian Wayne Dowdy is revisiting the scene of a crime.

DOWDY: So Front Street, for her, would be her main thoroughfare. This is where she would go to shop. This is where she would go probably take Front Street to whatever Church she attended...

BLANK: The victim was Francis Thompson. She lived nearby. On the night of the incident, seven white men entered her house — two of them wearing police badges. She and her roommate were sexually assaulted and robbed. No one was brought to trial.

The details of this crime exist because there was a public hearing about a month later.

And that hearing would change American history.

Today, WKNO and the Institute for Public Service Reporting continue with Part 3 of a series called Civil Wrongs, which looks at historic injustices and how they still affect us. A warning to listeners: this episode contains descriptions of sexual violence.

It was May of 1866. Just after the Civil War. Over three days, a white mob attacked Memphis's growing Black community. Rapes were among a catalog of crimes now called the Memphis Massacre. Reporter Laura Faith Kebede and her journalism class at the University of Memphis recently made a podcast about this event, but as they followed the breadcrumbs of history, they kept circling back to the present.

LAURA FAITH KEBEDE: We were hoping we might get lucky. Maybe find a descendant of someone who survived. But at the end of the day we can only stand in front of the Gayoso House, an apartment building on Front Street, and imagine the grand hotel that was here in 1866.

This is where three members of Congress arrived from Washington D.C. in late May to examine witnesses.

The bodies of at least 46 Black men, women and children were found all over the streets of South Memphis. Countless others were robbed and beaten. 91 homes, four churches and 12 schools were set on fire.

The crimes are well-documented. More than 160 Witnesses showed up in person to testify.

University of Memphis history Professor Beverly Bond says the testimonies represent more than an act of Congress trying to figure out how the nation would move forward after the war. They are also, she says, acts of extreme courage.

BEVERLY BOND: When they go and they testify, it's kind of like saying, you know, maybe you're questioning my citizenship and our rights, but I have the right to my body and I have the right to property. You no longer have a right to control that.

KEBEDE: Witnesses had been threatened with retaliation by the same people who led the mob: Memphis police. Many fled the city.

But those who stayed would shape the future of Memphis.

BOND: The schools are rebuilt. You have the reconstruction of these churches. This violence happened, but you have many people — Black people — who say very simply, 'we're going to do it. We're going to build it again.'

KEBEDE: These witnesses were also building a new American narrative.

The students in my journalism class came of age in the era of #metoo. They read transcripts of 1866 and are shaken by how long survivors—especially Black women—have been fighting to be heard.

Rebecca Ann Bloom spoke out, difficult as it was to relive that night. Members of the mob broke into her house, removed her husband from the room and raped her.

For our podcast, we asked student actors to read dialog from the hearing.

CONGRESSMAN (ACTOR): Did they do anything to you?

REBECCA ANN BLOOM (ACTOR): They've done a very bad act.

CONGRESSMAN: Did they ravish you?

BLOOM: Yes, sir.

CONGRESSMAN: Did they violate your person against your consent?

BLOOM Yes, sir. I just had to give up to them. They said they would kill me if I did not. They put me on the bed and the other men were plundering the house while this man was... carrying on.

KEBEDE: Even then survivors were asked repeatedly why they didn't try harder to resist or escape. Did they protest enough?

This line of questioning, along with a failure to charge the assailants, is a legacy of the Memphis Massacre we're still living today.

Just ask Samantha Shell. She was 12-years-old when a man raped her in a park nearly 20 years ago.

SAMANTHA SHELL: "The ambulance and the police came. They took me to the rape crisis unit. They examined me. They kept me, then they released me from the hospital. That's the last time I heard about my rape kit. March the 17th, 2003.

KEBEDE: More than 12,000 rape kits were destroyed or untested by the Memphis Police Department in a scandal that came to light in 2013. Samantha Shell's was one of them.

SHELL: They failed us. And we reached out for help.

KEBEDE: Today there are still long delays in Memphis rape kit testing. Last year, after the abduction of Eliza Fletcher, it was discovered that her suspected killer might have been jailed months earlier had another woman's rape kit been tested.

SHELL: Memphis gotta hear our voice. You get what I'm saying? Because they never heard our voice. So I feel like, I'm gonna speak about it because I might help somebody else.

KEBEDE: The hearings that followed the Memphis Massacre confirmed the value of bearing witness, even if change is slow. The 1866 investigation pushed Congress to pass the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. What it didn't do was stop white mobs from attacking Black communities.

Many massacres occurred over the next 60 years from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Each represents a failure to break a historical pattern, which is why those on the front lines of history education are worried.

BILL CAREY: Oh, hey everybody. It's History Bill.

Bill Carey is an author and reporter from Nashville. He's also the founder of Tennessee History for Kids and has a YouTube channel.

He and other educators have noticed a sidelining of certain topics.

CAREY: Tennessee may be the single worst state in the country in terms of teaching its own history. Most other states have like a year in eighth grade of their history. Tennessee only has a semester of Tennessee history in fifth grade. And now we're talking about moving that to third.

KEBEDE: My own students found that the Memphis Massacre is nowhere in the state's learning requirements. Not even an option, say, for kids in Memphis.

But conversations deemed not fit for classrooms are still being had in courtrooms.

Women whose rape kits went untested have filed a class action lawsuit. It's based on a history of Memphis Police neglect.

The family of Tyre Nichols is suing the City of Memphis for a half-billion dollars.

Attorney Ben Crump says that figure, too, comes from historic failures.

BEN CRUMP: It is our mission to make it financially unsustainable
for these police oppression units to unjustly kill black people in the future.

KEBEDE: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards Justice.

But it also doesn't bend itself. Each generation has a duty to intervene.

For many of my journalism students, the victims of the Memphis Massacre — those whose testimonies would never be heard —stand with us in spirit.

Their lives mattered.

The memory of this injustice is still relevant to the challenges we face here in Memphis.

And that is why it's so important to keep telling the story.