Honoring the Victims, Demanding the Right Words

Apr 29, 2016

An illustration of the "1855 Memphis Race Riots" shows a landscape altogether different from today's South Main Arts District

In what is now the South Main Arts District of Memphis, civil rights' history has been written in blood on more than one occasion. The balcony of the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum) commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. But no memorials existed for another horrific act of racial violence that erupted here in 1866 – until now.


Just outside the National Civil Rights Museum, south of Downtown Memphis, a couple of tourists from Atlanta are looking up at the balcony where Dr. King was killed. His murder, in 1968, prompted spontaneous race riots across the country.

The phrase “race riots” conjures specific images for the couple.

“I think of blacks on one side and whites on the other and there’s just shouting back and forth,” says Felecia Green. Her husband, George, adds, “hostile verbal exchanges between the policemen and the rioters.”

“Race Riot” is also a phrase some historians use to describe an explosion of racial violence that occurred just a few streets away from here, 150 years ago on May 1, 2 and 3, 1866.

Near this now vacant lot on the corner of B.B. King and G.E. Patterson, a group of black Union soldiers had an altercation with several Irish police officers in 1866. Racial tension was high in Memphis immediately after the Civil War as immigrants from Europe and refugees from Mississippi plantations competed for the same unskilled labor jobs.
Credit Christopher Blank

Historian Stephen V. Ash, professor emeritus of the University of Tennessee, says it began when a group of black Union soldiers got into a fight with some Irish police officers. In the aftermath of the Civil War, racial tensions were already high.

“The rumor among the whites was that this was a full-scale black uprising in South Memphis,” Ash says.

The policemen called for reinforcements.

“And so white mobs began forming, marched into south Memphis and began indiscriminately shooting black men, women and children,” says Ash of an atrocity that went unchecked for 36 hours. “The toll was approximately 46 black people dead, many others savagely beaten, several women raped, all the black schools and churches in the city, all of them burned to the ground along with almost 100 black homes. Yeah, it was a scene of devastation in south Memphis.”

Ash’s authoritative book on the subject is titled A Massacre in Memphis: the Race Riot that Shook the Nation one Year after the Civil War.

Visitors to this neighborhood, Adrian Weaver and Darnell Henley, were asked to consider that other word.

“Massacre? Massacre is like the worst of the worst,” says Weaver.

Henley expands: “It denotes murder, slaughter, death. The thought of it is terrifying.”

Perhaps more terrifying to historians was that this event was nearly forgotten. There was no marker. No memorial at all.

Phyllis Aluko, an attorney with the public defender’s office, wanted to change that.

She read Ash’s book and couldn’t believe that she’d never heard about the massacre. She was born and raised in Memphis and had studied AP American history in high school.

As a lawyer, she was fascinated by how the event quickly became a sensational headline, helping Congress to pass the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ensuring citizenship to black people.

So Aluko started the process of creating a historical marker. She got the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to sponsor and pay for it. Then she submitted the application to the Tennessee Historical Commission.

“I was so naïve,” Aluko recalls of the saga that followed. She didn’t expect a months-long debate over what to call the violence.

Beverly Bond, a history professor at the University of Memphis, helped Aluko with the original wording and fact-checking.

“From a historian’s point of view, it has been called the Memphis Riot,” says Bond, and that’s just what the Tennessee Historical Commission wanted at the top of the sign.

Bond, Aluko and the NAACP felt those words diluted the enormity of the event.

“Most people tend to think in a 20th Century frame of reference that this must be African-Americans who are rioting and destroying their community,” Bond says.

The commission proposed additional questionable or inaccurate changes, such as emphasizing that the rioters were Irish immigrants ("not ex-Confederates"), and that a fewer number of people were killed. Stephen Ash sent a letter to the commission correcting some of their errors.

Even he couldn’t convince them that “massacre” was a more suitable word. To Bond, this was revealing of an age-old power struggle.

“Naming is very important,” she says. “If your name is John and I insist on calling you Johnny, it’s really a power relationship. Why should I have the power to decide what you’re going to call yourself?”

In an e-mail to the NAACP, one commissioner suggested that the words “Race Riot” would better “stand the test of time.” But Rhodes College history professor Timothy Huebner says that time doesn’t always stand with words.

“We use the term African-American now,” Huebner says. “That was not a term used in the early part of the 20th Century.”

He adds that historical narratives routinely change as diverse voices are added to the record.

“History is arguably something that needs to be owned by the people who are teaching it, learning it and understanding it,” he says.

Beverly Robertson, former director of the National Civil Rights Museum, knows this firsthand. She realized that a younger generation wanted their history told with a more authentic voice. That resulted in an almost complete overhaul of the museum’s exhibits during the last major renovation.

“If we don’t tell it right, then generations to come will not understand what literally did happen,” Robertson says.

Robertson is now one of three African-Americans on the 24-member Tennessee Historical Commission. The words “Race Riot” didn’t sit well with her, either. But she and a sympathetic group of other commissioners – white and black -- were outvoted.

The commission insisted that those words appear at the top of the marker. Robertson broke rank, and advised the NAACP to pull the plug on the marker application.

“It’s an important marker, we need to acknowledge and recognize that, and... there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Robertson says, meaning that private marker would have to do.

They wouldn't need the State of Tennessee after all.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama, says there’s a growing choir of voices throughout the South demanding that the right words be used to describe American atrocities such as slavery, lynching and segregation.

“We have tolerated narratives that are not factually accurate,” he says. “And until we acknowledge that history, I don’t think we’re going to make the progress we want to make in getting closer to truth."

Stevenson believes that the South needs to commemorate the injustices of history in the same way Germany now remembers and educates people about the Holocaust. Markers and memorials should contradict the romantic narrative of a heroic Confederacy, a nostalgic view popularized long after the Civil War.

“Until we change the landscape with these markers and these images with a new iconography, we’re going to be living in a space that is compromised by the absence of truth,” Stevenson says.

On May 1, in what is now called Army Park, the unnamed victims of a mob attack 150 years ago will finally be remembered. The NAACP’s marker states, in no uncertain terms, that these African-Americans perished not in a riot, but in a massacre.

The sign, a private marker placed by the NAACP, and approved by the National Park Service, as it now stands in Army Park.
Credit Christopher Blank

1866 MEMPHIS MASSACRE 150th ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATIONS

  • Sunday, May 1, 9 a.m. – The Memphis Theological Seminary and Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church presents “Voices from the Memphis Massacre,” a performance to commemorate the victims and survivors of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Free and open to the public. 961 Getwell Rd.
  • Sunday, May 1, 3:30 p.m. – Memphis Branch NAACP historical marker dedication service commemorating the victims of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Programs starts at the National Civil Rights Museum and ends on the corner of G.E. Patterson and Second St. for the unveiling of the marker.
  • Monday, May 2, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Memphis Bar Foundation Luncheon with guest speaker Bryan Stevenson at the Peabody Hotel. Tickets are $75 per person and proceeds go to the minority high school summer law internship program.
  • Monday, May 2, 1:45p.m.-5:15 p.m. – Public Forum at the National Civil Rights Museum. Free and open to the public. Panelists include Dr. Steven Ash, Dr. Beverly Bond, Dr. Susan O’Donovan and attorneys  Jim Emison, Aderson Francois and Bryan Stevenson.
  • Thursday, May 5, 5-7 p.m. – The Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum will sponsor a reception at 826 North Second Street. The event will focus on three survivors of the Massacre, the destruction of Lincoln Chapel and School which became LeMoyne-Owen College, devastation to Collins Chapel CME Church and businessman Robert R. Church, who was shot but survived his injuries.
  • May 20-21, 2016, Times TBA -- "Memories of a Massacre," Symposium at the University of Memphis History Department. Keynote Speaker is Robert Sutton with the National Park Service.