Historians Beverly Bond and Susan O’Donovan illuminate a tragic chapter in Memphis history
Originally published March 3, 2020
By Aram Goudsouzian, for Chapter16.org
On May 1, 1866, after a conflict between white policemen and black soldiers, mobs of whites rampaged through the black community in Memphis. By May 3, 48 people had died, and all but 2 were African American. Women were raped. Homes were pillaged. Churches and schools were set afire. In Remembering the Memphis Massacre, editors Beverly Greene Bond and Susan Eva O’Donovan collect essays from 14 prominent historians to shed light on this American tragedy.
Remembering the Memphis Massacre: An American Story
Edited by Beverly Greene Bond and Susan Eva O’Donovan
University of Georgia Press
Bond and O’Donovan are both professors in the Department of History at the University of Memphis. Bond is the co-editor of many works on Southern history, including two volumes of Tennessee Women, as well as the author of numerous essays on African American women in both slavery and freedom. O’Donovan is the author of the award-winning book Becoming Free in the Cotton South and the forthcoming Becoming Citizens: The Political Lives of Slaves.
…we reject the old language of “riot.”
They received questions from Chapter 16 via email and collaborated on their responses:
Chapter 16: The tragedy of 1866 used to be called the “Memphis Riot,” but we know it as the “Memphis Massacre.” A number of the authors in this collection address how we remember the Memphis Massacre and the larger era of Reconstruction. Why is this historical memory important?
Beverly Bond and Susan O’Donovan: Writing history is a political act. In writing about who we were, we’re also writing about who we are and who we think we ought to be. This is why historians argue with each other — a lot. This is also why dictators delight in their statues and despise things like Google. They can control the stories told in marble. They can’t control the stories that informed citizens write on their own. And no one tried harder to define a nation by defining its past than the historians who rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the age of Jim Crow, that was the world most of them wanted, and that is the world most of them saw when they gazed into the past.
The use of the word “riot” was, in other words, no accident. It was a politically driven act, one that cast black Memphians not as the victims we now know them to have been, but rather as perpetrators of senseless violence: criminals, deviants, rioters. Since that’s not the past we see today, nor the future we envision, we reject the old language of “riot.” We may not yet live in a “post-racial” age, but we no longer live in Jim Crow’s shadow. That is not the nation we envision; that’s not the nation we aspire to be; and as these essays demonstrate, that’s not the world we see when we study the past.
Chapter 16: In 2016, you helped stage a number of public events to recognize the 150th anniversary of the Memphis Massacre. Why did you undertake this project? How did the book grow out of this larger public history initiative?
Bond and O’Donovan: When we pause to consider the public landscape of American history, certain narratives stand out. The Civil War is among the most prominent. There are dozens of federally funded Civil War historical sites, as well as several large national parks, to say nothing of the state and local monuments, markers, and museums, devoted to the Civil War past. We have public historical sites devoted to various other wars, to women’s history, to labor history, to political history, to colonial history, and to maritime history — to name just a few. What we did not have until 2016 was any public recognition of Reconstruction’s history. Which is odd, when you think about it. Except for the first few years of the nation and the four years of Civil War, there has been no period in our history when change happened so fast and so furiously as it did in the decade following the Confederate surrender.
Just think: Reconstruction marked the moment when we laid the constitutional basis for the nation we are today. Reconstruction was the period when we changed our political universe. Reconstruction was when we said no to slavery and yes to birthright citizenship. Yet thanks to the decades of artfully curated memory, Reconstruction has been the sole purview of professional historians. On those rare occasions Reconstruction surfaced in popular culture, it was dismissed as an unfortunate aberration. Which is precisely what the architects of those older histories wanted us to believe. This isn’t to say that historians haven’t been trying for the better part of the last half-century to change this. But until 2016, we hadn’t made any appreciable headway.
This is why when the historian Greg Downs dropped us an email the summer of 2015, reminding us about the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Memphis Massacre and wondering if we would be interested in taking the lead, we knew immediately that this was our chance. We could make history by telling history. If we could pull this off, we could bring Reconstruction to light.
Chapter 16: A number of the essays discuss aspects of African American life prior to 1866. What do we need to know about slavery and the Civil War if we are to understand the Memphis Massacre?
Bond and O’Donovan: As we like to remind our students, nothing happens in a vacuum. If we want to understand some part of the past, we need to know why it happened, when it happened, where it happened, and how it happened. There was nothing accidental about the fact that the Memphis Massacre took place in May 1866. Tracing out that causation requires digging into and exposing a deeper past. Black women and men did not end up in the city in May 1866 by happenstance. They did not end up in West Tennessee by happenstance. That they were desperately poor and incredibly hopeful was no accident. That they refused to cave to white violence was no accident. And it was no accident that they found allies in the federal officials who shared the city with them.
All this needs to be explained if we’re to understand the how, the why, the when, and the who of the Memphis Massacre, and little of this can be explained without starting our story in slavery. The rise of cotton swept slavery into the Mississippi Valley. The Civil War swept displaced black farm laborers into the city. Emancipation left freedom and its meanings up for grabs. By May 1866, Memphis was a tinderbox of frustrations, fears, and expectations, many of them decades in the making. By putting Memphis into a broader historical context, it also becomes easier to see that what happened in May 1866 was part of a much larger story, one that involves the whole of the nation and one that arguably continues into the present day.
Chapter 16: In the essays that discuss these horrible days of violence, what are some key themes that emerge? How might they change our understanding of the massacre?
Bond and O’Donovan: The theme that jumps out most clearly to us doesn’t just change our understanding of the massacre; it changes our understanding of the American experience. These essays — and the scholarship behind them — illuminate a powerful and constitutive relationship between spontaneous, grassroots movements and larger social, political, and institutional change. Julie Saville makes this connection explicit, but it weaves through many of the essays: Andre Johnson’s essay on Henry McNeal Turner, Joe Reidy’s essay on black soldiers, Calvin Schermerhorn’s essay on enslaved migrants, Hannah Rosen’s essay on the women who were raped by white assailants and then spoke out publicly against them.
Individual people matter to the shaping and unfolding of the Memphis Massacre story, and if there’s a bigger lesson here, it’s that all people have it within them to make great change. To us, that’s always been one of the most powerful attractions of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction studies. Black Southerners rarely mobilized in formal ways; instead, they made the greatest changes by standing their ground as individuals, families, or small work groups.
In our classrooms, we often liken Reconstruction’s history to the behavior of glaciers. As we know, glaciers are made up of billions of snowflakes. Individually, those flakes look and feel inconsequential. But when compressed into masses of ice, they carve out valleys and move mountains. The same thing can be said of slaves and, later, freed people. Slaves had no formal political or legal rights. They couldn’t even claim ownership of their bodies. Yet, in the end, slaves changed our nation fundamentally. They brought slavery to its knees, and then, as freed people, they refused to let up. In many respects, the Black Lives Matter Movement is an extension of the story we tell through these essays, a point that was never lost on our audiences.
Chapter 16: In the foreword to the book, Gregory B. Downs notes an irony: that the Memphis Massacre “may well have saved Reconstruction and thus, in some crucial way, the United States.” What does he mean?
Bond and O’Donovan: Greg is making reference to Congress’s decision to split with President Andrew Johnson over the nature and direction of Reconstruction. Congress and the White House were already at loggerheads over Reconstruction policy before May 1866, but events in Memphis shattered whatever cooperation remained, marking the shift from so-called “Presidential Reconstruction” to “Radical Reconstruction.” Perhaps the violence that erupted later that summer in New Orleans might have had a similar effect, but we’ll never know.
What we do know is that the murderous rampage of the mob in Memphis — and the willingness of black Americans to bear witness to that violence — galvanized Congress into taking the steps that moved Reconstruction from a rather ho-hum affair that catered largely to white Southerners’ needs to one that more closely approached a full-blown commitment to the ideals sketched out in the Declaration of Independence. We’re not there yet. But we’d be a heck of a lot farther behind if it weren’t for the black people who stood up in protest of mob violence and if it weren’t for a nation that was ready to listen. So yes, Greg’s right in suggesting that without Memphis, it’s quite likely that we would have waited much longer (and perhaps might still be waiting) for a 14th and 15th Amendment.
Chapter 16: As evidenced by the city’s 2017 removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues, Memphians are rejecting the myth of a glorious “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. Where does that leave us? How should we write the history of the late 19th-century South?
Bond and O’Donovan: This isn’t a strictly Southern story, nor is it strictly a late 19th-century story. As we allude to in our subtitle, what happened in Memphis in May 1866 is an American story. Historians have begun that work. This volume and the scholarship on which it rests testify to the bigger, broader, deeper, richer, and more complex histories coming to light. American history is no longer a generally happy history governed by benevolent (and propertied) white men.
Thanks to the scholarship of people like Josh Rothman and Calvin Schermerhorn, we now know that the history of slavery is also the history of cotton and the history of capitalism. Our nation was built on the backs of black women and men. Thanks to several generations of Civil War historians, including those who contributed to this volume, we now know that slaves were the leading architects of slavery’s demise. We now know too, that we cannot give the federal government exclusive credit for reconstructing the nation. Giving substance and meaning to freedom was as much a black person’s project as it was a white person’s project, and one could even argue that the best of freedom’s meanings found their origins on a cotton or rice or sugar plantation.
These are not just Southern histories. Instead, we’re well on our way to more fully accounting for who we are and how we came to be — not as a region but as a nation. And yes, part of that accounting requires we grapple with the uglier parts that linger. (It’s hard to explain the origins of the 13th Amendment without mentioning slavery.) But that’s where historians come in. By reminding each other of the diversity of our shared history — by telling that complex, complicated, and sometimes heartbreaking past — we make it harder for a Forrest or Davis or Stonewall Jackson to dominate the story. To be sure, they were part of the story, but they were never the whole of the story. America has always been made up of many moving and crucial parts. That’s the history we’ve begun to write.
Aram Goudsouzian is a professor of history at the University of Memphis. His most recent book is The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America.