By Adrian Sainz, Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The simple marker tells the story of one of the darkest episodes in this city’s history, the three-day run of violence known as the Memphis massacre.
“On May 1, 2 and 3, 1866, mobs of white men led by law enforcement attacked black people,” reads the placard, placed during a ceremony this month in a tree-lined park just steps from where the violence started. “By the end of the attack, the mobs had killed an estimated 46 black people; raped several black women; and committed numerous robberies, assaults and arsons.”
The marker represents a significant step for a city and state that haven’t been eager to come to terms with their history of race relations, but it went up amid disagreement with state officials over whether what happened was a race riot or simply the wholesale slaughter of innocent people.
The city’s four black churches and 12 black schools — along with dozens of other buildings — were burned in the massacre, according to a congressional committee that took testimony in the days after the event from about 170 witnesses, many of them black victims.
Historians say that while no one was prosecuted, the massacre caused the nation to reconsider Reconstruction policies and helped lead to the passage of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including freed slaves.
The marker was erected at Army-Navy Park on May 1 by the National Park Service and the NAACP, which sidestepped sponsorship by the Tennessee Historical Commission over the wording dispute.
In July 2015, lawyer Phyllis Aluko and the Memphis NAACP went to the Tennessee Historical Commission about the marker. The commission wanted to include the words “race riot,” but the NAACP balked, she said. The term puts blame on both sides, the NAACP believed. History shows that the violence was one-sided and shouldn’t be blamed on blacks, said Aluko, who’s also a member of the Memphis NAACP.
“It just seemed to be inherently unfair,” Aluko said.
The marker instead is sponsored by the National Park Service along with the Memphis NAACP, which provided the funding. The bottom of the placard notes co-sponsorship by the two groups but does not offer any state recognition.
E. Patrick McIntyre, Jr., executive director for the Tennessee Historical Commission, referred questions to appointed commission members, who did not respond to The Associated Press.
The marker is the first National Park Service historical site commemorating any event in the Reconstruction era, which lasted from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to 1877. It also became a touchstone for residents of a city that once was a slave trading hub and where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
“Very few people here in Memphis even know about the massacre,” said Elaine Lee Turner, an African-American tour guide and director of the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. She attended a recent symposium as part of events marking the massacre’s anniversary.
“That was one of the major traumas that Memphis suffered,” Turner said. “It had been swept under the rug.”
In 1866, Memphis and other Southern cities were trying to recover from the Civil War. More than 4 million slaves had been freed, and they built businesses, worshipped in churches and sent their children to schools. This angered Memphis working-class whites who disliked competing with former slaves for jobs and housing. White government leaders did little to veil racism, and pro-white newspapers stoked tensions, historians say.
In a phone interview, Stephen V. Ash — author of “A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War — described the lead-up to the massacre. On May 1, 1866, some recently-discharged black Union soldiers celebrated noisily on a street. Policemen told them to disperse, but they refused and began taunting officers. One former soldier fired his gun into the air, and the police responded by shooting into the crowd, Ash said.
The black men dispersed after the shootout. Whites used false rumors that black residents were planning an uprising as a pretext to attack, according to historians and the committee report.
“Mobs of white men, most of them working-class Irish … marched to south Memphis armed with clubs and pistols, and began indiscriminately shooting down black men, women and children,” Ash said.
City officials did little to stop the violence, the committee found. The city’s recorder, John C. Creighton, “was among the earliest engaged in the riotous proceedings.” Policemen also participated. Federal troops eventually stopped the massacre.
The event was rarely discussed publicly in Memphis until Ash’s book was published in 2013.
Regina Walker, a 61-year-old consultant, moved to Memphis in 1984 and first heard a little about the massacre 10 years ago. She didn’t think about it much, and it wasn’t until the recent anniversary events that she learned the details. It stirred her emotions.
“When I really paid more attention to it, it was immediate anger,” said Walker, who is black.
The city allowed the placard’s placement at the park near the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum sits at the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968 by a white man.
Activists say awareness about the massacre promotes understanding of how racial strife has formed Memphis, which took 44 years to name a street after King. The massacre should also be seen in the context of recent conflicts, such as the deaths of black men during confrontations with police officers in New York, South Carolina and Missouri; the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston; and efforts to eradicate Confederate symbols, Aluko said.
“Too few people know about incidents like the Memphis massacre where law enforcement led the mob into the African-American community,” she said. “History informs our present, and you need that foundation in order to hopefully avoid some of the mistakes made in the past.”