Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.
My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.
One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.
The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.
The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.