“A History They Can Use”: The Memphis Massacre and Reconstruction’s Public History Terrain

“A History They Can Use”: The Memphis Massacre and Reconstruction’s Public History Terrain

On May 20th and 21st, a group of scholars, students, and public historians gathered at the University of Memphis to discuss a dramatic event often overlooked in the narrative of Reconstruction, the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The symposium, and the Memphis Massacre Project, informed the public about the massacre and began a difficult and necessary conversation about how Americans approach the history of Reconstruction–how we rethink and repurpose existing spaces and create new public spaces to reflect on that history. The symposium’s directors, Dr. Beverly Bond and Dr. Susan O’Donovan, spoke with Muster about their work and their hopes for the project’s future.

From the capture of Memphis by Union forces in June 1862 through the final surrender of the Confederacy in April 1865, Memphis experienced dramatic demographic, social, and economic change. Thousands of enslaved African Americans fled area farms and plantations for sanctuary in the city. These new arrivals were housed in camps near the Union Army’s Ft. Pickering, on President’s Island, and in surrounding areas. After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African American men were allowed to enlist into segregated units of the U.S.C.T. Some of these soldiers were garrisoned at Ft. Pickering and a U.S.C.T unit from Ft. Pickering was among the black soldiers killed in the 1864 Ft. Pillow massacre, about forty miles north of the city.

The city’s white population also changed during the Civil War. Some Confederate sympathizers left the city to fight with the Confederate army or to refuge deeper into Confederate-held areas. Union military personnel, northern businessmen or war profiteers, teachers and other agents of northern missionary aid societies, and Freedman’s Bureau officials and workers poured into the city. As conflict wound down, some self-exiled white Memphians, returned to the city, hoping to take advantage of President Andrew Johnson’s generous amnesty programs and to reclaim homes and other property. Control of city services shifted back to civilian authorities.

These Memphis populations – newly emancipated African Americans, former Confederates (including many former slaveholders), former free people of color, ethnic whites (including many Irish immigrants), northern military and civilians – were negotiating the new terrain of freedom in the post-Civil War south. As was the case across much of the former Confederacy, white Southerners wanted to confine black Southerners to the narrowest of freedoms. White Memphians were willing to concede the end of slavery, the right to marry, and the right of former slaves to assume responsibility for the economic support of their families, but were not willing to extend full equality, full citizenship or even the fullest exercise of free labor to their black neighbors. Touting the presence of “surplus” African Americans in the overcrowded city, and beginning as early as fall 1865, white civilians and city government officials, sometimes with the complicity of the Union Army and the Freedman’s Bureau, encouraged (or pressured) black Memphians to return to the countryside to satisfy the labor needs of white farmers and planters.

Contemporary portrayal of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Courtesy of Blackpast.org.

This volatile situation in the spring of 1866 engendered a series of minor confrontations between black soldiers at Ft. Pickering and members of the Memphis police, which escalated into a much larger massacre, a three-day wave of violence that left at least forty-six African American men, women and children dead. Other black Memphians were beaten and/or driven out of the city. Every African American church and schoolhouse was destroyed, homes and businesses were burglarized and burned, and at least five women were raped. Within weeks, a Congress that had already been at logger-heads with President Johnson over Reconstruction policy, dispatched a delegation to Memphis to investigate the massacre and its origins. What they learned, and how they responded to that new knowledge, led to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, changed the course of Reconstruction, and with it, the constitutional underpinnings of the nation. And then, as a nation, we “forgot” about Memphis along with the rest of Reconstruction’s history.

Bringing Reconstruction back into public view poses a number of challenges, both political and practical. The first, of course, stems from the fact that for 150 years, this history has been confined near exclusively to academic circles. Until May 1, 2016, when the Memphis NAACP unveiled a marker to commemorate the victims of the Memphis Massacre, there had been no National Park Service recognition of any aspect of this history anywhere. For reasons best explained by Cecelia O’Leary, David Blight, and others who work on the politics of memory, Reconstruction has been denied a place on our national historical landscape. But aside from having to carve out commemorative space that has for more than a century been claimed for marbled generals, Civil War battlefield sites, and more recently, Confederate battle symbols, Reconstruction didn’t happen in any particular or clearly defined place.   Unfolding more as a guerilla action or grassroots insurgency, Reconstruction worked itself out wherever people might meet – on workshop floors, inside white people’s homes, on plantations and farms. This has made it hard for historians to identify a physical location for an interpretive site or a monument. Still, there were moments when debates over black freedom flared largely and violently, and as Kate Masur and Greg Downs have observed, those acts of public violence can both be plotted on a map and used to open up discussion about a deliberately “forgotten” past. The Memphis Massacre of May 1866 gave us that chance.

Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.
Historical marker of the massacre. Courtesy of the Memphis Massacre Project.

What we quickly realized, however, was that teaching an event like the Memphis Massacre required teaching a wider and deeper historical context too. Reconstruction is such a cypher that no one knows how to think about it, or where to fit it into our national narrative. But in doing more to teach Reconstruction, we stumbled onto what turned out to be a winning strategy for making the Memphis Massacre meaningful to a 21st-century audience. By broadening our field of inquiry, our audiences quickly came to see that what happened in Memphis in 1866 was more than an idiosyncratic episode of only local interest. By broadening the story, they saw that what happened in Memphis is key to knowing how the nation we live in today came to be. As a number of our May symposium speakers revealed, many of the legal and constitutional rights we now take for granted owe their origins to the nation’s response the Memphis Massacre, and most especially, to the role played by former slaves in prompting those changes.

Indeed, if there was one aspect to this history that hooked our audiences most securely, we would venture to say it was the degree to which Black Lives–and black truths!–Mattered in 1866. Congress listened. A nation listened. And the outcome was a radical shift in American civil and political life. Imagine, for instance, where we would be today without the 14th Amendment, which Congress put the finishing touches on in the wake of the Memphis Massacre. Imagine where we would be today if black truths and black testimony carried the same weight that they did in 1866 when a congressional delegation took those testimonies seriously. For most of the people with whom we worked on the symposium this spring, this aspect of the Memphis story resonated the most deeply. Here was a history they could use.

We brought all these themes together in our capstone event, a two-day public symposium held on May 20-21 at the University of Memphis. It featured historians and scholars from across the country, including Robert K. Sutton, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.  Presenting to an audience that numbered in the hundreds, their presentations pried open what has for 150-years been the carefully concealed history of Reconstruction, its legacies, and the significant role that Memphis played in both. The discussions that followed each presentation were lively, informed, and illuminating.  We learned much over these two days: about ourselves, our city, our nation, and the role of public memory in public life.

A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the “Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866” Facebook page.

Now that we’ve brought the Memphis Massacre and through it, something of Reconstruction, to the surface, we intend to keep it there. But in the absence of a brick and mortar interpretive center, our efforts to commemorate, remember, and understand one of the watershed moments in national history will unfold in the digital domain. As it develops, the Memphis Massacre website will be museum, schoolroom, and public forum. In a sense, the amorphous nature of a digital interpretive center is appropriate given the amorphous character of Reconstruction’s history. Anyone, anywhere, at any time will be able to visit our site to learn more about this historic period. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can relive our May 2016 symposium, all of which was filmed and is now available on the Memphis Massacre blog. Panel four, “The Memphis Massacre,” aired recently on C-SPAN3 and panel 5, “The Radicalization of Reconstruction,” will air on the same channel on July 23. Both sessions will also be available in the C-SPAN Civil War video library.

Our plan in coming months is to continue adding new resources and teaching materials, including primary sources. We will use our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to promote Reconstruction commemorative initiatives in other communities as well as nineteenth-century African American history more generally.   We’ve found our website and social media “machine” to be very powerful and effective teaching and advocacy tools; our intent is to keep using them to permanently break what have been long-standing silences and to bring about a deeper public awareness of our past and the people and events that have shaped it.

Susan O'Donovan and Beverly Bond

Susan Eva O'Donovan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. A former editor at the Freedmen & Southern Society Project and author of Becoming Free in the Cotton South, Professor O'Donovan specializes in African American history with a focus on the transition from slavery to freedom in the Civil War era. Beverly Greene Bond is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Past president of the Southern Association for Women Historians, Professor Bond specializes in nineteenth-century African American history with a focus on African American women and their experiences.

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