On Riots and Resistance: Freedpeople’s Struggle against Police Brutality during Reconstruction

On Riots and Resistance: Freedpeople’s Struggle against Police Brutality during Reconstruction

On May 9, 1867, a festive contest took place in Richmond, Virginia between the local fire department and a visiting fire company from Wilmington, Delaware. A biracial crowd of Richmonders spent the afternoon cheering for their local firehouse and jeering the visiting group. When a white firefighter took offense to a Black Richmonder for laughing at his squadron’s defeat and threw a punch. The ensuing scuffle between the freedpeople and the fire fighters lead to an arrest of the Black man who was struck by the firefighter. Contesting the legitimacy of this arrest, a crowd emerged near Broad Street with the intent of liberating the arrested man. Armed with bricks and sticks, the crowd fought against the police through the evening, each side calling for reinforcements over the course of the evening. Outmatched and overwhelmed, the crowd of freedpeople forced the police to release the prisoner as white citizens looked on with horror. The city’s mayor ultimately called the Eleventh United States infantry to bring calm to the situation.[1]

Three days later, “another negro riot” occurred in “lower section” of Richmond. Attempting to arrest a drunken Black man for disorderly conduct, a crowd once again stood against what they saw as unjust efforts on the police. Quickly, freedpeople gathered to the scene of the arrest and, reportedly, shouted phrases like “Freedmen to the rescue!” and “this is our country!” Four policemen were badly beaten and one severely injured; eighteen Black men were arrested.  The next day, soldiers patrolled the streets with the city’s police force and squads of police were placed at all the black churches in the city. Within a week, six other riots had occurred in other cities across the region. “The South to be made into Hayti,” forewarned one northern paper.[2]

The resistance efforts on the part of Black Richmonders were just one chapter in a larger struggle between freedpeople and police. Across the postbellum South, violent encounters between freedpeople and the police occurred with a relatively high frequency. Like the widespread twentieth century journalistic euphemism “race riot,” the nineteenth century press rushed to produce bombastic accounts of the “negro riots” were perceived as an existential threat to the social order. While scholars should be careful not to reproduce the racism contained in nineteenth-century periodicals, the press’ obsession with the specter of Black criminality and confrontations with the police in the nation’s postbellum cities offers a lens into an otherwise hidden world of resistance and allows historians to explore how freedpeople questioned the authority and legitimacy of the forces who policed their communities.

In the midst of the massive uprisings around the country in response to the recent killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, Tony McDade, at the hands of the police, citizens of the United States have once again been asked to reflect on the long history of anti-Black violence in this country. Indeed, with the larger carceral turn in the field of U.S. history, scholars of the African American past have produced a number of power and innovative monographs that have demonstrated the various ways that blackness was criminalized over space and time. Scholars of the postbellum United States have been especially attentive to the ways that freedpeople encountered the carceral state with the rise of the Black Codes immediately after the Civil War and, later, the system of convict-lease system, which was instrumental in both enshrining white supremacy, criminalizing Black men and women, and building the infrastructure of the modern South.[3]

Metropolitan Police attacking New Orleans residents, 1874

Less has been said, however, of the specific ways that African Americans encountered and resisted police brutality in the immediate postbellum period.[4] As the destruction of slavery shattered the antebellum racial order, white southerners invested tremendous amounts of time and energy policing Black freedom. High profile confrontations with white police forces in Memphis and New Orleans stand out in the story of Reconstruction, as do the broader continuum of extralegal white policing in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and paramilitary rifle clubs. Contesting both narrow and expansive ideas of policing, freedpeople responded to law enforcement by forming their own self-defense organizations, appealing to the Freedmen’s Bureau, appealing to nearby Union forces, and using the Republican Party to disseminate their stories in the press and the national party. Here, historians have only begun to explore the ways that Black southerners viewed policing within the broader context of postbellum freedom.

To this end, I want to suggest three areas of further study in the history race and policing in the Civil War era: the geography of legal violence, the shape of collective defense against police brutality, and the rise and fall of Black police officers in southern cities. By exploring patterns of where and how police deployed violence, how African Americans chose to contest this violence, and to what extent Black Americans understood  the institution of policing as a potential vehicle for civil rights, we might better understand how the Reconstruction era, like our current moment, reflected deep divisions over the scope and legitimacy of the police power in Black life.

With many recent works on the Civil War era exploring questions of race, space, and power, scholars postbellum policing might also benefit from embracing the tools of cultural geography. Following the lead of Elsa Barkley Brown, Gregory Downs, and Nicole Myers Turner, scholars interested in mapping the terrain of freedom could visualize where incidents of police brutality took place and how these topographies of violence changed over time.[5] From there, patterns could be determined about how policing changed with freedpeople’s migration from the countryside, proximity to sites of Union occupation, or the racialization of vice districts. Borrowing from Jim Crow era scholars, Civil War and Reconstruction historians could also potentially explore the various “theaters of resistance” that emerged in the postbellum public sphere and how freedpeople encountered police on streetcars, public parks, business districts, and other community gatherings.[6]

While a great deal of work exists on postbellum Black resistance, relatively little has been written on the actions freedpeople took to contest racist police practices. It appears clear that a pivotal moment in the events the precipitated the 1866 Memphis Massacre was when Charles Nelson, a Black Union Army veteran, recognized that one of the white police officers seeking to break up a raucous but peaceful gathering of Black soldiers had attacked and beat him just a day earlier.[7] Were Civil War veterans more likely to challenge the legitimacy of the police’s monopoly on violence? Also, how did gender shape ideas of resistance? In her account of Gertrude Burke’s armed defense of her son from the police following the 1881 washerwoman strikes in Atlanta, Tera Hunter has demonstrated that Black women often lead collective defenses efforts.[8]  Finally, scholars should pay close attention to class tensions within Black southern communities. Did religious leaders and Republican politicians chastise working-class people for using violence? When and where did the politics of respectability inform the struggle against police brutality and potentially question the legitimacy of the crowd’s vision of communal justice?

Third, scholars should pay attention to the rise and fall of Black police officers in the postbellum South. At least twelve southern cities hired black police officers during Reconstruction and the presence of a black police officer served as one of the most hypervisible transformations of the postbellum order. Voters in majority-Black areas elected African American men to positions like Justice of the Peace and Sheriff and demanded that municipal governments hire Black police officers. In New Orleans, for example, Black men served in the integrated “Metropolitans” from 1868-1877. During Redemption, a key element of white supremacy’s triumph was the removal of Black law enforcement officers. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, a white paramilitary organization demanded that Peter Crosby, a Black sheriff, be removed from office; when he refused to leave his office, they attempted to assassinate him.[9]

A symbol of racial uplift and “negro supremacy,” Black law enforcement officials came to embody an idealized—and deeply gendered—vision of postbellum Black progress. Similar to Carole Emberton’s cautionary reconsideration of martial manhood that became linked to soldiers and veterans, scholars should also think critically about the limits of integrating municipal police departments and electing county sheriffs.[10] How often did Black police officers use brutal tactics against Black people? Did Republican-controlled cities provide more accountability over integrated police forces? To what extent were Black police officers called upon to police other non-white racial groups? In what ways did freedpeople challenge the state altogether and instead prefer a vision of community defense offered through organizations like the Union League?

Other directions not explored in this essay may also serve as fruitful avenues of further inquiry. In their calls to dramatically expand the number of violent actions that could constitute a lynching, both Kidada Williams and Michael Trotti have argued that historians have underexplored, and thus, likely undercounted, the number of incidents of police brutality that resulted in death.[11] As more studies explore the life of black northerners during Reconstruction, it would be valuable to see how African Americans experienced police violence in the growing cities in the postbellum North—especially as these growing municipal police forces provided European immigrants access to a modern white identity.

As current activists and policy makers debate whether the police can be reformed, defunded, or abolished, historians of the Civil War era should begin to interrogate how Black Americans understand the relationship between emancipation and policing. A broader and more complicated idea than previously realized, Black freedom was not solely forged in the crucible of the Civil War nor respectfully achieved in dignified settings of colored men’s conventions or the pages of the Black press. In eyes of many observers, the actions in the streets was ragged, inchoate, and dangerously democratic. However, These actions in the streets of the postbellum city also reflected the ongoing struggle to define the terrain of Black freedom and offer a glimpse into how freedpeople understood the world that emerged after emancipation.

[1] “Richmond. Collision between the Negros and Police,” New York Herald, May 10 1873.

[2] “The Negro Riots. Effects of the Radical Crusade,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 16, 1867.

[3] On the criminalization of blackness during the late nineteenth century, see Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010); Talithia Leflouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[4] On recent histories of policing in the postbellum South, see Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2019); Amy Louise Wood and Natalie J. Ring, eds.,Crime and Punishment in the Jim Crow South, edited by (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019). On the relationship between policing and Black America more broadly, see the Simon Balto, Occupied Territory, Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[5] Elsa Barkley Brown and Gregg D. Kimball, Mapping the Terrain of Black Richmond,” Journal of Urban History 21 (March 1995), 296-346; Gregory P. Downs and Scott Nesbit, Mapping Occupation: Force, Freedom, and the Army in Reconstruction, http://mappingoccupation.org, published March 2015, accessed June 25, 2020;  Nicole Myers Turner, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[6] On “theaters of resistance,” see Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History 80 (June 1993):75-112.

[7] Majority Report, Memphis Riots and Massacres: The Reports of the Committees of the House of Representatives made during the First Session, Thirty-Ninth Congress, 1865-1866 (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 7.

[8] Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), 121-23.

[9] Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration(Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003), 297-98.

[10] Carole Emberton, “‘Only Murder Makes Men’: Reconsidering the Black Military Experience,” Journal of the Civil War Era2 (September 2012): 369-93.

[11] Kidada Williams, “Resolving the Paradox of Our Lynching Fixation: Reconsidering Racialized Violence in the American South after Slavery,” American Nineteenth Century History 6 (September 2005), 323-50; Michael Ayers Trotti, “What Counts: Trends in Racial Violence in the Postbellum South,” Journal of American History 100 (September 2013), 375-400.

Robert Bland

Robert D. Bland is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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