The Memphis Massacre is a dark event in Memphis and Reconstruction history. Following the Civil War, Blacks settled in many cities throughout the South. Settlement and law keeping was handled by the Freedmen’s Bureau which took steps to protect and address issues among Black citizens.
In Memphis, the Bureau often took a hard-edged approach to “unlawful behavior.” This would amplify fear in the city as it was believed that Black veterans would seek revenge. The veterans who had just been discharged were simply waiting for their pay. It was on one such afternoon that the seeds of the Memphis Massacre were sown.
Riots Before the Memphis Massacre
April 30th started off like any other day for Black war veterans in Memphis. That is until a dispute between three soldiers and the local Irish police escalated into a fight. An account of the fight noted that one officer struck a soldier in the head with his service arm and managed to break it. The two sides eventually separated but news quickly spread in the city.
The following day, a number of Blacks met for a street party. Later that afternoon, the police arrived to break it up. Most noteworthy is that the person ordering the party to be halted was City Recorder, John Creighton. His position didn’t give him the authority to request the police to do anything.
Already a frightening presence among Black citizens, the police’s arrival resulted in arguing between the two sides. As a result, the Black citizens refused to leave the public space. With only four officers to deal with the situation, law enforcement fell back for help.
This prompted the soldiers to give chase. In the process, a firefight erupted and one officer shot himself in the leg and was spun as the Black soldier shooting him. This, in turn, resulted in more officers and others joining in. The first casualty of the riot was an officer.
Escaping the riot, John Creighton and another managed to report that two officers were shot. The numbers of the police and mob swelled as they headed off to deal with the Blacks in town.