1866 Memphis Race Riots


On May 1 and 2, 1866, black Union veterans and white policemen and firemen clashed in a violent fracas that would become known as the 1866 Memphis Race Riots. It was the culmination of racial tensions that had been growing since Federal occupation of the city of Memphis began in 1862.

The violent fracas called the 1866 Memphis Race Riots was the culmination of racial tensions that had grown since Federal occupation of the city in 1862. During the Civil War, African Americans seeking freedom and protection often relocated to Federally occupied towns or established improvised camps near Federal encampments. These refugees, called contrabands, often did labor for the Federal army. Contrabands concentrated at Memphis swelled the African American population from 3,000 in 1860 to 20,000 by mid-1865. From this group the Third Heavy Artillery was organized in 1863 and stationed at nearby Fort Pickering. Immediately after the war, a power struggle ensued between Memphis’ civilian police force, mostly Irish immigrants, and black Federal soldiers. Police brutality against Memphis blacks, especially soldiers, heightened to a fever pitch in 1865, but Federal commanders had no authority to control or punish the police. Memphis press often exacerbated problems, portraying African Americans as violent, immoral drunks. Conditions worsened when African American soldiers’ enlistment ended on April 30, 1866. Waiting for their final pay, many veterans went into the city to celebrate. However, the celebration deteriorated to violence. About 3 p.m. on May 1, white policemen arrested an African American veteran for disturbing the peace. Roughly 50 uniformed African Americans witnessed the arrest and freed the man. The police returned in greater numbers and made more arrests. The veterans fired weapons into the air, and the police fired into the crowd. After a brief exchange of gunfire, the police carried off the detainees but returned with reinforcements. After another gunfight, roughly 150 veterans returned to Fort Pickering for safety. A group of police and local whites entered African American communities under the guise of searching for weapons. Vigilantes attacked innocent residents, killing indiscriminately men, women, and children, until marshal law was declared. The riots ended with 46 African Americans and two whites dead, five rapes, 75 people shot, countless beatings, and 103 buildings destroyed, as 91 homes, four churches, and eight schools burned. Riots like these dramatically increased national support for the Fourteenth Amendment, securing United States citizenship for blacks nationwide.

  • Contrabands concentrated in Memphis grew the African American population
  • The 3rd Heavy Artillery, organized from this group, stationed at nearby Fort Pickering
  • A post-war power struggle ensued between Memphis’ civilian police and black Federal soldier