Rioting in the Age of Emancipation: An exploration into the instigation and outcomes of the 1866 Memphis race riots in Reconstruction Tennessee.
Date: 22 November 2021
University of Exeter
Masters by Research in History
The end of the Civil War in America (1861-1865) was a time for rebuilding in the shadow of grief. Over six hundred thousand fatalities had resulted from the battle for Emancipation, and social changes were legislatively enforced within the Reconstruction South. However, despite the acknowledgement of the grave losses within the Civil ...
The end of the Civil War in America (1861-1865) was a time for rebuilding in the shadow of grief. Over six hundred thousand fatalities had resulted from the battle for Emancipation, and social changes were legislatively enforced within the Reconstruction South. However, despite the acknowledgement of the grave losses within the Civil War era, there is less attention given to the fatalities of Reconstruction; the murders and rape of men and women after, and revolving around, the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment. These atrocities often become neglected, or relegated to mere footnotes of the Civil War narrative. This research aims to affirm these race riots as belonging to their own unique epoch of Emancipation history; one where incidences of civil disobedience in reaction to Emancipation legislation went without accountability. The Memphis race riots represent the first in a series of Reconstruction era race rioting, followed closely by the New Orleans riot, and Charleston. Therefore, this thesis will use the Memphis race riots of 1866 to investigate the occurrence of race riots as symptomatic of threats to social hierarchy within the South. The Memphis race riots in the Spring of 1866 is a key example of the limitations of the Thirteenth Amendment during Reconstruction. Over three days, white mobs prowled the streets of South Memphis, seeking out black civilians and soldiers and burning black-owned property to ashes. Yet, named perpetrators were not arrested and faced no known reprimand for their actions from either state or federal enforcers. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863, (and later, the Thirteenth Amendment) declared the end of chattel slavery in America, yet failed to establish the limitations of federal intervention to uphold this Constitutional amendment. Therefore, events such as the Memphis race riots of 1866 reveal the political turbulence, at federal and State levels, that ensued following mass race rioting. The attempts of Freedmen to build a life in the South during the Reconstruction era was met with severe backlash from white civilians. The pervasive figure of a black Union soldier remained present within the city of Memphis, settling on the edges of the city with their families and communities. Although the war had concluded, the Antebellum social ideals remained at the forefront of Southern society. Despite the ambivalent role of Tennessee in the ‘Slavery Question’, incidents of race rioting suggest that the white population of Memphis remained hostile and within the established Antebellum social hierarchy. This thesis attempts to give a more comprehensive understanding of the events of the Memphis race riots, and a closer investigation of how the Thirteenth Amendment freed the slaves, yet left over four million former slaves in a violent, unforgiving Reconstruction era America.
College of Humanities
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