A Massacre in Memphis
May 1, 1866: A group of Irish police accosted black Union soldiers on a street corner in Memphis, Tennessee. The soldiers resisted being bullied. When a policeman shoved and struck one soldier, he exchanged heated words with the deputy. The soldiers outnumbered the police, who moved off, hurling epithets behind them. One soldier fired his pistol up at the sky, a rebuke to the curses heaped upon them. The police whirled around and fired at the soldiers. One policeman shot himself accidently, a mortal wound that bled out. Within hours, rumors circulated the city that African-American soldiers had killed a police officer, and Irish city officials led a mob against black neighborhoods to avenge the alleged murder. White mob violence escalated from beatings to murder, looting, rape, and arson; all of the victims were African Americans. After three days of unchecked violence at the hands of white vigilantes, 46 innocent African Americans lay dead, over 75 were injured, and their neighborhoods were destroyed. The mob had torched over 90 black homes, churches, schools, and businesses.
In the aftermath, the U.S. Congress investigated the carnage. They interviewed hundreds of witnesses and survivors, whose words became the stories in this film. How did one angry exchange between a handful of police and soldiers become a three-day racial massacre? Why was it silenced for so long in public memory? This film explores the Memphis Massacre, using firsthand evidence, historic locations, reenactors, Memphis musicians, and trenchant comment from historians and activists.
A Massacre in Memphis was co-produced by a Rhodes College student team of researchers, writers, directors, editors, and actors. Students, black and white alike, grappled with the implications of racialized violence and brought to life the stories left in its wake. For a detailed list of talent who worked on this film, please see our About Us page and scroll down to the Memphis Massacre section.
Awards and Screenings
Official Selection in the Southern Shorts Film Festival 2018, Director’s Circle Film Festival 2018, Best Shorts Film Festival 2018, and Austin Indiefest 2018.
- Best Director, Documentary, Women in Film, Austin Indiefest, 2018.
- Best Cinematography (Eric Brice Swartz & Phoebe Driscoll); Original Score (Steve Selvidge); Screenwriting (Dee Garceau, Bonnie Whitehouse); Set Design; and Editing (Ward Archer, Ethan Williford, Chassidy Wallace, Katherine Hawkins), Southern Shorts Film Festival, 2018.
- Award of Excellence for Documentary, Best Shorts Competition, Fall 2018.
- Finalist for Humanitarian Award, Best Shorts Competition, 2018.
The history of white violence against black people in the American South has been denied, obscured, minimized, distorted, and dismissed for too long. It can be traced back to slavery, a system of captive, coercive labor that was enforced by violence or by the threat of violence, as well as by the dearth of legal protections for enslaved people. Slaveholders’ dominion over black bodies went unleavened by checks and balances; perpetrators of violence against enslaved people rarely were held accountable. Slavery established a pattern of white terror against black people that continued after Emancipation. Indeed, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has identified 4,084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between 1877 and 1950. The Memphis Massacre of 1866 was a terrifying harbinger of this post-Emancipation violence.
The purpose of this film is to make such acts of domestic terrorism visible; to parse their origins and dimensions so they become unmistakable in our collective past. Long miscast as a “Negro riot,” or “race riot,” the Memphis Massacre was neither. It was not perpetrated by African American people against each other; nor was there any violence or destruction directed by black Memphians against their white neighbors. Rather, it was a white mob that committed predatory acts of violence against black residents for three days straight. Gangs of white men murdered and beat black civilians and soldiers; raped and molested black women and children; looted, pillaged, and burnt black homes, businesses, schools and churches.
The evidence for this violence is overwhelming. Over 300 pages of firsthand testimony from witnesses and survivors have surfaced in the historical record. The narratives come from men, women, African-American, white, working and middle class, officials and civilians, soldiers and police. Why has it taken us so long to remember? Our film explores not only what led to the violence, but also why the Memphis Massacre of 1866 was erased from public memory for nearly 150 years.
Wise men and women say that the first step toward healing is to face the truth. We hope this film invites Americans to reexamine our shared past, to acknowledge the injustice and trauma of white supremacist terror, and to envision a future in which it never happens again.