Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Economic and social disparities between black and white citizens combined with white resentment against the presence of federal troops and largely corrupt municipal police forces to create tensions and anger that led to lethal violence in Memphis and New Orleans that proved to be a harbinger of the violence that was to come during the Reconstruction era.

Summary of Event

Soon after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865, legislatures in the South passed a series of black codes. These laws were intended to maintain control over the lives of the newly freed African Americans and, in effect, keep them enslaved. For example, harsh vagrancy laws allowed police to arrest black people without cause and force them to work for white employers. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, had, on paper, freed the slaves in the Confederate states, and the U.S. Congress formally abolished slavery throughout the nation with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Congress then created the Freedmen’s Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] Bureau to assist the former slaves and was in the process of enacting, over the strong opposition of Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , a series of Reconstruction Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] Acts intended to repeal the South’s black codes. President Johnson resisted congressional attempts to admit African Americans to full citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] , but Congress ultimately overrode his veto and took control of the Reconstruction program in the South. Tennessee;Memphis race riots New Orleans;race riots Race riots;Memphis and New Orleans Memphis race riots African Americans;riots [kw]Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots (May and July, 1866) [kw]New Orleans Race Riots, Memphis and (May and July, 1866) [kw]Race Riots, Memphis and New Orleans (May and July, 1866) [kw]Riots, Memphis and New Orleans Race (May and July, 1866) Tennessee;Memphis race riots New Orleans;race riots Race riots;Memphis and New Orleans Memphis race riots African Americans;riots [g]United States;May and July, 1866: Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots[3930] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May and July, 1866: Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots[3930] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May and July, 1866: Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots[3930] Baird, Absalom Johnson, Andrew Sheridan, Philip H. [p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Stoneman, George Wells, James Madison

White rioters shooting African Americans fleeing their burning homes in Memphis.

(Library of Congress)

Many former slaves, rejecting the life they had known on the plantation, moved to the cities of the South. Most were refugees without any economic resources, competing with Irish and German immigrants for scarce jobs in the war-torn South. Southern white Protestants feared both the new immigrants and the former slaves as threats to their social order.

Conditions in Memphis were especially volatile in May, 1866. The city had a reputation as a rowdy river town known for heavy drinking, gambling, prostitution, and fighting. In 1865, the black population of Memphis had rapidly increased to between twenty and twenty-five thousand people, many of whom lived in a run-down district near Fort Pickering. Memphis’s white citizens were alarmed by incendiary newspaper accounts of crime and disorder caused by the black residents.

The Memphis police, mostly Irish immigrants, were corrupt and ill-trained and had a record of brutality toward black people. Added to this already explosive mixture was a body of federal troops, four thousand of whom were black soldiers stationed at Fort Pickering waiting to be mustered out of the army. The violence began on April 29, with a street confrontation between black soldiers and white policemen. On May 1, the violence escalated, with more serious fights breaking out between groups of soldiers and city police. By May 2, the mob included a number of people from the surrounding countryside as well as white citizens of Memphis. The mob rampaged through the black district of the city, attacking families, raping women, and burning homes. Civil authorities took no steps to curb the disturbance.

After a long delay, Major General George Stoneman Stoneman, George , who was in command of local federal troops, brought the city under control. The three days of mob violence resulted in the deaths of forty-six African Americans and two white people. An estimated seventy to eighty other people were injured, and some ninety homes of black people, along with several African American churches and schools, were destroyed. Southern newspapers and civic officials blamed the black soldiers for the violence. A committee appointed by Congress, however, attributed the disturbances to the hatred of white people for the “colored race.”

While the Memphis riots were the result of local conditions, the New Orleans disturbance of July 30 was caused by state politics and had national significance. Louisiana governor James Madison Wells Wells, James Madison , a Union sympathizer who needed to consolidate his power over the Confederates in the city and state, supported a plan to reassemble the state constitutional convention that had been disbanded in 1864. This convention, supported by Unionists, planned to gain votes by enfranchising African Americans. Sympathetic to Confederate politics, the city was armed, and the corrupt police force had a record of false arrests and mistreatment of free African Americans. The local newspapers, using highly emotional language, incited the fear of white citizens that African Americans would gain political control.

The commander of the federal troops, General Absalom Baird Baird, Absalom , should have foreseen the impending violence but apparently ignored the problem. When the delegates to the state convention began to assemble on July 30, fighting broke out between the city police and black marchers demonstrating in support of the right to vote. Delegates were dragged from the convention hall and assaulted by people in the street and by the police, who joined in the mob violence. The police attacks on African Americans were savage; the wounded were dragged to the city jail and beaten, and the bodies of the dead were mistreated. As the violence escalated, fueled by the drunkenness of the mob, African Americans were dragged from their homes and beaten.

The death toll in the one-day riot included thirty-four African Americans and three white people; approximately 136 people were injured. Although General Baird Baird, Absalom declared martial law, his action was too late. Several observers, including General Philip H. Sheridan Sheridan, Philip H. [p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , who was called in to restore order, described the mob violence as a “slaughter.” As in the case of the Memphis riots, the overwhelming majority of the dead and injured were African Americans.


The racial disturbances that erupted in Memphis and New Orleans were the result of economic, social, and political issues that troubled the nation during Reconstruction. Given the upheaval in the lives of defeated southerners after the Civil War (1861-1865), the racial disturbances are hardly surprising. In the simplest terms, one of the major tasks of Reconstruction was to assimilate the more than four million former slaves into U.S. society. A more complex view must consider the problems faced by the newly freed African Americans who had to achieve a new identity in a society that had allowed them almost no control over their own lives. White southerners had to live with the economic, social, and political consequences of defeat. The military occupation of the South by federal troops during Reconstruction after the Civil War angered southerners, who believed in their right to rebuild and rule their own society without interference from the North. The presence of federal troops—many of whom were African Americans—an armed citizenry, and the psychological difficulty of accepting the end of the world they had known created explosive conditions that erupted into violence.

While the Memphis riots were caused by local conditions, the disturbances in New Orleans had state and national political consequences. The Republican Party lost power in Louisiana, paving the way for Democratic control of the state. Precedents for the racial violence that would mark the years of Reconstruction and beyond had been established.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Analytical interpretation of the scholarly history of Reconstruction that combines older views with newer scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Presents a revised view that rejects the carpetbagger stereotype and argues for a more positive representation of African Americans during Reconstruction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Widely accepted record of the role of African Americans in U.S. history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. Provides a unique perspective, as it is based on the accounts of former slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rable, George C. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. This survey of Reconstruction history includes detailed accounts of the events in Memphis and New Orleans that draw on contemporary newspaper articles to bring the story to life and connect the disturbances with similar events in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Compares the role that Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes played in post-Civil War Reconstruction policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and the Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. Scholarly study of the disruptive and violent role of the Ku Klux Klan during post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Reconstruction of the South

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Birth of the Ku Klux Klan

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

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Categories: History