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Testimony to the Freedmen's Bureau and to the Joint Congressional Committee about the Memphis Race Riots

 

Memphis Race Riot, 1866

 

Albert Harris

State what you know about the riot that took place in this city, when it took place, and all you know about it. The riot commenced on Monday night, a little before dark; it commenced at South Memphis. On Tuesday night they came to me and took a gun and all the money I had. I was sitting down just before supper, when somebody knocked at the door. I said, "Come in." In walks a man who had stood at the corner opposite nearly all day, and some people with him. Directly he came in he said he had orders to search my house for arms; that he was a detective; that he understood we had arms there; that the neighbors complained about it, and he wanted them. I told him I had a shot-gun, and, of course, if he had orders to take it, it was all right. He said I must get it immediately. When I brought it to him he said, "This is not all." I told him I hadn’t any more. He said he would search the house, and if he found any he would hold me responsible. I was afraid he would find some pistols belonging to my boys who were away. They unlocked my trunks, and went searching all over the premises. They found a bowie-knife at the head of the bed, and they took that. The turned my bed all up and everything upside down. At length they opened the trunk where my money was, and I took it out. This man says, “What is that you have got?” I said it was money, and not to take that. He said he had orders to take every cent for having guns there. He took it, and then said, “Come on, boys. I don’t believe they have got any pistols anyhow.” They went into the next room, where there was a man very sick, and asked him is he had a pistol there. He was so sick he was hardly able to speak. They said, “Oh no; he hasn’t any pistol.” There was another gun there standing in plain view, but they did not seek to get it. One was mine, and the other Henry Johnson’s. They took Henry Johnson’s gun. I said, “Don’t carry my money away; it is all I have got.” There were two or three policemen there, and my wife said something to try and get them to interfere. She cried about it. They had a pistol all the time drawn and pointed right at the side of my head. When they started to go I said, “Don’t let them carry my money away, it is all I have, and I have worked hard for it.” They said, “Go to the Freedmen’s Bureau in the morning, and you will get your money.” The policemen didn’t say anything, and they all went away.

How much money did he take? At least $350 of my money, $50 belonging to the sick man in my care, and $10 belonging to another man who was away.

Did the policemen see it? I do not know. He knew they had it, for he heard me ask them to not carry it away.

As soon as they got your money they seemed perfectly satisfied? Yes; perfectly satisfied.

Do you know anything that took place in the riot after this? The same night a blacksmith’s shop about fifty yards from me, on Alabama street, was set on fire.

Do you know anything of your own personal knowledge with regard to the commencement of the fuss on Monday? I do not know anything further than I have said. I stayed my shop working and trying to support my family. I had nothing to do with anybody. I have been as quiet as anybody could be. My former master and mistress will say so to-day. They have not a word against me. They are sorry for me, because I lost everything I had.

Have you taken any measures to get back your money? No, sir. I do not know any way in the world to get it back. It was all I had.

 

Ellen Dilts

Be good enough to state when it commenced and what you saw of it. The first I saw of it was Monday afternoon, the last day of April. There were four policemen walking down the street and met three or four colored men. I do not know what was the matter of the policemen; they seemed to be angry. The negroes turned out for the policemen to pass, when one of the negroes fell down and a policemen fell over him. That appeared to make the policemen mad. I did not hear what they said.

Did the colored men draw pistols and knives? No; the policemen drew them. This colored man then started to go away. One of the policemen ran after him and hit him over the head with his pistol, breaking the pistol. The other colored men seemed very mad about it, and one of them hit the policemen over the head with a stick; then the policeman hit him on the head with a brick---

Another policeman or the same one? Another policeman. Then, I think, they separated; the colored men going back towards South street, and the policemen in the other direction.

Did anyone seem badly hurt? The colored man who was struck with a pistol appeared to be considerably hurt; the blood ran from the nostrils and from the side of his head. The blood ran from the back of the head of the one struck with the brick.

What took place next so far as these riotous proceedings were concerned? The next day, on Tuesday, I saw policemen going very fast down Main street towards South street. They had hardly the time to get to South street before I heard a great deal of firing.

Did you see any persons running in that direction? Hundreds of them. The policemen went up and down and gave the alarm, and I should think there were a hundred policemen congregated. There may not have been so many. There were a good many.

How long after this did you see the crowd of people together? I cannot remember how long. I know that two policemen went up and down the street, and that it was not long, I think not twenty minutes, before hundreds of people came together.

What did they do? The had just a battle on South street; they were firing all the time. Once a crowd came running down the street in which I live, and at one time my front room was full of men. They said, "Don’t let us be such cowards; let us go back again." The colored men were trying to hide in every place. There was a colored man going along the sidewalk about noon, when a policeman struck him, knocked his head against a post, and swore at him. The negro said, "Don’t hit me; I have not done anything; I am just going home from my work." Another colored man ran into a yard; a policeman pointed his pistol at him and told him to come out. I heard a policeman say, "Kill every nigger, no matter who, men or women."

Who fired the pistols? The policemen and citizens. The policemen were all armed with pistols. Many of the citizens were armed with pistols or clubs.

Did you understand there was any firing on them by the colored men? I do not think the colored men had anything to fire.

Were the white people firing among themselves? They were firing at the colored people.

How many of them did you see? I saw them one at a time; I do not know how many I did see. If they would go into any person’s yard for protection, the policemen would wear at them and order them out.

Did you see colored men at any time make any demonstrations of violence towards the police or toward white citizens? No; I only saw that man on Monday hit the policeman with a stick. The colored men were almost frightened to death.

How many colored people did you see beaten or shot out, should you judge? I cannot remember, there was such a crowd.

A crowd of colored or white people? A crowd of white people; the white people were the ones who did the shooting. The colored people went by, some bleeding at their heads, some were all covered with dust and blood, as if they had been down in the dust.

Did any of the crowd of white people you saw collected show any disposition to protect the negroes? No; they were all against the negroes; a great many of them had been in the southern army. I could hear them make remarks that they had, and that they wanted to kill all the negroes.

Do you know anything about the burning of any buildings afterwards? Yes; I saw one man who said he had set a negro school-house on fire on South street.

Who was this man who said he had set a negro school-house on fire? I do not know; he was a man who looked like an Irishman, a kind of red-faced man.

How came he to make this observation? Someone said to him that he appeared warm. He said he had been at warm work. They asked him what he had been doing. He said he had been setting a nigger school-house on fire.

Did you hear anything about who set the others on fire? They said it was the firemen.

Who said so? The colored people; they said they knew the fireman—that they went around in hacks. I only know in reference to this one man who I heard say the first one on fire; all the rest is hearsay.

Did you see any number of negroes together on Tuesday at any time? I do not think I did.

There was no crowd at any one time? Not that I remember.

 

Lavinia Godell

Are you married? Yes, sir; I was married. My husband got killed.

State what you know in reference to his being killed. He came home and said he wanted some supper. I was sick, and said to him that I had nothing in the house to cook him anything from only a little flour, and that if he would get some meal it would be less trouble. He went out of the house to get some meal. In a few minutes after a sister of the church, who lives next to me, came in and said, "Sister Lavinia, Jackson is killed." When I went out he was lying and only groaning; I sat with his head in my hand, when some gentlemen came along and said, "You had better take him into the house," and that if I would go and get some of my friends, he would stay by Jackson until I came back. I went and tried to get somebody to take him in, but could not. Some other person then said to me, "You had better go in or they will kill you." I did not know what to do. They told me it would cost me my life if I stayed there, and I finally went in. I could not do anything. The next morning when I got up I went to look for him, but he was not there. I took up his hat and carried it in. I did not know where to look for him. Mrs. Hust, one of the sisters, came in and said, "Don’t you know where Jackson is?" I said no. She said that four men came and took him off in a hack, and said they were taking him to a hospital, and that I had better go to the station-house and see what hospital, I went up there, and the old man there, who wears military clothes, stopped me. I asked him to let me go in and see if the dead man who was there was not my husband. He asked me what kind of a man my husband was. I told him her was a low man. He asked me if he had a little bunch of whiskers on his chin. I said yes. He asked me what kind of clothes he had on, and I told him. He said he thought it was my husband lying out yonder, dead, and that I had better not go away. He told me to ask another man he pointed to, to let me go in, which I did, but he would not let me go. I begged him three or four times, but he would not let me. Then another little low Irishman stepped up and said: "Aunty, you wait a little while, and I will see if you cannot go it." After a while he called to me, and I went and just peeped through the bars of the window, and saw my husband lying there, dead. They would not allow me to go inside. I went back and said: "That is my husband lying in there, dead." The man asked me how I knew. I told him of course I knew my husband, and asked him what they were going to do with him. He said they picked that man up out of the street. He asked me what my husband’s name was. I told him Jackson Godell. He said there was no such man there. He asked me where my husband was killed. I told him on Beal street, almost right at Hollowell’s grocery. He said he was there when he was killed; that he was shot dead.

What was done with your husband’s body? I do not know. I cannot tell you now where he is.

Have you asked for it? I did. I said after you have killed him you ought to give me the body. They refused. I do not know where he is any more that you do. I did not see him after I saw him in the station-house.

How long did you stay with him? I stayed as long as I could, until they told me to go in or I would be killed. They were going to kill every negro they could find.

Who told you that? That is what they said on the streets. They said the policemen were going to kill every negro they could catch.

About how far from where you live was he killed? About two doors, on the same side of the street.

Was there a policeman standing near his body? No; there was no one there when I went out. While I sat there with his head in my hands, there were three who came from this way and went right down Beal street. One of them said: "Here is a damned nigger; if he is not dead we will finish him." Another gentleman then pushed him off, and said: "You have killed him once, what do you want to kill him again for?"

 

Rachael A. Ditts

My name is Rachael Ditts. I live on Causey St. No. 152 in the city of Memphis.

I saw the commencement of the riot on Monday April 30, 1866. The Negroes tried to get away. I saw one of the Policemen break his pistol over the head of one of the Negroes. I do not know the origin of the difficulty. The first thing I saw the Negroes running and the Police after him. The Negro made no resistance but tried to get away. On Tuesday I saw the crowd pass my house (Police and citizens).

I saw the Police strike some of the colored persons on the head who were entirely innocent.

 

Anna George

My name is Anna George. I live in Memphis, Tenn.

On the next morning the 2nd I saw a number of white men shoot and kill two colored soldiers who were passing along quietly attending to their own business. I then saw the mob fire the col'd school house at the corner of South & Causey Sts. and also bring furniture out of the houses of colored people and throw it into the fire. The houses were owned by white people.

I saw the girl Frances Johnson who was shot and groaning, her mother was upbraiding the mob when they took the girl who was still alive and threw her into the fire and shot at her mother who ran away. The girl was burnt to death.

There was quite a number of police with the crowd, they were encouraging them to go on. The police had badges on at the time and did not arrest anyone.

 

 

Section researched and written by Kate Williams, Archival Assistant