Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stephen V. Ash's "A Massacre in Memphis"

Stephen V. Ash is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of Firebrand of Liberty, A Year in the South, and other books on the Civil War era.

Ash applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War, and reported the following:
Page 99 offers a revealing glimpse of A Massacre in Memphis.

The scene is a street in South Memphis, a mostly black section of the city, on the afternoon of May 1, 1866. Moments earlier, a shootout had erupted between four white policemen and a boisterous crowd of black men that the officers had tried to disperse. Two of the policemen have fallen, badly wounded; the others are fleeing.

The blacks are exultant, congratulating themselves for standing up to the despised, abusive Memphis police. But as the smoke clears and the excitement subsides, they begin to worry about the consequences. Some decide to lie low for a while.

They are the lucky ones. An hour and a half (and three pages) later---word of the shootout having spread throughout the city---mobs of armed white men descend on South Memphis and begin shooting and beating every black person in sight.

Thus began the Memphis race riot. It stretched over three days, during which white mobs repeatedly invaded black neighborhoods wreaking death and destruction. The toll was horrific: 46 black men, women, and children murdered, many others wounded, robbed, or raped, and every black church and school and many black dwellings in the city put to the torch.

My account of the riot--a minute-by-minute narrative written in the present tense, the better to convey the drama, the kaleidoscopic rush of events, and the sheer horror of those three days--comprises the second of the book’s three parts. The first, written in the customary past tense, is a detailed portrait of Memphis’s inhabitants on the eve of the riot, not only the blacks and ex-Confederates but also the many Irish and Yankee immigrants. It shows how the newly-emancipated people reveled in their freedom while Rebel and Irish resentment toward them and the Yankees festered. The third part, likewise in the past tense, explores the aftermath. The riot was a key event of the post-Civil War era. It outraged Northerners and encouraged Congress to come down hard on the white South, thus helping usher in the controversial era of Radical Reconstruction.

The riot was not only one of 19th-century America’s most significant episodes but also one of the best documented. Three federal agencies investigated it, gathering vivid testimony from hundreds of eyewitnesses. Few other events of that era can be so meticulously recounted. Mine is the first book-length study of it.
Learn more about A Massacre in Memphis at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Firebrand of Liberty.

Writers Read: Stephen V. Ash.

--Marshal Zeringue