Four Deadly Massacres in Black History You Were Likely Never Taught in School

You probably learned about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831 in school, or the riots that engulfed Los Angeles following the acquittal of four officers accused of beating Rodney King in 199s, but have you heard of the massacre of Blacks in Memphis just after the Civil War? Or what about Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa back in 1921? The North Star took a look at four deadly racist slaughters in Black History that everyone should know about, putting back in what the school books left out.

Memphis Massacre of 1866

Memphis, Tennessee is no stranger to racist violence. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was brutally assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. But more than a 100 years prior, Memphis was rocked by a larger, more violent event that left dozens of Black people dead.

The Memphis Massacre of 1866 began with rumors among the city’s white population and ended in the deaths of 46 Black people. The atrocities began on May 1, 1866, and involved the city’s Irish police officers and Black Union soldiers.

“The rumor among the whites was that this was a full-scale Black uprising in South Memphis,” Stephen V. Ash, a history professor at the University of Tennessee, explained to NPR, “and so white mobs began forming, marched into South Memphis and began indiscriminately shooting Black men, women and children.”

The violence raged on for 36 hours, leaving dozens dead and many other Black people beaten or raped. Black homes, churches and schools were set ablaze.

The race riot led to radical changes in the South and the country as a whole.

“The Memphis Massacre was one of the key events that convinced the Republican-controlled post-war U.S. Congress that the former Rebels were unrepentant and that Blacks in the South would not be safe unless the U.S. government intervened,” Ash explained to The North Star. “The result was the imposition of military rule in the South, the advent of Radical Reconstruction, and the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.”

Wilmington Insurrection of 1898

A Scene at the Race Disturbance in Wilmington, N.C.,' was published in COLLIERS WEEKLY, Nov. 26, 1898. It inaccurately depicts Blacks as killers, rather than as victims of the violence. (Shutterstock)

The only coup d’état ever to take place on U.S. soil happened in November 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Armed with rifles and pistols, a mob of white supremacists marched on Wilmington City Hall on November 10 to overthrow the newly-elected local government.

Black and white city officials, who were part of the then-liberal Republican Party, were forced to resign and many were driven out of town, according to NPR. The powerful, white Democrats — a conservative party back then — had lost power in 1894 and aimed to snatch control from the biracial Republican Party in the 1898 elections.

Col. Alfred Moore Waddell, who led the white Democrats, publicly threatened to “choke the current of the Cape Fear River” with Black bodies in a pre-election speech, according to a 2006 report that outlined the events of 1898. The coup was the final act after whites set the offices of a Black newspaper on fire and murdered Black residents.

Waddell was elected mayor of Wilmington following the coup. Democrats then passed several Jim Crow laws in 1899, as well as instituted poll taxes and literacy tests that disenfranchised Blacks. It remains unclear how many African Americans were killed in the racist violence and coup, but estimates reach 90.

Tulsa Race Massacre 1921

The Tulsa Race Massacre set the city of Tulsa’s vibrant Greenwood neighborhood ablaze over the course of two days in 1921. Greenwood, which was also known as “Black Wall Street,” was founded after the Civil War. The neighborhood developed a thriving Black business community that sprung up thanks to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s.

Much like the Memphis Massacre, the lynch mob attack in Tulsa began with a rumor that spiraled out of control. Rumors spread that a Black man tried to sexually assault a white woman inside an elevator.

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of angry white residents set fire to Black homes and businesses, threw Molotov cocktails and killed an estimated 300 people. Thousands of Black people were also driven away from their homes and businesses, essentially destroying Greenwood.

“Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air,” eyewitness John Hope Franklin wrote in a 10-page manuscript. Franklin’s eyewitness account was discovered in 2015.

A 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 later found that the rumors that sparked the angry mobs were false. The commission determined that the man most likely tripped and bumped into the white woman, who in turn screamed and ran away.

On February 3, Tulsa officials announced that archaeologists will conduct a test excavation at one of the city’s cemeteries to determine whether there is a mass grave linked to the massacre.

Rosewood Massacre 1923

Yet another blatant, racist rumor would be the cause of the violent destruction of a Black neighborhood in Florida in 1923. The settlement of Rosewood, a town 37 miles southwest of Archer, Florida, was plunged into a week of mob violence after a white woman falsely claimed that she had been assaulted by a Black man on New Year’s Day.

Fannie Taylor, 22, told police that she had been assaulted by a Black man in her Sumner, Florida home but said she had not been raped. Taylor’s husband James then gathered a mob of white people to search for the alleged culprit. According to History.com, James Taylor called on whites across neighboring counties for help, including a group of 500 Ku Klux Klan members.

While law enforcement focused on escaped prisoner Jesse Hunter, the white mob zoned in on a Black man by the name of Aaron Carrier, who was the nephew of the Taylor’s laundress. The men kidnapped Carrier from his home, tied him to a car and dragged him from his home in Rosewood to Sumner. Carrier was then cut from the car and severely beaten. He was rescued by Sheriff Robert Elias Walker, who placed him under the protective custody of the sheriff in Gainesville.

Another mob of men turned their attention to a blacksmith named Sam Carter. Carter was tortured until he admitted to hiding Hunter and taking the group to Hunter’s reported hiding place. The mob and their captive went into the woods but after Hunter failed to appear, Carter was shot and lynched.

“My grandma didn’t know what my uncle Sammy had done to anybody to cause him to be lynched like that,” Carter’s niece and Rosewood survivor Robie Mortin told the Seminole Tribune in 1999. “They took his fingers and his ears, and they just cut souvenirs away from him. That was the type of people they were.”

Meanwhile, a group of an estimated 25 people, many children, hid in Sarah Carrier’s home. On January 4, an armed white mob fired upon the home, killing Carrier and her son Sylvester. A gun battle lasted through the night until the white attackers breached the home and the children escaped out the back into the woods.

Distorted news reports of armed Black citizens prompted more white men to head to the area. Mobs burned down Rosewood churches, set fire to Black homes and shot people indiscriminately as they fled.

Black citizens ran to the swamps to escape the violence. Another of Sarah Carrier’s sons, James, left the swamp to take refuge with the help of a local turpentine factory manager. He was caught by a white mob, forced to dig his own grave and then brutally murdered. According to The Guardian, James’ body was left draped over the graves of his family members.

Several white people, including Rosewood general store owner John Wright, attempted to help the terrorized Black population. That included John and William Bryce, two wealthy, train-owning brothers. The Bryce brothers drove their train to the area and helped Black women and children escape the mobs.

The state of Florida, meanwhile, did nothing. Only eight deaths were documented associated with the riots, including two white attackers.

The story of Rosewood came to light nearly 60 years later thanks to a feature written by reporter Gary Moore in 1982. Moore told The Guardian that despite his reporting, many attempted to deny the massacre had ever occurred. In 1993, the state of Florida investigated the claims and a year later passed a law that compensated the victims of the massacre and created a scholarship fund. And late John Singleton directed a film about the atrocities called Rosewood, starring Don Cheadle, which was released in 1997.


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.