Justice  /  Journal Article

On Riots and Resistance

Exploring freedpeople’s struggle against police brutality during Reconstruction.

The resistance efforts on the part of Black Richmonders were just one chapter in a larger struggle between freedpeople and police. Across the postbellum South, violent encounters between freedpeople and the police occurred with a relatively high frequency. Like the widespread twentieth century journalistic euphemism “race riot,” the nineteenth century press rushed to produce bombastic accounts of the “negro riots” were perceived as an existential threat to the social order. While scholars should be careful not to reproduce the racism contained in nineteenth-century periodicals, the press’ obsession with the specter of Black criminality and confrontations with the police in the nation’s postbellum cities offers a lens into an otherwise hidden world of resistance and allows historians to explore how freedpeople questioned the authority and legitimacy of the forces who policed their communities.

In the midst of the massive uprisings around the country in response to the recent killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, Tony McDade, at the hands of the police, citizens of the United States have once again been asked to reflect on the long history of anti-Black violence in this country. Indeed, with the larger carceral turn in the field of U.S. history, scholars of the African American past have produced a number of power and innovative monographs that have demonstrated the various ways that blackness was criminalized over space and time. Scholars of the postbellum United States have been especially attentive to the ways that freedpeople encountered the carceral state with the rise of the Black Codes immediately after the Civil War and, later, the system of convict-lease system, which was instrumental in both enshrining white supremacy, criminalizing Black men and women, and building the infrastructure of the modern South.

Less has been said, however, of the specific ways that African Americans encountered and resisted police brutality in the immediate postbellum period. As the destruction of slavery shattered the antebellum racial order, white southerners invested tremendous amounts of time and energy policing Black freedom. High profile confrontations with white police forces in Memphis and New Orleans stand out in the story of Reconstruction, as do the broader continuum of extralegal white policing in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and paramilitary rifle clubs. Contesting both narrow and expansive ideas of policing, freedpeople responded to law enforcement by forming their own self-defense organizations, appealing to the Freedmen’s Bureau, appealing to nearby Union forces, and using the Republican Party to disseminate their stories in the press and the national party. Here, historians have only begun to explore the ways that Black southerners viewed policing within the broader context of postbellum freedom.