In her arms, the kitten started to purr, oblivious to the human drama playing out around it. The teenage girl was holding it tight, hiding under her bed in the shack she shared with her fathers and brothers.
When the white men with torches and clubs came into the freedmen’s camp, her father told her to stay hidden until he returned, then took her brothers out to what men sometimes must do.
The angry shouts started shortly after and were quickly overtaken by the din of a riot. She’d lost all track of time since then. It could’ve been hours, or mere minutes.
It broken her heart to think of such violence coming to the peaceful, eclectic settlement hers and other freed slave families had built.
From outside the thin walls of the shack, she heard a man scream in pain, cutting through everything else. The girl was unable to tell if it belonged to some one she knew or not.
Then she noticed her kitten had stopped purring.
It had fallen asleep. She petted it hard so it awoke and began to purr again.
The purring of that kitten was the only sound she could stand to hear now.
Once Memphis was captured by the Union in 1862, the black population exploded as escaped slaves flocked to the city. They settled in contraband camps – renamed freedmen’s camps after the Emancipation Proclamation – and some joined the Union Army. However, this population growth caused friction with the white population of the city, which exploded into one of the worst race riots in US history in 1866, from which the city has never fully recovered.