Memphis Fast Fiction Home
Rikki Boyce

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.

Memphis Note
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.

Matt Farr

The yellow-white smoke of the tear gas drifts down the streets. Police in riot gear moved like dark specters through the clouds, the crowd scattering before them.

For a moment, I lock eyes with one of them. He’s as scared as we are.

Another volley of gas canisters pirouette through the sky, as if in slow motion. One hits a man with a megaphone next to me, knocking the glasses off his face.

It does nothing but instill him with more rage. He turns, shouting encouragements to the mob to retaliate on the police with anything they can get their hands on.

I move away from him, he’s turned from protestor to inciter. The police will not be kind to him.

In my head, I can still hear the voice of the Klan Grand Wizard from before, mocking the crowd as the police escorted him and his racist cadre to safety.

They never got a chance to start their protest.

All they needed to do was occupy a space, and their very presence turned us feral against each other.

Tensions rose, nerves frayed, individuality broke down, and the mob took over.

And the mob is a dangerous, dangerous fool.

Memphis Note
In 1998, the Klu Klux Klan scheduled a protest downtown. They went through the proper channels, and were protected by the Constitution, so the city had to let them. However, over 500 counter-protestors and curious onlookers showed up, turning a non-event into a mob scene. Things got out of hand, tear gas was used, and the situation turned into a full on riot. All without the KKK even getting started. They’d managed to enflame racial tensions and create a full-blown riot by just showing up.

Christian Yetter

“It smells terrible. I thought rain was supposed to wash things clean?” I squinted out the window into the driving rain, watching it turn the streets into a swamp. Off in the distance, I could see the red glow of burning buildings. The riots were still going strong.

“Rain’s made of what’s beneath it. When you’re living in a giant toilet, I’ll leave it to you to decide the exact nature of what’s falling out of the sky.” Came a voice from the group sitting behind me. They were playing cards, and doing their best to ignore their compatriot by the window.

“We should be out there. Doing something to stop this.”

“General’s orders. All Union men are confined to quarters until things calm down.” Came another voice from the table.

I turned back to look at them. “The men out there getting lynched and beaten were Union men a few short days ago.”

“The negroes?” said the first voice. “They got mustered out and paid well for their service. They should’ve known better than to stay. Flush with cash, full of pride. ‘Course they’re going to roil the whites.”

“This isn’t how it was supposed to be.”

“Never is.”

Memphis Note
The riot in question is the Memphis Riot of 1866, which was the result of Memphis’s black population going from around three thousand before the Civil War, to over twenty thousand soon after it. The white police, mostly poor Irish who were being pushed out by the influx, didn’t look favorably on their new neighbors. The blood shed lasted three days before the Union troops finally declared martial law and took the city back.