AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, Memphis is commemorating a grim chapter in its history, a 150-year-old atrocity that shocked the nation at the time. It was nearly forgotten in part because of the language used to describe it. Christopher Blank of member station WKNO reports.
CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: A somber procession began yesterday in the courtyard of the former Lorraine Motel. This is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. Everyone here knows about that piece of history. But until recently, this part of town was virtually silent on what happened in 1866.
KEITH NORMAN: This year we have called their names. We have heard their plight. We've listened to the stories, and we have righted this wrong.
BLANK: For Keith Norman, president of the Memphis NAACP, that wrong of history went deeper than not knowing about it. It was also about how it would finally be remembered.
Historian Stephen V. Ash says newspapers of the era labeled what happened here a race riot. Mostly on the basis that it began as a fight between black Union soldiers and some Irish police officers.
STEPHEN V. ASH: The rumor among the whites was that this was a full-scale black uprising in South Memphis.
BLANK: The police called for reinforcements.
ASH: And so white mobs began forming, marched into South Memphis and began indiscriminately shooting down black men, women and children.
BLANK: This went on for 36 hours.
ASH: The toll was approximately 46 black people dead, many others savagely beaten, several women raped, all the black schools and churches in the city - all of them burned to the ground along with almost 100 black homes. Yeah, it was a scene of devastation in South Memphis.
BLANK: This mob attack would shape the course of Reconstruction-era politics and help speed the passage of the Constitution's 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to recently-freed slaves.
PHYLLIS ALUKO: My name is Phyllis Aluko, and I am an attorney.
BLANK: Aluko read Ash's book which is titled "A Massacre In Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook The Nation One Year After The Civil War." She couldn't believe she'd never heard about the incident, so she started the process of creating a historical marker. She got the local chapter of the NAACP to sponsor and pay for it. Then she submitted the application to the Tennessee Historical Commission.
ALUKO: I was so naive.
BLANK: She didn't expect a months-long debate over what to name the violence. The commission wanted race riot at the top of the sign. But that phrase had other connotations for historian Beverly Bond of the University of Memphis.
BEVERLY BOND: Most people tend to think in a 20th-century frame of reference that this must be African-Americans who are rioting and destroying their communities.
BLANK: Bond and others suspected a different kind of history was at play in this debate over words.
BOND: Naming is very important. If your name is John and I insist on calling you Johnny, it's really a power relationship.
BLANK: In an email to the NAACP, one commissioner said that the term race riot would, quote, "stand the test of time."
Not necessarily, says Beverly Robertson. When she was director of the National Civil Rights Museum, she found that it wasn't just the exhibits that needed routine maintenance; it was the language and scholarship of history itself.
BEVERLY ROBERTSON: If we don't tell it right, then generations to come will not understand what literally did happen.
BLANK: Robertson is one of three African-Americans on the 24-member Tennessee Historical Commission. The words race riot didn't sit well with her either. But she and others were outvoted. So when the commission finally insisted that those words appear on the sign, Robertson told the NAACP to pull the plug.
ROBERTSON: It's an important marker. We need to acknowledge and recognize that. And there's more than one way to skin a cat.
BLANK: So instead, they put up a private marker with the city's blessing and not the State of Tennessee's. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., says there's a growing choir of voices demanding a reconsidered history of the former Confederacy starting with public monuments. Stevenson believes the South should remember the story of slavery and its aftermath in the way Germany now marks the Holocaust.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Until we change the landscape of these markers and these images with a new iconography, we're going to be living in a space that is compromised by the absence of truth.
BLANK: At the end of Sunday's procession, civic leaders, pastors, police officers and historians took pictures with one of the country's first memorials to a Reconstruction-era event, a simple historic marker which states in no uncertain terms that the African-Americans killed here in 1866 died not in a riot, but in a massacre. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Blank in Memphis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.