Over the past few years, activists have worked tirelessly to put sexual violence on the national agenda. Here’s a little-known fact: America’s earliest anti-rape activists were African American. In 1866, several victims of the Memphis Riot bravely testified before Congress that they had been raped by a white mob.


Freedmen’s schoolhouse burned via Wikimedia

During the Civil War, Memphis’ African-American population quadrupled. Many of the city’s residents were newly freed slaves, and racial tensions were high. The riot was sparked on May 1, 1866, a little more than a year after the Confederate surrender, when an African American expressman collided with a white hack driver. When the local police tried to arrest the black driver, a group of black veterans came to his defense. The fighting escalated into three days of racially-motivated terrorism. By end of the riot, 46 blacks (most of them Union veterans) and two whites had been killed, more than 70 had been wounded, 5 black women had been raped, and twelve churches had been burned to the ground.

The Baltimore American reported on May 8, 1866:

“Three thousand citizens were on the ground at one time…The Sheriff and Mayor called upon the citizens to put down the negroes…Negroes who knew nothing of the riot, were in several cases, in different parts of the city, beaten to death or shot in cold blood.”

The African-American victims of the Memphis Riot were the first women in the U.S. to break the silence around rape. Sixteen-year-old Lucy Smith—a former slave—and her friend, Frances Thompson bravely testified before Congress that several white men (including two police officers) had entered their home demanding supper. After they had eaten their fill, they threw away the rest of their provisions, robbed them of their life savings, and brutally sexually assaulted them. Tragically, their perpetrators were not punished. Lucy Smith’s testimony is included below.


via The Reports of the Committees of the House of Representatives

In the 1890s, activists such as Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Ida B. Wells formed black women’s clubs that laid the groundwork for future organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Feature image: Illustration of the Memphis Riots by Harper’s Weekly via Wikimedia