“We Are Defenceless Before Our Enemy” – Pt. I

The map of Reconstruction is dotted with riots and massacres of all shapes and sizes. These epicenters of violence illustrate firm Southern reluctance to be reconstructed and forcibly reintegrated back into the Federal Union with freedom and citizenship granted to approximately four million formerly enslaved African Americans. Southern whites acted out in actions of unashamed violence to cling on to Antebellum race ideology which placed whites as superior and destined to rule free and enslaved African Americans. The most notable act extinguishing the bedrock of Southern ideology was the Civil Rights Bill. The Civil Rights Bill in 1866 declared all people, no matter race or color and “without regard to any previous condition to slavery or involuntary servitude…shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States…as is enjoyed by white citizens.”[1]Across the nation, celebrations rallied in show of support for this monumental achievement. In Norfolk, Virginia, a group of Norfolk and Portsmouth black Americans marched through downtown Norfolk to celebrate. White civilians, incensed by such an attack against a social structure dependent on white superiority, attacked black citizens during the night, reclaiming, if only momentarily, physical control over a deemed “inferior” race. The events in Norfolk were not an isolated event but part of similar atrocities occurring throughout the American South where black citizens became victims to white terrorists. 

A bird’s-eye-view of Portsmouth and Norfolk looking North from the Elizabeth River (center) towards Hampton Roads. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

As indicated above, passage of the Civil Rights Bill called for celebration. On April 16, 1866, Norfolk’sAfrican American community leaders organized a march through Norfolk that  ended with commemorative speeches. The march began at the Market Place (Market Square), proceeded through Downtown Norfolk, and concluded at an area of open ground on the corner of Nicholson Street and Church Street. Upon these grounds, speakers, led by Joseph T. Wilson a prominent African American who served in two black Union regiments during the Civil War, intended to speak about the importance of citizenship to black Americans.[2]Approximately 800 – including several United States Colored Troops Veterans – people from Norfolk and Portsmouth joined the celebrations this day. In another direct attack against Southern Antebellum ideology, approximately twenty USCT veterans bore arms, a symbol of black freedom gained in the Civil War.[3]In all testimonies taken at the Norfolk Customs House in May 1866, the procession was peaceful.  Major F. W. Stanhope, commanding the 12th US Infantry, said the march occurred in “a perfectly orderly manner.” Simon Stone, collector of internal revenue in Norfolk, remembered the procession as “quiet and orderly.” William H. Barry, Clerk of the US District Court, called the march “Perfectly peaceable.” In fact, “I saw them when they passed through Maine street, and there was then no disturbances at all.”[4]Although the procession of African Americans citizens marched with a peaceful purpose, white onlookers did not share their sentiment. In one incident, as the people passed Duke and Butte Street, white onlookers hurled bricks and other rubble at the newly established citizens. Joseph T. Wilson testified that at “the corner of Bute and Dock [Duke] streets…some bricks and bottles were thrown into the procession from a yard over the wall.” George Holland, another African American citizen of Norfolk, said bricks thrown near Bute Street struck two people near him.[5] No other incidents were reported along the route but we may assume, based on testimonies, that marchers were berated with verbal insults, scowling looks, and snickering murmurs, all meant to degrade black participants and remind them of their social status in Virginia. The procession continued and eventually poured into an open field between Nicholson and Church Streets. Here, confusion erupted. Shots were fired and portions of the procession dispersed, becoming engaged in brawls against white provokers.

A zoomed in picture the map above showing the open field on the corner of Nicholson and Church Street. Marchers planned orations from this position but were interrupted by assaults from white residents who lived along Church Street. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

In one part of the field, three African American citizens noted that a drunken, off duty police officer (William M. Mosely) got into a physical altercation with the crowd. Austin Brown noted that Mosely “had come out there to put things to rights, and he would be damned if he didn’t do it.” Edward W. Williams testified to similar sentiments but George Holland said Mosely attempted to arrest an African American boy who discharged a weapon. Mosely inadvertently accosted the wrong individual and the police officer was rebuked and engaged in a brief fight with a marcher. Mosely pulled out a “Dirk and cut at him three times; and then a returned soldier [USCT Veteran] drew a sabre and struck at him over the head. Mosely was then chased towards his home on Church Street, where a brawl ensued.” Brown said that Mosely “got beaten awfully” for the remarks he told the procession.[6]

On another part of the field, Robert Whitehurst, a white resident of Norfolk, fired multiple shots into the procession and ran for his home on Church Street. This attack was planned, for testimonies reported that Whitehurst intended to “stop any negro procession.” Whitehurst had gathered a pistol from his stepmother’s house and met the procession at the open space near his home. According to testimonies, Whitehurst fired his pistol, hitting one near the speaking stand. A large group “rushed upon Whitehurst” and Whitehurst ran back to his house “firing again at the mob which was pursuing him.” Here, Whitehurst inadvertently shot his stepmother who attempted to protect her stepson and usher him inside. Mrs. Whitehurst succumbed to her wounds later that day. Simon Stone testified that eventually Whitehurst himself was killed by two African American. One man, Long, held “Whitehurst by the shoulder or hair of his head, and while Whitehurst was in the hands of Long some one shot Whitehurst,” Stone stated.[7]

Meanwhile at army headquarters, Major Stanhope became aware of the escalating tensions between the marchers and white onlookers. Quickly gathering a portion of the 12th US Infantry, Stanhope made his way to the field surrounded by Nicholson, Queen, Church, and Union Street. To regain order Stanhope ordered the different groups separated and ordered weapons taken from African American veterans. Eighteen muskets were taken from the hands of USCT veterans along with three sabers from USCT Cavalry veterans. This is important to note because no similar order was given for white residents even though it was well documented and well known that white residents with arms purposely fired into the crowd of marchers while no evidence points to the intent of USCT veterans using their weapons.[8]The actions of Major Stanhope fell short of the required action necessary to prevent an escalation of violence in Norfolk. This became clearer as day turned to night and white rage demanded retribution. 

As the sun dipped beyond the western horizon, physical forms of Republican rule came under attack. White civilians, unashamed of their confederate sympathies, took to the streets in well-organized columns to disrupt the transforming social structure of the American South. Bands of ex-confederate soldiers – now community fire companies – roamed the streets harassing black citizens. Major Stanhope described the men as “dressed in gray…marching…in step like any other organized body of men.” After witnessing this group near the Atlantic House in Norfolk, Stanhope returned to headquarters and made dispositions for patrols that night. About 9:30, Stanhope checked in with Major Egbert near Freemason Street where Egbert reported gun shots. Stanhope, with an aid, set out to investigate. At a point between Freemason Street and the guard house, Stanhope heard an approaching body of men. Assuming the marchers as his own patrols, he stopped and let the group pass, but this group of 80-100 men were not federal soldiers. Upon this realization he rode near the rear of the column when a ball passed close to his head, then “four or five other shots were fired…the whole body then halted, apparently at the word of the command, and fronted into the street – wheeled into the street by the right wheel and fired a regular volley, which lighted up the whole street.”[9]Major Stanhope was not hit and quickly responded with more patrols. Other reports of gun fire soon found their way into military headquarters. 

First Lieutenant J. L. Rathbone, adjutant 1st Battalion 12th US Infantry, heard shots fired from the direction of Bank Street around 9 P.M. Brevet Major H. C Egbert, 1th US Infantry, testified that he “met negroes about the street who told me that they had been fired at, and that there had been firing at the negroes all over the town, and they mentioned a part of Church street particularly where persons were in the habit of firing at the negroes who passed along and then retreating into the house.” Richard Washington, paymaster of the US Navy, noted three or four shots fired opposite the custom house and the next morning he learned that an African American had been shot “by a number of white persons.”[10]Shots heard throughout the night were primarily directed at African American citizens in the attempt to control, by fear, their expression of citizenship. In other words, white civilians lashed out against the extension of federal rule and the passage of citizenship rights to protect the lives of African Americans. 

Henry Mercer, an African American citizen, vividly recalled how he was jumped by a group of white civilians and badly beaten. Between eight and nine, a group of men attacked and shot Henry near Church Street. Mercer fled but eventually the mob caught up with him and “knocked med down in the street; and after they had knocked me down they put their feet on me and said, ‘He’s dead,’ and ‘We fixed him,’ and ‘We will go after some more.’”[11]Charles Smith, another African American citizen, “heard some men say next morning in the market place that hey intended killing every negro man they caught; and as for the nigger wenches, they meant to whip every one they caught after night.” Even though military companies patrolled the streets violence still occurred, and the presence of soldiers did little to quell the violence towards African Americans. 

The Norfolk Riots may not be as destructive as those in Memphis or New Orleans but the riots in Norfolk illustrate the tragedy of Reconstruction. Even though freedom had been achieved, racism and white counterrevolutions challenged federal policies towards a more inclusive society. Southerners, by their own choice, would not protect the rights of a race they long deemed inferior in every way imaginable. White society would continue to lash out against Republican rule ensuring white control over black life through physical and legal attacks. White terror promoted white power in this era and eventually led to the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The Norfolk Riot in the larger context of Reconstruction proved the existence of counterrevolutions scattered throughout the South and not just existent in large cities. Sentiments and actions represented in Memphis also existed in smaller communities. 

Modern picture of the Custom’s House in Norfolk, Virginia. Here, testimonies were given to investigate the circumstances of events that occurred in Norfolk on April 16, 1866. Picture by author.

[1]Civil Rights Acts ,1866. 39thCongress, 1stSession.

[2]In 1865, Wilson published a pamphlet titled Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States. Also an Account of the Agitation Among the Colored People of Virginia for Equal Rights. With an Appendix Concerning the Rights of Colored Witnesses Before the States Courts.Themes addressed in the pamphlet – citizenship, securities, suffrage, and race relations – may have been a point of discussion this day. Testimonies do not recall the speeches made after the attack on marchers.

[3]Brianna E. Kirk, “’No Safety for Union Men’: The Norfolk Race Riot of 1866 and Military Occupation,” Master’s Thesis, (University of Virginia, 2019).

[4]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[5]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[6]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[7]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[8]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[9]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[10]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.

[11]“Riot at Norfolk,” House of Representatives, 39thCongress, 2d Session, Ex. Doc. No. 72.