“We are Defenceless Before Our Enemy” – Pt. II Perceptions and the Norfolk Riots

On April 16, 1866, African American marchers from Portsmouth and Norfolk were attacked while celebrating passage of the Civil Rights Bill. This peaceful action attracted a great amount of loathing from white onlookers who threw bricks, bottles, and hurled insults as the procession moved towards an open field near Nicholson Street and Church Street. At the gathering point, violence did not abate but escalated. Two white men, William M. Mosely and Robert Whitehurst attacked the Black audience, which led to Black retaliation before Major F. W. Stanhope restored order. Daylight passed without any other recorded incident. However, that night white Norfolk organized, assaulted, and murdered African Americans without any remorse or consequence. The events of April 16 impacted Norfolk like many other communities across the Reconstruction South. Through an examination of local, regional, and national papers that reported on the Norfolk Riots, we gain a better understanding of how pro-white Southern interpretations led to the demonization of African Americans, a denial of rights obtained by the Civil Rights Bill, and the promotion of white victimization as a strategy to unite the white South against Republican rule and provide an avenue to resist any form of equality granted to African Americans.

The primary Norfolk newspapers reporting on the riots were the Day Book published by J. R. Hathaway, and the Norfolk Virginianco-edited by James Barron Hope.[i]These papers viewed the riots through a white centric lens that spun a pro-southern agenda and promoted Black inferiority and Black wrong. One way to assert such an interpretation was laying fault on drunken marchers. The Daily Phoenix, a South Carolina newspaper, called the killing of white citizens in Norfolk an act “by a band of armed and drunken negroes…” this “mob of an inferior race assembled together…inflamed with strong drink” and were responsible for the “massacre” that occurred.[ii]The Daily Phoenixdid not mention any of the violence that occurred during the night. The Daily Dispatch, a paper printed in Richmond, Virginia, printed an article directly from the Norfolk Virginian. The article stated that marchers listened to speeches before indulging in liquor from an establishment owned by African Americans. “They would leave the scene of the speech making, dancing, singing, hallooing, and firing of muskets and pistols, go to this drinking saloon, and return, inflamed, to the scene of rejoicing and jubilee.” To further demonize the humanity of African Americans, this article claimed “that a dance of death was performed over the dead body of the murdered Whitehurst by the frenzied men who participated in his death.”[iii]These newspapers were in complete contrast to testimonies given by participants and did not describe a problem of intoxication on the side of Black participants. In fact, when testimonies mentioned drinking as an indicator, they refer to drunk white men as the culprits. However, labeling African American participants as drunk or frenzied allowed Southern whites to reassert control over their communities and promote white unity against African Americans. Newspapers did not just blame the violence on “drunken” African Americans. Reports attacked the appearance of United States Colored Troops (USCT) veterans who carried weapons of freedom and used their weapons in violent acts against white victims. 

Regional newspapers argued that USCT veterans instigated violence through multiple small actions. First, USCT veterans carried guns and bayonets in the procession. “Many of the negroes” reported the Daily Dispatch, “were armed with muskets, others with pistols, knives, and clubs.” The New York Herald, a Democratic paper, laid blame on the people who allowed a large march to possess and carry loaded muskets with bayonets. It was the ability to carry these weapons that brought upon violence, reasoned the Herald, for “at the first intimation of disapprobation and jeering on the part of those witnessing the procession commenced an indiscriminate firing among the throng of lookers-on.” Per the testimonies taken, this was proved a false account of the events. However,these visuals allowed a pro-white Southern press to show African Americans as aggressors. One can almost hear the implied question in these reports; “if the processions was peaceful, why did they feel the need to bring weapons?” From a pro-Southern deduction, the answer was obvious, to incite violence.[iv] However, in no way did USCT veterans engage in violence other than viscerally challenging the status quo of a defeated antebellum white Southern social structure. As a final editorial attack against Black participants, pro-southern papers focused on the march rather than events of the night to exploit Black brutality and white fragility. 

In many papers recording the incident, editors focused on the Black procession during the day and not white attacks that occurred the night of April 16. Newspaper editors wanted to isolate the events of the march to show protestors as agitators and white viewers as innocent victims. This method allowed a pro-Southern press to promote a return to Southern white rule over the portrayed abuses of Republican rule. While the Worchester Evening Gazette, like other papers, blamed the incident on “excited passions of the negroes,” news coverage of April 16 night fades from public memory. The Worcester Evening GazetteDaily DispatchNew York Herald, and Daily Phoenixeither ignored the evening events or glorified the protection of Norfolk by local firemen to prevent the spread of Black violence. However, these local fire groups embarked on a crusade of terror to retaliate against the Civil Rights Bill and the march by local African American communities. Newspapers, thus, helped quiet Black voices in combatting the white narrative.[v]

Silencing Black voices occurred by discrediting any interpretation outside what pro-Southern papers stated as fact. In part, this transpired through the portrayal of drunken protestors in which public displays of drunkenness attempted to discredit reports by Black participants. Drunkenness brought images of no control or fiendish behavior; images used to show African Americans as inferior beings and controlled by barbaric instincts. Compare these views to pro-Southern views of whites who were called victims and innocent. Before and during the Civil War, these opposing images promoted unity against Black and white abolitionists. Amid the period of Reconstruction, the same opposing images became a mean to reassert white control. African Americans, Southern whites reasoned, were not ready for freedom and certainly were not ready for civil and social equality. These feelings were evident in how Southern papers reported on Black activism post-war.

The Norfolk Riot began as whites attacked Black protections granted in the Civil Rights Bill. White contemporary newspapers focused attention on the march to prove that African Americans were not ready for citizenship. This attention distracted readers from the real riot that occurred the night of April 16 when recent confederate veterans and confederate sympathizers viciously attacked and murdered Norfolk’s African American citizens. In part, this bloody counterrevolution is at the heart of Reconstruction’s legacy. Southern white resistance to federal rule, northern white weighing interest in military rule, and Black resistance all bred violence and played a part in the legacy of Reconstruction. Black and Republican rule in Southern communities created temporary successes after the Civil War, but when Southerners began to constantly challenge federal rules, white confederate sympathizers regained power and installed Jim Crow laws to prevent Black Americans from exercising their newly won citizenship rights. These attacks were enforced by white terrorist organizations and protected by white authorities – as seen in the Norfolk Riots. As Reconstruction failed in 1877, African Americans became vulnerable to white exploitation through vengeful Southern whites who burned homes, raped women, and lynched citizens. Southern whites faced little to no repercussions as they reasserted control over Southern society. Where does that leave us today? The failure of Reconstruction still haunts America, in which, similar themes are vividly portrayed today. Peaceful protests for equal rights are still labeled as riots meant to discredit the stance and political opinions of Black Americans fighting for the ideal that all lives are equal, a philosophy grounded in three simple words; Black Lives Matter.

[i]Unable to obtain copies of these papers via internet databases. However, sources used share similar sentiments expressed by these pro-Southern Norfolk papers and, in some cases, other Southern newspapers reprint stories from Norfolk in their own columns. But the names and sentiment of these papers were collected from Brianna E. Kirk, “’No Safety for Union Men’: The Norfolk Race Riot of 1866 and Military Occupation,” Master’s Thesis, (University of Virginia, 2019).

[ii]The daily phoenix. [volume] (Columbia, S.C.), 29 April 1866. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84027008/1866-04-29/ed-1/seq-2/>.

[iii]The daily dispatch. [volume] (Richmond [Va.]), 18 April 1866. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1866-04-18/ed-1/seq-3/>.

[iv]The tri-weekly standard. [volume] (Raleigh, N.C.), 19 April 1866. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042146/1866-04-19/ed-1/seq-3/>; The daily dispatch. [volume] (Richmond [Va.]), 19 April 1866. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1866-04-19/ed-1/seq-4/>; The New York herald. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 19 April 1866. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1866-04-19/ed-1/seq-10/>.

[v]Worcester Evening Gazette, April 19, 1866. https://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/603897.