Detroit race riot of 1863

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Detroit race riot of 1863
Part of American Civil War
DateMarch 8, 1863
LocationDetroit, Michigan
Resulted inCreation of full-time police force
Casualties
Death(s)2

The Detroit race riot of 1863 occurred on March 6, 1863, in the city of Detroit, Michigan, during the American Civil War. At the time, the Detroit Free Press reported these events as "the bloodiest day that ever dawned upon Detroit."[1] It began due to unrest among the working class related to racism and the military draft,[1] which was heightened after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. Based in a free state, some recent immigrants and other workers resented being drafted for a war that they thought was waged for the benefit of slaves in the South, and they feared competition from blacks.

At least two men were killed, one white and one black, and numerous others, mostly African Americans, were badly beaten and injured. In total, 35 buildings were destroyed by fire, with many others damaged, and black residents lost property and cash to the looting and stealing of the mob. Losses were estimated at $15,000-20,000. More than 200 people, mostly black, were left homeless.[2] Although the Michigan Legislature recommended compensation, the Detroit City Council refused to approve it. As a result of the riot, the city of Detroit established a full-time police force, which was dominated by whites into the late 20th century.

Background[edit]

During the months preceding the riot, social tensions rose in the city. It had a white majority but a thriving black community, made up both of free blacks who had migrated there and refugee slaves who had fled the South. Located just across the Detroit River from Canada, which had abolished slavery in 1834, the city was a major "station" on the Underground Railroad in the antebellum years. Some fugitive slaves chose to settle in Detroit, since Michigan was a non-slave state.

The City Council was dominated by Democrats, and many of the Irish and German immigrants belonged to that party. The Detroit Free Press was a Democratic Party paper that was opposed to President Abraham Lincoln's conduct of the American Civil War and its increasing demand for recruits. The newspaper advocated white supremacy and was pro-labor.[2] In the months leading up to the riot, the newspaper frequently published articles connecting "blacks to labor problems, blacks to citizenship issues, blacks to the war, and blacks to crime and a general degradation of the moral order", stressing how they were a threat to working-class white men and their limited power.[2] Following the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, the newspaper published articles that frequently opposed the interests of white labor and blacks

By contrast, the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune largely spoke for the Republican Party, supporting abolitionism and the war as a just cause. It criticized the Free Press for inciting the riot by inflaming passions and agitating against blacks. For a month after the riot, the Advertiser and Tribune published articles referring to the "Free Press Mob".[2]

Events[edit]

A mixed-race man, William Faulkner, was arrested for allegedly molesting a young white girl, and tried in court. (The two girls whose testimony was critical to his arrest both recanted their stories years later.) Although Faulkner had voted regularly (a privilege reserved to whites) and identified as Spanish-Indian, both newspapers described him as "negro", and that was how the whites came to regard him.[2]

The trial attracted volatile crowds of whites, who threw items at Faulkner and guards as he was escorted to and from the court. The second day of the trial, whites started to attack blacks outside the courthouse. The commander of the Provost Guard escorting Faulkner ordered the firing of blanks to push back the crowd. Next, live ammunition was fired (although it is not clear that the commander ordered it). Charles Langer, an innocent white bystander who was not part of the mob, was killed. The crowd was enraged that a German was killed at the trial of a man they considered less worthy.[2]

They immediately started attacking blacks on the street and went to a nearby known black business, a cooper's shop. Workers tried to defend it but the mob burned the shop and adjacent house, threatening black women and children inside. They attacked the five men who escaped from the flames, severely wounding Joshua Boyd. (An escaped slave from the South, he had been saving his earnings in order to buy his wife and children out of slavery.) He was later beaten more by the mob and died four days later. Although grievously wounded, the other four men survived, as did the women and children. Some were aided by whites.

Survivors said the mob attacked black businesses and houses, looting them of anything valuable, and stealing from the residents. The whites eventually moved beyond the black area into poor white areas, continuing the destruction. Some blacks fled the area, going across the Detroit River to Canada or west to what was then the independent community of Corktown. The city finally ordered in troops from Ypsilanti and Fort Wayne, and by 11 p.m. had suppressed the violence. More than 200 blacks and some whites had lost their homes to the destruction. There was an estimated $15,000 to 20,000 in property damage, mostly suffered by blacks.[2]

Aftermath[edit]

Faulkner was convicted and sentenced to prison for life. Several years later, the two girls who testified against him recanted their story, and Faulkner was pardoned. He returned to Detroit, where some white businessmen helped him start a produce business.[3]

The city held an inquiry on the death of Boyd, but no one was prosecuted for his death. Although the Michigan Legislature encouraged compensation for the victims of the riot, the Detroit City Council, dominated by Democrats, refused to do so. These tax-paying citizens, who had not been protected and whose property had been stolen and destroyed, were left to recover and remake their lives on their own.[4]

As a result of the riot, the city established a full-time police force.[3] It was dominated by ethnic whites into the late 20th century. This became a civil rights issue, as the city's minority population had been closed out of the force.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Detroit Free Press, 7 March 1863
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Kundinger, Matthew (2006). "Racial Rhetoric: The Detroit Free Press and Its Part in the Detroit Race Riot of 1863" (PDF). University of Michigan. Retrieved 2011-02-24.
  3. ^ a b Willis Frederick Dunbar; George S. May (July 1995). Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 334–335. ISBN 978-0-8028-7055-1. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  4. ^ Anonymous, A Thrilling Narrative from the Lips of the Sufferers of the Late Detroit Riot, March 6, 1863, With the Hair Breadth Escapes of Men, Women and Children, and Destruction of Colored Men's Property, Detroit: The Author, 1863; includes accounts by people attacked in the riot, and excerpts from articles published by the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • ^ "Bloody Detroit riot sparked by rape trial part of Jenison author's 'True Crime in the Civil War'", Michigan News, MLive