Pine Bluff Lynching of 1866
In 1866, a mass lynching of twenty-four African Americans allegedly occurred in the Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) area. The only source for this event is a single letter; no other documentation, such as a newspaper report, has been discovered that would confirm it. If the lynching actually occurred, it would be one of the largest mass lynchings in Arkansas history.
Pine Bluff had a large Black population by 1866. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation provided that the slaves of the rebellious Confederates would be freed starting in January of the following year. Federal troops, encountering thousands of newly freed slaves, established refugee centers called contraband camps across Arkansas. By May 1863, there were more than 3,600 “contrabands” (refugees) in Pine Bluff. The city came under Federal control later that year, and in late October 1863, a Union soldier told an Evansville newspaper that he had recently reported to Pine Bluff, where he found “large numbers of negroes” coming daily into their lines. Captain James Talbot of the First Indiana was in charge of the Pine Bluff camp and was “busily engaged in having them put up winter quarters.” The government also set up “home farms” for freedmen, where Black farmers could sell their crops and thus become self-supporting. They relied on the Union troops stationed nearby for protection.
The alleged Pine Bluff lynching is detailed in only a single letter and is not corroborated in other contemporary sources. The letter, found in the papers of Thaddeus Stevens, was dated May 28, 1866, and was sent by a man identified only as William Mallet to U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a longtime opponent of slavery and a member of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Mallet, noting that Stevens seemed to be “desireous [sic] to obtain all the Information Concerning the states lately in rebelion [sic],” recounted an incident that had occurred in Pine Bluff in the middle of March of that year.
According to Mallet, who was visiting Pine Bluff, the trouble started when some “rebs” got into a dispute with some freedmen. Things seemed to have calmed down, but that night “the Negroes Cabbens [sic] were seen to be on fire.” The next morning, Mallett went to inspect the conflagration and found “Negro Men Woman and Children…hanging to trees all round the Cabbins [sic].” The next night, these same “rebs” burned down “a fine African Church which cost the Freed Man about $5000.” Mallet begged Stevens’s help lest “the Rebbels [sic]…rise again to try to overthrow one of the Best governments on the face of the yearth [sic].”
This purported lynching has been mentioned in numerous publications, including Eric Foner’s seminal 1988 work Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. Foner’s work was quoted in Jordan C. Burke’s 2020 doctoral dissertation, “White Discipline, Black Rebellion: A History of American Race Riots from Emancipation to the War on Drugs,” and Jimmy and Donna Cunningham mentioned the lynching in their 2013 book, African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. The Equal Justice Initiative also lists the incident in its “Documenting Reconstruction Violence,” relying on Foner and the Cunninghams.
Whether the Pine Bluff incident happened or not, it serves to illustrate the mindset of white southerners after the Civil War. The African Americans spoken of in the letter were apparently prosperous. They had a community and enough money to build a “fine” expensive church. Given their numbers, these attempts at independence would have been viewed as a threat by area whites. In January 1866, Edward W. Gantt, a resident of Hempstead County and, according to a Freedmen’s Bureau report, “once a bitter rebel, but who long since repented and has shown works meet for repentance,” had predicted that “there is no hope for the freedmen of Arkansas….They will be starved, murdered, or forced into a condition more horrible than the worst stages of slavery. Our people’s wrath over defeat would be poured upon the heads of the helpless ones once their slaves.” And indeed, this pattern of punishing African Americans’ quest for independence, whether economically or politically, would continue for many decades.
For additional information:
Burke, Jordan C. “White Discipline Black Rebellion: A History of American Race Riots from Emancipation to the War on Drugs.” PhD diss., University of New Hampshire, 2020. Online at https://scholars.unh.edu/dissertation/2544/ (accessed March 30, 2023).
Cunningham, Jimmy, Jr., and Donna Cunningham. African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Press, 2013.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
“From Arkansas.” Evansville (Indiana) Daily Journal, October 28, 1863, p. 1.
Gantt, E. W. Quoted in “Freedmen’s Bureau: Letter from the Secretary of War, in Answer to a Resolution of the House of March 8, Transmitting a Report.” Washington DC, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1866, p. 255.
Palmer, Beverly Wilson, and Holly Byers Ochoa. The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Vol. 2, April 1865–August 1868. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. Online at https://digital.library.pitt.edu/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735060482175 (accessed March 30, 2023).
Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina
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