The city grew very fast, and over the next ten years the population of West Tennessee expanded from 2500 to 100,000. The majority of families at the time took to farming, and with the help of the fertile land, Memphis soon became the center for growing and trading cotton in the Southeast. Indeed, cotton became king in Memphis, bringing in black men and women to work forced labor on plantations. According to the census of 1820, 20% of the populations of Memphis were slaves, and that number is said to have risen throughout the 19th century. Racial tension in Memphis began with its first and second mayor.
Marcus B. Winchester was the irst mayor of Memphis and is said to have committed political suicide when he married a woman who was a quarter black. The second mayor of Memphis, Isaac Rawlings, had a common-law marriage with black woman, having multiple children with her. These encounters were socially unacceptable and looked down upon by white plantation owners, even though the majority of whites in Memphis at the time favored the gradual emancipation of slaves. As the civil war approached, the black population grew as more black slaves were brought to Memphis to work the cotton fields.
During the Civil War, Memphis sided with the Confederates, but it was uickly captured by the Union who strategically wanted the town as the sight of a naval yard. The Union also made Memphis a freedman’s colony, and many neighboring black slaves came to Memphis once they were emancipated to partake in education and paid labor. Memphis fell so easily to the Union that most of its infrastructure remained in place. For a brief moment, Memphis became a city of opportunity to black Americans and a place where black communities thrived.
Yet as white Memphians saw themselves competing with former slaves, tensions ran high on many of their newly arrived black neighbors in a riot that left forty-six dead, nearly wice that many injured, five women raped, approximately 100 blacks robbed, and ninety-one homes, four churches, and all twelve black schools destroyed. “[l] The riots did not stop until martial law was declared and troops from Nashville arrived in Memphis to force peace. For a good many years, the black community suffered and struggled to regain prominence, most of them being too poor to move away for new opportunities.
With all the schools destroyed, the educational opportunities vanished and the ability of black to become literate and contribute to society became almost impossible. Yet this would not be the only disaster in Memphis. In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics plagued the city. In 1878, the worst of the yellow fever epidemics hit, and 25,000 people fled. 17,000 contracted the fever and over 5,000 died in the summer of 1878. Of the population that would remain in Memphis, 70% of those would be blacks who were too poor flee.
The city of Memphis, which was already in debt, lost much of its tax base and went bankrupt. At the end of the 1800s and the early 1900s, Memphis would turn around again economically, yet many of the areas social problems would remain. Memphis fared reasonably well in addressing the problems of its white community, but the citys black citizens were shunted aside, their civil rights and their human dignity subordinated to a cult of white supremacy. “ Around this time, railroads connected Memphis to the Atlantic Ocean, allowing it to become one of the largest manufacturers and shippers of hardwood in the United States.