Above: Allen Nevils Crutcher, a black store-owner in Franklin since his 1863 emancipation, tried to quell tempers during the 1867 race riot
9. Race Riot after the Civil War in Downtown Franklin
In the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, in the early days of Reconstruction, with the local economy shattered and no clear path forward in this new dawn, tensions and embitterment reached new levels.
Once the backbone of southern economics, the plantation system had its back broken. Whites and newly freed blacks were universally not just out of work but no longer knew the rules of daily life. Or if there were any. The government was not yet reestablished or settled enough to create any real sense of law and order.
In this tinderbox, a spark lit in Franklin on July 18, 1868. Divisions were not starkly between black and white; there was also those who were politically Radical and Conservative. Radical Republicans had a very different idea about punitive reconstruction, while conservatives supported a more forgiving approach. Blacks and whites belonged to both factions.
The riot had its beginnings in the marching downtown of the local Colored League, made of armed ex-slaves and soldiers. They had been marching through town with drums and a fife. They were apparently accosted and shot upon in the afternoon. Tensions, already high, turned to violence and fear of violence.
Conservatives feared that the marching had a military aspect, and felt not quite sure of their safety from the marchers. In the afternoon, a Col. John House and some men approached a few members of the League. Harsh words were exchanged between him and a Mr. J.C. Bliss, one of the Colored League. House assaulted Bliss, who then went to other marchers asking for a pistol.
From there, things deteriorated quickly.
Men gathered at House’s store and took up arms. Meanwhile, the League marched out of town and regrouped. They gathered muskets and other arms, and decided to head back into town.
At half past eight, the League marched towards the public square and the party of Conservatives estimated at from 25 to 30, apparently under command of Col. House, formerly of the Rebel Army, took position under the corner of the wall of House’s store facing the square. A standoff ensued.
Telegraph wires were cut, and troops were called in from Nashville to quell the sides.
At least 7 people were injured in the riot, according to the Freedmen’s Bureau’s report made at the time.
From the report:
The Colored League had recently procured drums and a fife, and had been marching around about the outskirts of the town after supper for several nights without disturbing anyone. On different occasions they were interrupted by colored Conservatives (Dick Crutcher and A. J. Gadsey passing through their column while marching, firing shots). In consequence of this interference some members of the League consulted a lawyer and prominent citizens to ascertain if any legal steps could be taken to protect themselves against these disturbances. Finding that there was no legal remedy for these annoyances the League armed some of its members for protection.
They were again disturbed and fired on, and returned the fire without injury to anyone. The occurrence taking place out of town was perhaps not known to many citizens.
A general feeling of insecurity seemed to seize upon the members of the League and the idea prevailed that their procession and marching were objected to by many persons and fears were entertained that attempts might be made to prevent their continuances. There is no doubt that the Conservatives viewed the marching and displays of the League as a military demonstration and feared that it might result in strife. Impudent remarks and foolish boasts were made by individuals of both parties, and each had come to regard the other with a jealous eye.
On the 6th instant, there was a political meeting which was addressed by Mr. John Trimble and Mr. Elliott, Republican candidate for Congress & State Legislator respectively. This meeting passed off quietly and amicably. In the afternoon a colored Conservative named Joe Williams passed through the town and was prevailed upon to return and speak. After he had spoken a short time, the Radicals became dissatisfied with his style and attempted to withdraw from the meeting. A Mr. J. C. Bliss who was a member of the League, was assailed by Col. John House and a party of armed men who seemed to be acting under his orders. He was struck by this Col. House and assaulted by abusive epithets. Mr. Bliss then went among the members of the League in a very excited condition and attempted to get a pistol with which to defend himself or to attack Col. House.
This altercation between Bliss and House plus the efforts of the Conservatives to prevent the Radicals from leaving the meeting created great excitement among the members of the League.
They marched away from the point where the speaking occurred and fired a few shots in the air as they moved off as a salute, they claimed. Their white friends urged them to disperse and go to their homes, which they seemed unwilling to do, feeling that their liberties were infringed upon; however they were prevailed upon to march out of town to a grove where they were addressed for an hour and a half by Mr. Elliott & Mr. Clifton, both of whom again urged them to disperse and go home.
They seemed to object to this for two reasons – the first was that the Conservatives would attribute their retirement to cowardice; the second that they had planned a torchlight procession for the evening which they were unwilling to abandon, but they finally decided to march to the public square and there break ranks, dispersing to their homes, giving up the plan of a torchlight procession. This was about half past eight o’clock in the evening.
In the meantime, it was manifest that a collision was expected – and the Conservatives were preparing for it by gathering arms and ammunition into the store of Col. John House — and perhaps other places around the square. During the afternoon, the number of arms also seemed to have increased among the members of the Loyal League, numbering perhaps ten muskets and a few pistols, the number not known. At half past eight, the League marched towards the public square and the party of Conservatives estimated at from 25 to 30, apparently under command of Col. House, formerly of the Rebel Army, took position under a corner of the wall of House’s store facing the square.