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Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month: Frances Thompson

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 4/18/2024

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

A profile for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month

Frances Thompson was born around 1840, though the exact date and location are unknown. Like so many others, she was born into slavery. She was also assigned male at birth and presumably treated as a boy for much of her childhood. Some accounts say she was born in Alabama. According to Frances, “I was raised in Maryland. All our people but mistress got killed in the rebel army.” The next time historical accounts find her, she’s 26 and living in Memphis, Tenn., a free person in a burgeoning society of freed people. 


She was also, by the time, living as a woman. She shaved her face smooth and enjoyed wearing brightly colored silk dresses. She walked with crutches, due to an ailment in her foot. To make a living, she provided laundry and sewing services from the home she shared with her roommate, 16-year-old Lucy Smith. By 1866, against the odds, hers had become a relatively peaceful life.


While the U.S. Civil War raged through its final years, once enslaved people like Frances moved to cities occupied by the Union Army. Populations swelled and cities suddenly had huge communities in need of schools, health care, and homes. Congress created The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly called The Freedmen’s Bureau, to control the assets seized during the war and manage the resources (rations, hospitals, camps, etc.) for the newly free.


Memphis was a city that had already grown considerably just years earlier. The Great Famine in Ireland spanned 1845 to 1859 and a large number of the Irish seeking a better life settled in Tennessee. They were initially met with hostility and relegation to the margins of society, but by the time the Union Army seized and occupied Memphis in 1862, Irish immigrants had risen to many of the seats of power, including the mayorship and the police force. The poor and working Irish, meanwhile, now found themselves in competition with freed people for the few jobs available to any of them.


The legal status of the Black population was uncertain; they were no longer slaves, but not yet citizens. “Nonetheless,” said Hannah Rosen, history professor at College of William and Mary in her presentation for C-Span, “freed people...began their lives in Memphis with expectations for freedom that included the ability to enjoy free movement, social life, and a family and urban community of their choosing, to be compensated for their labor, and to have those rights protected by law in the form of The Freedmen’s Bureau and the police power of the occupying Union Army.” It was these exact expectations—those of fully equal citizens—that rankled the white and Irish of Memphis.


The Freedman’s Bureau was also not particularly sensitive in its handling of these complex conditions. “Efforts by blacks to escape plantation labor and to remove women and children from the labor force received scant sympathy, even from the officers of the Freedmen's Bureau,” wrote Kevin R. Hardwick in ‘Your Old Father Abe Lincoln Is Dead and Damned’: Black Soldiers and the Memphis Race Riot of 1866.


The emancipation of slave labor meant southern plantations did not have the resources (read: people) to produce materials on which the country, and particularly the south, had grown dependent. Worried about widespread famine, the Bureau tried to force the freedmen to work on these plantations in the countryside, though with pay and labor contracts this time. Not surprisingly, the freed people did not appreciate this offer, seeing it as an attempt to recreate slavery under a new name. 


“The freedmen sought to repudiate the strictures of the traditional order and to claim their independence,” said Kevin. “Many of the white citizens of Memphis were committed to the enforcement of an altogether different vision of racial relations, in which blacks, while legally no longer slaves, remained subordinate to white authority.”


The local police force began a reign of terror. They raided Black gatherings, often arresting and beating those they found. They accused Black women, many of whom were the wives of the Union soldiers, of prostitution and attempted to arrest them, too.


These freed people did not respond to the violence with violence—nor did they relinquish the rights they deserved. Most reported these incidents of harassment to the Freedmen’s Bureau, pursuing the avenue of retribution available to them. When their public gatherings were banned, they continued to drink and celebrate together, enjoying the “free movement, social life, and a family and urban community of their choosing,” as Hannah recounted. 


Despite this restrained response, rumors began in the white community that retaliation would come any day now. Black people, they were certain, were brewing up something terrible for them.

Local newspapers stoked these fears, often outright calling for southerners to “take into their own hands the education of this class of our population,” while using phrases like “black barbarians” and stating that there had been “justice and wisdom” in slavery. “The constant publication in March and April 1866 of the meanest and most hateful stereotypes of African Americans could do nothing but excite feelings of white Memphians,” wrote Marius Carriere in An Irresponsible Press: Memphis Newspapers and the 1866 Riot. “…the press of the city was solid in its belief that the United States had been created by whites for whites and nothing should be allowed to change that.” The Daily Avalanche went so far as to list the names of “radicals” to encourage boycotts of certain businesses and to target individuals. 


Control or censure was unlikely to come from the White House. President Abraham Lincoln had been killed nearly a full year earlier and his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, took on the task of rebuilding the country with an emphasis on helping poor whites. When faced with petitions for him to give federal attention to the violence in the south, he refused. “The lack of vigorous—or, for that matter, any—response only further encouraged white southerners, who recognized that they now had a friend in the White House,” noted Carol Anderson in White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.


Frances Thompson in an 1876 illustration for The Days' Doings. Public Domain

Then, at the end of April 1866, a troop of Black Union soldiers was discharged. They came to Memphis to await their final payment. 

“This riot was not planned; few riots are,” wrote Jack D. L. Holmes in The Underlying Causes of the Memphis Race Riot of 1866. “But the underlying political, economic and social causes which provoked it were long-standing, and fairly indicative of conditions throughout the post-Civil War South.”

On May 1, a street fight broke out between a few of these discharged soldiers and local police. This, it seems, was the spark that set the whole thing ablaze. Mobs of white and Irish men launched a vicious assault on the Black community.

And a mob banged on Frances Thompson’s door in the dark.

“Between one and two o’clock Tuesday night seven men, two of whom were policemen, came to my house. I know they were policemen by their stars. They were all Irishmen,” she later told Congress. 

The seven men demanded food from Frances and roommate Lucy. “I made them some biscuit and some strong coffee, and they all sat down and ate,” Frances said. “When they had eaten supper, they said they wanted some woman to sleep with. I said we were not that sort of women, and they must go. They said, ‘that didn’t make a damned bit of difference.’ ... They drew their pistols and said they would shoot us and fire the house if we did not let them have their way with us. All seven of the men violated us two.”


The men then robbed the home, stealing three of Frances’s fine silk dresses and all the money she’d saved up, as well as the money of a friend that Frances was keeping for her. “They were there, perhaps, for nearly four hours: it was getting day when they left. ... They said they intended to ‘burn up the last God damned n——r.’” They took the red-white-and-blue quilts Frances and Lucy had been making for the Union soldiers. Frances feared they would burn her home, too, but they did not.


Lucy’s testimony corroborated Frances’s, giving further details to the horrifying hours. “There were some pictures in the room: we had [Union Army] General Hooker and some other Union officers, and they said they would not have hurt us so bad if it had not been for these pictures,” Lucy said. “They were in the house a good while after they hurt me, but I lay down on the bed for I thought they had killed me.” 


James Gilbert Ryan writes in The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a Black Community During Reconstruction: “…a large white mob descended upon the city's Negro community and rampaged unchecked for the entire night and the following day. By the time martial law was declared and order firmly reestablished on the afternoon of May 3, 46 blacks and 2 whites lay dead. Seventy-five other persons had received bullet wounds. Moreover, during the forty-hour span of anarchy, predatory gangs had raped at least 5 Negro women, robbed over 100 victims and dealt severe beatings to 10 others. Property destroyed included the houses of 91 families, (89 belonging to blacks, 1 owned by a white man and 1 of an interracial couple), 4 churches, and 12 schools. A contemporary estimate placed the damage at over $100,000.”


“Sexual violence in the midst of a race riot reveals more than simply extreme brutality,” wrote Hannah in ‘Not that Sort of Women’: Race, Gender and Sexual Violence. “These sexual assaults...were not spontaneous acts of sexual aggression released from ‘normal’ restraints in the pandemonium of a riot. They were, rather, the elaborate and, in a sense, ‘scripted’ enactments of fantasies of racial superiority and domination.”


For decades, slavery and the dehumanization that permitted it insisted that Black women were sexually insatiable and meant to be available to white men: they did not have the right, nor the inclination to say no, the belief went. Reading the full accounts of each of the women attacked that night, the comments from the attackers reveal profound and chilling indifference to the obvious terror, weeping, and physical pain the women displayed. These men seemingly could not fathom that human beings stood before them.


Congress, deep in the discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment that would grant citizenship to the freed, heard the testimony of Frances, Lucy, and over 160 others about the events in Memphis. Also in discussion at the time was the manner in which these Confederate states should be accepted back into the Union.


After reading the witness accounts, Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens said on the House floor, “I hear several gentlemen say that these men [the Confederates] should be admitted as equal brethren. Let not these friends of secession sing to me their siren song of peace and good will until they can stop my ears to the screams and groans of the dying victims at Memphis.’”


Despite the outrage of some members of Congress, none of the riotous mob ever saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone a jailhouse. The Attorney General declared the event a state issue, and Tennessee officials were disinclined to press any charges. The case was entirely dropped. 


Frances’s testimony, and that of 170 total witnesses, was gathered by the Freedmen’s Bureau. While no offender saw justice, the Memphis Riot is considered to be one of the factors that destroyed any lingering confidence in President Johnson. In the following election, Radical Republicans, those who wanted a complete and immediate eradication of slavery, claimed a majority in Congress. They passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, making freed people citizens of the United States, and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, granting Black men the right to vote. 


(These were victories, but not complete ones, as many, including Frederick Douglass, noted 1880: “Today, in most of the Southern states, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments are virtually nullified. The rights which they were intended to guarantee are denied and held in contempt. ... The old master class is today triumphant, and the newly-enfranchised class in a condition but a little above that in which they were found before rebellion.”)


Following the 1866 massacre, Frances now had public attention, as well as public scrutiny. Those women who had testified, Hannah wrote, “had successfully represented themselves as honorable women and shown white men to be the ones who were dishonorable and criminal. ... The conservative press, which had earlier been so full of condemnations of black women as disreputable and depraved, was at least temporarily silenced by the overwhelming evidence of the violence enacted by white men.”


But when, like Mary Jones before her, Frances was arrested in 1876, the same papers that had stoked rage before the riot reveled in her charge of “cross-dressing.”


“Frances Thompson, a Respected Colored Lady, Subjected to Brutal Outrage by ‘Rebel’ Rioters,” declared the North Missouri Register on Sept. 14, 1876. “Ten Years Later This Victim of Diabolic Lust is Discovered to be of Masculine Gender and is sent to the Work House.” Articles in papers around the country repeatedly misgendered Frances and put her name in quotation marks or called her Frank instead. They recounted that she was subjected to examination by four physicians, surely an invasive and demeaning experience, that declared her “a man.” 


Many papers, like The Columbian on July 28, 1876, reprinted Frances’s Congressional testimony to call it into question with a certain glee. “Thus the evidence of this perjured negro scoundrel, dressed in woman’s clothing, was made the thread of a horrible narrative, authenticated by the signatures of two leading Republican members of Congress, printed at the government expense and sent out by tons through the mails ... The vile fabrication served its purpose. But the people against whose good name it was directed have lived down the base calumny and it is now their turn to laugh.”


“[A]n incident that might have received only passing mention in the local press under different circumstances[,] filled the city columns for days,” said Hannah. “There is evidence…of a campaign of vilification against Thompson in the conservative press, one designed to refute the charges of white southern brutality against African Americans.”


Yet, they did not stop at discarding Frances’s testimony. She was weaponized against her fellow survivors, despite their assaults being unique, unrelated to Frances’s, and corroborated by other parties. Conservatives of the era declared all the reports of rape to be spurious and intended only to harm the respectable white men accused. 


“Thompson paid dearly for her supposed crime,” Hannah wrote. “After her arrest, she was placed on the city’s chain gang, where she was forced to wear men’s clothing and suffered constant ridicule from crowds drawn by mocking press reports.” When interviewed, Frances told a reporter about the cruel treatment she received from the jail keeper, including being put on display for these gathering crowds. It’s likely she also experienced further sexual violence. She continued to assert her right to dignity, however. By some reports, when asked about her gender, she’d respond, “None of your damn business.”


After her sentence, Frances moved north, but she wouldn’t survive the year. She soon grew unwell and concerned members of the local Black community took her to the hospital. There, she died of dysentery on Nov. 1, 1876, at age 35 or 36.


Though her life was short and often brutal, her legacy is significant. As Hannah stated, “Freedwomen declaring publicly that the violence they had suffered constituted rape, that they were the ‘sort of women’ who could be violated and deserved legal protection from sexual abuse, represented a radical reversal of both antebellum legal notions and white constructions of black womanhood.”


Said simply, despite living in a country and time that offered her only degradation and injustice, Frances bravely demanded her due respect and dignity as a Black woman. 




The American Yawp Reader: A case of sexual violence during Reconstruction, 1866

‘Not that Sort of Women’: Race, Gender and Sexual Violence by Hannah Rosen

Words of Resistance: African American Women’s Testimony about Sexual Violence during the Memphis Massacre by Hannah Rosen

Wikipedia: Frances Thompson These 5 Black women made history — and here’s why you should know their stories

C-Span: The Civil War Preview: 1866 Memphis Massacre

National Archives: The Freedmen’s Bureau

House of Representatives: Memphis Riots and Massacre – July 25, 1866

The ColumbianJuly 28, 1876

The North Missouri RegisterSept. 18, 1876

The Underlying Causes of the Memphis Race Riot of 1866 by Jack D.L. Holmes

An Irresponsible Press: Memphis Newspapers and the 1866 Riot by Marius Carriere 

"Your Old Father Abe Lincoln Is Dead and Damned": Black Soldiers and the Memphis Race Riot of 1866 by Kevin R. Hardwick

The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a Black Community During Reconstruction by James Gilbert Ryan The Meaning of Emancipation in 1800: An Address by Frederick Douglass

The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Volume 2: April 1865-August 1868