Memorial Day and the Lee Street Massacre

Matthew Teutsch
5 min readMay 31, 2021

Today, we celebrate Memorial Day in the United States, a day where we remember those who died serving their country. In May 1865, less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered, ending the Civil War, recently freed African Americans celebrated Decoration Day. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 people, largely formerly enslaved individuals, gathered and marched around the Charleston racetrack, commemorating the 260 Union soldiers who died when the Confederacy transformed the racetrack into a prison during the war. They marched to remember those who died so that they could be free.

As we celebrate Memorial Day, I want to expand the ways that we think about this day and its importance. When we think about Memorial Day, we think about men and women who died in combat. We do not always think about those who died before or after combat, and this is what I want to focus on today, specifically a couple of events where African American soldiers were killed not on the battlefields of World War II but on the streets of the United States as they prepared to go and fight for freedom abroad.

A month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Black soldiers from Camp Claiborne in central Louisiana went to the town of Alexandria on Saturday January 10, 1942, for some R&R. Most of the soldiers were from the North, and on that night, a Black soldier supposedly stepped in front of a car driven by a white woman. The woman called the police, and the shooting started. As Doug Bristol puts it, the woman “called the local police officer over who of course immediately started to arrest him and other soldiers that had come out with him that night, came around and this became a police riot because one among the things they reported where police were doing things like just shooting into black barbershops. So it just became this rampage through the Lee St. area.” The other narrative is that a white MP beat an African American soldier in front of the Ritz Movie Theater and the crowd reacted, protesting the beating.

Lee Street was, as the recent marker erected to remember the massacre indicates, “a thriving African-American community in the 1940s. The area included churches, eating establishments, grocery stores, entertainment venues, a sporting arena, an Army-YMCA-USA building and the Ritz Theater.” It was a neighborhood akin, in many ways, to…

Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.