During the racist Memphis Massacre of 1866, Frances Thompson, a Black trans woman, suffered a vicious assault. Her Congressional testimony inspired important civil rights gains during Reconstruction.
Frances was born in Alabama and grew up enslaved in Maryland. Following emancipation, she moved to Memphis, where she worked as a seamstress.
On May 1, 1866, several Black people in Memphis, including former Union veterans, held a block party. Police attempted to arrest the party-goers, the veterans resisted, and police and other whites rioted. Over three days, white mobs killed 46 people and burned down four Black churches, four Black schools and 91 homes.
A group of seven white men, including police officers, attacked Frances and her sixteen-year-old housemate Lucy Smith in their home. They raped Frances and Lucy at gunpoint and robbed them of hundreds of dollars. Lucy said she was so badly injured. “I thought they had killed me.” Frances was sick for two weeks after the attack.
Months later, Frances delivered painful, riveting testimony about the massacre at a Congressional hearing. She noted that the men who attacked her had boasted of their Confederate sympathies.
Her words, and the Memphis Massacre itself, turned public opinion strongly against neo-Confederate violence. Congress soon passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and other legislation, which guaranteed political and civil rights to Black people.
Ten years later, in 1876, police in Memphis arrested Frances for unknown reasons, and discovered that she was trans. Memphis authorities tried to use this to discredit her 1866 testimony, falsely insisting that she could not have been sexually assaulted.
The court sentenced Frances to labor in the city's male chain gang and forced her to wear men's clothing. She experienced further abuse while in prison. After her release, she was seriously ill and died of dysentery in 1877 or shortly thereafter.