On March 6, 1863, a white mob attacked the black population of Detroit, Michigan, in the city’s first race riot. The episode highlighted racism among northern whites and racial tensions, which would lead to the violent New York City Draft Riots in July 1863.
Many whites, as in other Northern cities, despised the government’s military draft and the influx of blacks, mostly from the South. The Detroit Free Press, a local Democratic newspaper, routinely published articles accusing African Americans of generating problems that primarily afflicted the city’s working-class whites.
The journal pushed the notion that freedmen fleeing the South would take white men’s employment, resulting in increased racial conflict in the city.
The trial of William Faulkner, a mixed-race man accused of abusing two girls, one of whom was white, ultimately boiled over tensions in Detroit. The Free Press and other newspapers dubbed Faulkner a black man, despite the fact that he identified as a “Spanish-Indian” and had previously voted (at the time, only white men could vote). Faulkner was black and had raped a white girl, according to the white public.
A big mob of whites insulted and threw stones at Faulkner as he was brought out of the courtroom during the first day of his trial. The following day, March 6, a larger crowd gathered outside the courthouse. Faulkner was found guilty and condemned to life in prison, but while he was being carried back to jail, he was attacked by an enraged crowd. In an attempt to disperse the gathering, the Detroit Provost Guard, who was responsible for his safety, fired blanks. When the throng remained, they opened fire with live ammo, killing Charles Langer, a white onlooker.
The mob, enraged, decided to attack the city’s largely black area. They broke into a cooper shop but were repelled by five men inside, one of whom was armed with a shotgun. Rather, the crowd set fire to the shop and a nearby residence. Despite the fact that all of the residents were able to flee the building, they were attacked by the white crowd right away, and one guy, Joshua Boyd, died as a result of his injuries.
The mob set fire to at least thirty structures, causing thousands of dollars in damage and injuring a large number of African Americans in the streets. At least 200 black citizens had become homeless by the time local forces put down the rioting, with some fleeing over the river to Canada.
No one was ever charged with a crime in connection with the killings of Langer and Boyd. Faulkner’s accusers recanted their story several years after the riots, and he was released from prison. The city council refused to compensate residents for property damage caused by the riots, despite the Michigan Legislature’s recommendation.