A Brief History
On April 13, 1873, on Easter Sunday, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, between 60 and 150 African-Americans were slaughtered by irate Louisiana White Democrats angry about having lost the Civil War and Reconstruction efforts to place free Black persons in government and militia positions.
With the status quo severely upended after the Civil War, disaffected White people believed that Northern interference was adversely affecting the welfare of the White Democrats. The 1872 gubernatorial election had been hotly contested as had local elections, with Blacks being allowed to vote in large numbers and ex-Confederates being disenfranchised, leading to victories by the hated Republicans (the party of Lincoln and the North during the Civil War).
With Louisiana and the South in disarray, White supremacist groups and paramilitary organizations sprung up to resist the tide of free Blacks voting and taking office, owning property, and all manner of “normal” citizen rights. President Grant stepped up efforts to combat the Ku Klux Klan and other White groups prone to violence and disruption, leading to even more dissatisfaction by angry White Southerners.
In this cauldron of change and anger, Grant Parish, Louisiana had seen the ruling White class overtaken by free Blacks, 2400 to 2200. Afraid of the anti-Black backlash, free Blacks fortified the courthouse by digging trenches around it and manning it with militia, creating a sort of siege in which for 3 weeks the Republican office holders remained at the courthouse. White Democrats rallied other Whites from nearby Parishes, while Blacks also recruited additional militia men. Tensions escalated when Black militia men raided White homes, and a Black man was killed in a minor skirmish, one of several confrontations in early April 1873. White activists demanded the Blacks leave the courthouse, which was refused, and rumors that armed Blacks were preparing to massacre White men and take White women prisoner alarmed the already alarmed Whites. Sensationalist newspaper accounts fanned the flames, and a White mob/militia, heavily armed, including with a 4 pound cannon, mobilized to retake the courthouse. The Whites were almost all experienced ex-Confederate soldiers.
About 300 armed Whites descended upon the courthouse and demanded the Blacks vacate the premises, which they refused. The mob ordered the Black women and children camped outside the courthouse to leave immediately, which they did, after which the attack on the courthouse began. A few hours of exchanging rifle shots produced few casualties, until the cannon was brought up causing 5 dozen Black defenders to flee. Many of the fleeing Blacks were shot as they jumped into the nearby river. The rest of the defenders decided to surrender, waving white flags.
Many of the Blacks taken prisoner were later executed, with around 150 Blacks killed (the highest estimate being 280) compared to just a few Whites. Many of the Black men had been shot in the back of the head or the back of the neck.
Of course, news of the “riot” or “massacre” (pick your description, both have been used) resulted in State and Federal investigations, and a total of 97 White men were charged with crimes (indicted). Of those, only 9 faced trial, with 1 acquittal and 8 mistrials declared. The 8 remaining defendants were retried, with 3 convicted, but the convictions of those 3 and the original single conviction were all later thrown out. The case went to the Supreme Court in United States v. Cruickshank 1875, with a finding that Federal charges could not be pursued in this case. The victory for the White supremacists encouraged other White paramilitary supremacist groups and led to further violence over the next couple decades.
In 1950, an unrepentant Louisiana erected a memorial marker to the “Colfax Riot of 1873.” The inscription said “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot, in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
Today, things have changed, with the Republican Party representing conservative Whites and the Democratic Party now the overwhelming choice of African-Americans. Civil Rights laws and measures have greatly changed the racial landscape of America, with the most visible result being the election and reelection of Barack Obama as President in 2008 and 2012. Armed racial conflict of the scale exhibited at Colfax seems unlikely today, but at times racial tensions flare up, sometimes resulting in violence. Question for students (and subscribers): How far do you believe the United States has come toward racial equality? Do you think we are fairly close to equal treatment under the law or do you think we have a long way to go? What do you think remains to be done, or undone? Please share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Keith, LeeAnna. The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Lane, Charles. The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. Holt Paperbacks, 2009.