150 Years Ago, the Colfax Massacre Was the Largest Single Attack on Black People's Democratic RightsRoundup
tags: racism, Reconstruction, Louisiana, Colfax Massacre, White Supremacy
Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall (1929–2022) was a groundbreaking historian of slavery, prolific author, Professor Emerita at Rutgers, and a lifelong political activist who created a database identifying more than one hundred thousand enslaved Louisianans.
Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian and author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, and a forthcoming biography of the writer/activist Lillian E. Smith.
The Civil War did not end in the Deep South in 1865. The proslavery, pro-Confederate legacies powerfully persisted, shaping the telling of our history and knowledge about people, places, and events: our perception of reality.
This is precisely why many Americans have never heard of one of the most important episodes of mass murder in US history: the racist, bloody Colfax Massacre of April 13, 1873 — exactly one hundred fifty years ago today — when white supremacists slaughtered over one hundred fifty black men in the northwest corner of Louisiana.
Located in the heart of the Red River Valley, Colfax was a highly prosperous area in the global cotton economy prior to the Civil War. But flush times for planters ended abruptly after secession. New Orleans fell to the US Army early, in April 1862. After Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed those enslaved in Confederate-occupied territory in 1863, the US Army conducted a ten-day raid up the Red River to Alexandria, where the Confederate governor of Louisiana, Thomas Moore, owned a large plantation.
During the Civil War, the US Army enlisted nearly two hundred thousand armed black men — an astonishing 10 percent of all troops who served. Composed of formerly enslaved men, refugees, and free blacks, these soldiers were tasked with maintaining order, ensuring peace, and protecting polling places.
But when former enslavers began complaining about the black occupation troops, President Andrew Johnson quickly removed them. By the fall of 1867, the number of soldiers in Louisiana had dwindled to only twenty thousand men. The US government decided to redirect its military might toward western colonization, resulting in the murderous removal of indigenous people.
In the Red River Valley, too few troops meant chaos and contention, as there was no longer a functioning home guard, military patrol, or military commission. The US government had abandoned the region, as well the people in it, leaving political, judicial, and police power up for grabs.
The character of wealth changed, as access to goods and supplies became paramount. Within this shifting landscape, a new group of merchants emerged, competing through violent, insurrectionary means. The Red River Valley transformed into a highway of militarized desperados and warring factions, with no clearly established governmental authority. Murder, gun violence, and terror became the order of the day.
Louisiana’s new constitution, enacted in 1868, created an enclave of Republican power along the Red River, an area that was majority-black and deeply divided. Grant Parish was carved out of Rapides and Winn Parishes and named triumphantly for President Ulysses S. Grant. The parish seat, Colfax, took the surname of his vice president, Schuyler Colfax, Jr.
Yet with so few troops to counterbalance the power of former enslavers and their kin, laws enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments — providing citizenship and the right to vote to all men — were applied timidly and to little effect. Federal election supervisors in rural areas had no police power and were reduced to poll watchers.
That same year, to help keep peace, the Louisiana state legislature established a five-thousand-man militia, half white and half black. The white troops were mainly Confederate veterans; the black troops, Union veterans. During bitter struggles over control of the state government, the militia fragmented along racial lines, with one sector becoming the military arm of a terrorist organization called the White League after 1873. The boundary line between these white supremacists and black Republicans was Bayou Darrow, located seven miles north of Colfax.
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