Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Accompanied by my client, today I visited my next project site in Louisiana - the town of Colfax. Like my prior visit on Friday the 13th, it rained, but today the weather let up long enough to walk the site over and get a good look around. If I had thought that the Town of Jena, the site of my current Louisiana project, was racially charged, I was even more dismayed to learn of the Colfax Massacre 136 years ago.

Colfax is the seat of Grant Parish, Louisiana. The town’s origins trace back to the decision in 1859 by Meredith and Mary Calhoun to abandoned Louisiana for a tasteful Parisian pied-à-terre, leaving control of the sprawling sugar and cotton Calhoun Plantation to their hunchbacked son, Willie. By 1869, Grant Parish, named for President U.S. Grant, was carved out of the Plantation, with Colfax, named for Grant’s vice-president Schuyler Colfax, established as its parish seat.

The Colfax Massacre occurred on April 13, 1873. What follows is what I’ve gathered from Wikipedia, PBS' American Experience, a NY Times review of two recent books (The Colfax Massacre - The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction by LeeAnna Keith and The Day Freedom Died - The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction by Charles Lane), and a conversation today with a very patient and accommodating city official.

The violence apparently grew out of the complexities of Reconstruction-era politics. Prior to the Civil War, white Southern Democrats enjoyed a great deal of governmental power. But by 1868, the federal government, under the control of radical Republicans, had forced Louisiana to rewrite the state constitution to guarantee African-Americans equal rights, including the right to vote. Immediately, black voters swept into office a full slate of Republicans committed to Washington’s agenda.

As a result, a "shadow" government formed that included its own army, the White League, which had started forming chapters across the state beginning in 1874. Similar to the Ku Klux Klan, which had also been growing in strength in the South, the White League intimidated and attacked Republicans and blacks all over the state.

Every election in Louisiana between 1868 and 1876 had been marked by rampant violence and pervasive fraud. In 1872, both candidates in the race for the Governor’s office had claimed victory. Although the state election board at first declared the Democrat and his slate elected, the board later split and a pro-Republican faction declared the Republican the winner. Both candidates held inauguration parties. With support from the Federal government, Republican William Kellogg, a former colonel in the Union Army, assumed control as Louisiana governor. As soon as the results were in, enraged whites refused to cooperate and took up armed resistance against the new government.

The violence was particularly ferocious in Colfax. Willie Calhoun, having inherited his fortune from the labor of 700 slaves, had taken a black woman as his common-law wife and became the region’s foremost radical Republican. When trouble came to Colfax, Willie stood by the men and women he had once claimed to own. Colfax became a Republican stronghold anchored by the area’s black majority, but local whites mounted a sustained campaign of terror against party loyalists. Black and white Republicans were threatened, beaten and killed, all in a desperate bid to drive them away from the polls and out of office. In 1872 — after four years of bloodshed — the Republicans finally cracked. Amid widespread intimidation and obvious fraud, white supremacists, running as Democrats, swept that year’s election in Colfax.

But the Republican governor, whose legitamacy in office was not accepted by the white Democrats anyway, refused to accept the parish election results. So 1873 began with two factions claiming to be Colfax’s legitimate government. The conflict peaked in March, when a black Republican militia occupied the courthouse in the center of town. The white Democrats promised to drive them out. For three weeks, the two sides prepared for battle. On Easter Sunday, 165 white men armed with rifles and a small cannon, probably including members of the White League, attacked. Within a few hours they had overrun the Republicans’ defenses, set the courthouse on fire, and took many black prisoners. White Republican officeholders were not attacked.

Estimates of the dead varied. Only three whites had died, but a military report to Congress in 1875 identified the deaths of 105 black men. Of those, nearly half were murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered and been held as prisoners for several hours. In addition, 15-20 bodies of unidentified black men were recovered from the Red River.

The Justice Department charged nine of the massacre’s ringleaders with conspiring to deprive their victims of the civil rights guaranteed them by the 14th Amendment. White Democrats particularly hated the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to blacks and declared that no state was to deprive them of "life, liberty, or property." The Southern Democrats feared that as a result blacks would have to be considered equal to their white former masters.

“I look forward to the day,” the attorney general told the justices at the close of oral arguments, “when we can consider ourselves not a nation of inharmonious and warring sovereigns, but a Union whose broad shield shall protect ... her people from one end to the other.” The defendants’ lawyers countered that the 14th Amendment didn’t empower the federal government to prosecute citizens in such a way; that responsibility remained with state governments.

In March 1876, the court ruled against the federal government’s position and the Colfax defendants were set free. The Supreme Court had ruled that the Colfax prosecution was unconstitutional, and everyone understood that Southern state governments wouldn’t prosecute whites who murdered blacks. White supremacists were free to wage war against African-Americans with absolute impunity, and racial violence spiked everywhere in the South. Within a year, Reconstruction was dead. Federal troops sent to restore order by President Grant remained in Louisiana until 1877, and the United States began its descent into a systematic segregation so powerful it would endure for almost 100 years.

An historical marker outside of the parish courthouse today refers to the events as "The Colfax Riot," although considering the body count and the racial distribution of the dead, "Massacre" is probably a better term. As I had mentioned, a very patient and accommodating town official who was helping to provide access to the project site also had time to provide his version of the story. Meeting in the very courthouse in which the Massacre had occurred, he told the story as the noble uprising by brave townsmen against insidious carpetbaggers, bringing the hateful Reconstruction to an end.

I cannot hold the events of 136 years ago against the current residents of Colfax. And who can blame people for considering the actions of their ancestors in the most favorable light? What historical fantasies are you still harboring?

The tragic events of Colfax need to be remembered and its lessons learned, but if we are to look forward to the day when we can consider ourselves not a nation of inharmonious and warring sovereigns, but a Union whose broad shield shall protect her people from one end to the other, we need to also embrace forgiveness and put the past behind us.

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

makes me wonder how many other similar stories have vanished from the history of the America, as taught and as remembered by most Americans.