Colfax Massacre

The Massacre at Colfax, Lousiana

Justin Ryel, December 2014

African Americans have been the victims of racial discrimination for centuries in the United States, especially in the south. Whites particularly opposed the voting rights of African Americans, and thus exercised their opposition. The Colfax Massacre is a prime example of political discrimination on the basis of race. The importance of the Colfax Massacre to American Citizenship is that massacre highlights the struggle against racial oppression in the South in the post-civil war era. In this paper I will illustrate the oppression experienced by the African Americans community of Colfax, Louisiana in the 19th century.

The Colfax Massacre is centralized around the concept of racial tension. Southern African Americans during this time period witnessed significant hatred and opposition from white men and women. While slavery had been abolished at this time, African Americans were still treated as inferior in the south. However, things were a bit brighter for African Americans in the north.

In brief, the Colfax Massacre was a tragic battle between the Republicans and Democrats in 1873. The massacre is symbolic of racial oppression. Democrats of the time opposed Reconstruction, and murdered at least seventy African Americans that stood for it.

Racial oppression was a big deal for African Americans in Louisiana. In 1864 African Americans could not vote. In 1866 the Civil Rights Act was passed. This act stated that all people born in the United States of America should receive the same rights in the state and province, regardless of race or color. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 also dealt with the problem of racial oppression. This act stated that there were to be five military districts in the south each commanded by a general. In addition to the districts, the states had to create new constitutions and they had to authorize the Fourteenth Amendment.

As can be learned through reading Alexander Keyssar’s The Right to Vote, the Reconstruction Act altered politics forever in the South. African Americans, with the support of Republicans, voted in state elections, and did other things such as authorize the Fourteenth Amendment. Although many Democrats did not favor the African Americans at this time period, Republicans of the time such as President Grant did.

The Fifteenth Amendment was another crucial player of the time of the Colfax Massacre. This amendment allowed all (male) citizens of the United States the right to vote, uninfluenced by race and color of skin. The Amendment made a great impact upon the rights of African American men in the south. For once, African Americans were not experiencing oppression.

A typical African American resident of Louisiana during this time period consisted of a farmer struggling to make wages off of his farm. On his farm he would grow cotton; not because he was forced to grow it and pick it like when he was enslaved, but because the crop was a necessary crop for Americans. The farmer rented his land for his farm, and he paid the owner back with a certain amount of crop, also known as sharecropping.

The biggest cause for the Colfax Massacre, along with the background of racial inequality, was the election of 1872. The election was a municipal election for the governor of Louisiana. Because of the Fifteenth Amendment, both African American and white men were allowed to vote. Most African Americans (especially in Colfax) were in support of Reconstruction; they were in support of the Republican Party. Whites, naturally in opposition to Reconstruction, supported the Democratic Party. In the words of Media Nola, a project of Tulane University, “In 1872, John McEnery and William Pitt Kellogg went head to head for the Louisiana Governor position” [1].

William Pit Kellogg was Pro-Reconstruction. He was running as the Republican nominee. Naturally, William Pit Kellogg was supported by the African Americans. In addition to this support, he also was backed by the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

John McEnery was the Democratic nominee. He was against President Grant and Reconstruction. McEnery was a major for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was also supported by both the majority of whites (especially in Colfax), and by the sitting governor of the time, Henry Clay Wormouth.

The results of the election were inconclusive. As Charles Lane puts it in The Journal of African Americans in Higher Education, “the 1872 votes were tabulated in county elections in the small central Louisiana town of Colfax, both sides claimed victory.” [2] The votes for the two candidates were equal; the election was a tie. Wormouth had declared McEnery as the winner of the election. As a result of the tie however, Louisiana had two governors. The two governors both served for 3 months. After three months, there was an uprising, and John McEnery sent a number of militiamen to William Pitt Kellogg’s head office in order to gain control of Louisiana. The federal government got involved and sent troops in to stop the uprising. In the words of The Congressional Record, House of Representatives, 44th Congress, “In response to these incidents…President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order” [3]. Congress attempted to get involved but failed in their attempts. United States President Ulysses S. Grant then got involved. In an attempt to end the dual governing of Louisiana, Grant declared Kellogg the official governor of Louisiana.

After the election, African American men women and children all occupied the local courthouse, the Grant Parish Courthouse. The African Americans did this in order to prevent the Democrats from taking over the local government. Taking over the Grant Parish Courthouse was symbolic. In doing this, African Americans were showing their fellow white citizens of Colfax, Louisiana that they were not afraid to stand up for themselves and for their rights.
The African American community attempted to prove they had an equal place in society. In response to the opposition shown to them, roughly a month before the beginning of the massacre, African American men invaded the houses of the leaders of the Democrats, more specifically, the homes of William Cruikshank, James Hadnot, and Judge William R. Rutland.
As Boyd Cothran puts it in >The Untold Story of African Americans Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction”, “On Easter Sunday, 1873, in the town of Colfax, Louisiana, an all-African Americans Republican militia fought a considerably larger group of white supremacists in a desperate battle for the Grant Parish courthouse.” [4] The Democrats were upset with the fact that their fellow African American citizens were inside the courthouse of Colfax. It is said that the African Americans entered the courthouse with the help of a child. The child reportedly climbed into the building through a window, and managed to then unlock the door.

The African American people of Colfax continued to occupy the courthouse. There was no way they were going to let the whites of Colfax take the courthouse from them. The African Americans even dug trenches around the courthouse. In response to the inhabitants of the Grant Parish Courthouse, the white men of Colfax, under leadership of General Nash, began to march. Upon their arrival at the courthouse, the white militia allowed African American women and children to leave before violence broke out. The African Americans were ordered to leave, but the naturally refused all orders. Their mindset was that the Grant Parish Courthouse was theirs; they were going to fight for their political citizenship. As soon as the women and children left, gunfire broke out.

The whites were clearly winning the battle, as they had more men and better weapons. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in “What was the Colfax Massacre”, “With the courthouse up in flames, its African Americans defenders surrendered with handkerchiefs waving, but the whites kept firing” [5]. Surrender flags soon were waived in the air as an African American captive was ordered by General Nash to set the roof of the courthouse on fire. During the battle, General Hadnot, (white), was shot and killed.

It is important to note that battle would not have broken out if peace could have been kept between the African Americans and white militias. Peace was made and broken due to gunshots of April 2nd and 5th. Battle broke out when a white man fired shots at Jesse McKinney. It was this particular moment that marked the outbreak of The Colfax Massacre.

The aftermath of the massacre at Colfax, Louisiana is dismal. Death tolls for the African Americans totaled an inexact amount between seventy and one hundred sixty-five. In comparison to this was the death of three white men. In response to this battle, ninety-seven men were indicted for breaching the Enforcement Act of 1870, which prohibited discrimination against voters based upon race and color of skin. Of these ninety-seven men, only nine were charged with violating the Enforcement Act. In response to the charges, the court ruled the equal protection of rights provided for all citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to the state and not to the individual. Thus, the courts dropped the charges brought against the white men. In dropping these charges, the courts basically allowed for oppressive racial violence to occur.

Reflecting upon the massacre at Colfax Louisiana, it can be seen as an example of white supremacy. The white men clearly had more power in this situation. They exercised their control by slaughtering about one hundred African American men on Easter Sunday. However, the state of Louisiana did not see the battle in this light. In 1921, about fifty years after the date of the massacre, the town of Colfax erected a monument in the cemetery honoring the three white men killed during the massacre.

Many people interchange the words riot and massacre when referring to the event that took place in Colfax, Louisiana. It seems that it depends upon which side you supported during the battle. If you were a Republican supporting Reconstruction, it is likely that you refer to this event as a massacre. However, if you were a Democrat, supporting white supremacy, and opposing Reconstruction, it is likely that you would have referred to the battle as a riot. As Glynn Maxwell puts it in “Colfax Riot or Massacre: A Brutal Defining Moment”, “There was a battle. Both sides were trying to kill each other. If you call it a massacre, you don’t give the African Americans people their due for standing up.” [6].

The issue at Colfax Louisiana could have been avoided. If the whites of the south were more supportive of the political and civic rights of the African Americans at that time, there would not have been an uprising. The battle at the Grant Parish Courthouse was a prime example of political violence based upon race.

[1] “1872 Louisiana Gubernatorial Election.” Medianola. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
[2] “The day Freedom died: The Colfax massacre, the Supreme Court, and the betrayal of reconstruction”. 2008. The Journal of African Americans in Higher Education (60) (Summer): 92-93, (accessed October 29, 2014).
[3] Congressional Record, House of Representatives, 44th Congress, letter dated 29 May 1876, quoted in the “Colfax, Riot”.
[4] Cothran, Boyd, article written in 2011, quoted in “The Untold Story of African Americans Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction”.
[5] Gates, Henry L., Jr., accessed, 29 Oct. 2014, quoted in “What was the Colfax Massacre.”
[6] “Colfax Riot or Massacre: A Brutal Defining Moment.” Home. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

Further Reading
Lane, Charles. The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. New York: Henry Holt, 2008. Print.

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