The tragic story of the Colfax Massacre

On April 13, 1873, a group of armed white southerners claiming to be a militia massacred as many as 153 Black men in Colfax, Louisiana. In his 2008 book The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, historian Charles Lane tells the story of the hotly contested 1872 race for Louisiana governor and the violent reaction of the white supremacists who couldn't get over losing the Civil War. The governorship was claimed by both Democrats and Republicans. The latter supported Emancipation, and when a federal judge ruled in favor of the Republican candidate, the Democrats — who in those days were the violent advocates for white supremacy — didn't take it too kindly.

When the local Republican candidates took their offices in Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, their white neighbors took up arms and went on a killing spree. Even when the Black men raised a flag of surrender, the enraged white supremacists did not stop. In an act revealing the emptiness of the white supremacist's argument of patriotism, the marauders burned down the courthouse, then proceeded to murder any Black men attempting to escape the flames.

But rather than serve as an historical learning opportunity, as a didactic moment to avoid such tragedies in the future, the historical misrepresentation of the Colfax Massacre merely set a precedent for similar events in St. Louis, Omaha, Chicago, Tulsa, Selma, Birmingham ... The list goes on and — unfortunately — on.

A checkered history

According to a review of the book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution in The New York Times, "Colfax became ensnared in a vicious political melee" between the Republicans and Democrats. Having lost the Civil War and their right to own slaves (the states' rights mumbo-jumbo is a myth), the loser Confederates declared "open season" on Black people in the South. The authors cite an 1875 investigation that found that southern whites had killed 2,141 Black people and wounded 2,115 others since the end of the Civil War, "yet no one was punished for those crimes." In the case of Colfax, justice was sadly under-served, but a 1909 obituary appears to show that at least one ringleader of the massacre was eventually sentenced to twenty years in Angola prison for manslaughter.

To this day in Colfax stand monuments dedicated to "the memory of the heroes" who "fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy." Another near the town's courthouse ludicrously states: "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain."

Smithsonian magazine called the massacre "one of the worst incidents of racial violence after the Civil War," adding that it "set the stage for segregation." This type of violence has continued in part because the history was not recorded accurately. The white men who slaughtered their Black neighbors were not the "heroes" the plaques claim them to be. As Smithsonian author Danny Lewis correctly labeled them, they were "domestic terrorists ... who tried to reinforce antebellum policies of white supremacy."