The Colfax Massacre

1960 Town Talk Alexandria LA Colfax Riot

The all-white Colfax High School named its school newspaper "The Colfax Riot" as if the murder of 150 African American soldiers were a joke (Town Talk, Alexandria, Nov 1960).

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Colfax Massacre

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Reconstruction Baby
Colfax, founded in 1869 as the seat of Grant Parish, began life at the site of one of Louisiana's largest cotton plantations. The Calhoun compound enslaved at one point over 1,000 people, and its location on the east bank of the Red River made it a perfect place for trade beyond its cash crops. The plantation was so large, in fact, that from the one image extant, it looks like a city. With the end of the Civil War, Grant Parish was carved out of Rapides and Winn Parishes, and part of the plantation's holdings became the nascent city of Colfax.

The parish was named for Ulysses S. Grant, and the seat for Grant's Vice President, Schuyler Colfax. Perhaps the names partly explain the troubles that would befall the parish and town within a short four year period, as I doubt white, southern Democrats were keen on having their new parish and seat be named after their "oppressors."

Racial and political tensions ran high in the period of Reconstruction (1863-1877) after the Civil War, and Colfax became the epicenter of this tension. Because of the massive Calhoun plantation, the black population in the new parish was slightly higher than the white population - and the freedmen, of course, favored a Republican government, which was in control of Grant Parish in 1873. The 14th Amendment, ratified into the U.S. Constitution by 1868, forbade former Confederates from holding office; this created a power vacuum in the Louisiana state house that was filled by Republicans and African Americans. Democrats in Louisiana - including those in Grant Parish - did not recognize the legitimacy of the Republican-led government, just as the Republicans did not recognize the legitimacy of the old, white-led, Dixie
Democrat government.

Election of 1872
The November elections of 1872 escalated the political troubles, as the Democrats viewed their elected office holders as legitimate and the Republicans viewed their elected office holders the same way. In all of the parish seats throughout Louisiana, the two opposing factions of government officials laid claim to their respective courthouses. This happened in Colfax as well... and the already brewing racial tensions spilled over. Black militia members entered the courthouse to gain control for the Republicans. White Democrats spread rumors that the black militia planned to kill all the white men in the Parish and ravage the white women to create a "new race." On Easter Sunday (April 13), 1873, white men, many of whom claimed allegiance to the "White League," a supremacist organization similar to the KKK and used to incite terror and discrimination towards blacks, stormed the courthouse. Before the attack, the White League announced that they 'd offer "safe passage" to any blacks who wanted to leave the town peacefully, and many people assembled at the courthouse at dawn.

Armed with a cannon (possibly secured from a sunken Union ironclad), the whites began shooting and killing the unarmed blacks, then fired at the black militia, who repeated fire through the courthouse windows. The white vigilantes torched the courthouse, and several militia men burned in the fire; those who escaped the blaze were shot or butchered, and their bodies thrown into the river or dumped in a mass grave. Several burned bodies apparently were just left to rot outdoors, as excavations of the old courthouse in the mid-20th century revealed the bones of massacre victims.

Approximately 150 militia men were killed during the massacre - the largest mass killing of militia citizens, and the largest mass killing of African Americans, in the post-bellum period. Three members of the White League were also killed.Less than ten men were charged with violating the militia's civil rights. Four men were convicted, but a series of appeals led the case to the Supreme Court by 1876. The Supreme Court was still heavily Dixie-Democrat, and it ruled in the landmark case, United States v. Cruikshank (1876), that the men should never have been tried in federal court - their case belonged to the state government. As individuals not affiliated with the state government, they were beholden to their states, not to the federation (a decision that demonstrates that even after the Civil War, the southern slave power still held tight in the Supreme Court). Of course, this meant that the convictions were tossed and the state of Louisiana refused to try them at all.

Emptying a city
The massacre had a major effect on Grant Parish: over half of African Americans left, and whites became firmly established as the dominant population. And the sordid history did not really hurt the city - by the turn of the century, when the Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company built tracks through town, Colfax was deemed by the New Orleans Picayune as a future economic powerhouse. Private ferries shuttled travelers over the Red River (oddly, a traffic bridge was never erected at Colfax).


Tragedy struck again when the Calhoun cotton gins exploded in 1889, which killed eight men and wounded over a dozen more. But Colfax persevered, and at the turn of the 20th century boasted at least three newspapers, public schools for both blacks and whites, a literary society, and two large farmers' alliances. Today, it hosts the Louisiana Pecan Festival each November; its "second downtown" along the railroad tracks is quite busy; and it still sees the Kansas City Southern Railroad pass through town.

Nonetheless, Colfax still has to deal with the past. The city's history has been given a fresh look by scholars, as time has passed and the city's history gains more recognition. In 2007, concerned citizens of Colfax established a historical association to help interpret their history, and wanted to renovate the bank building across the street from the new courthouse to build a museum, but it seems as though this effort has been abandoned. However, even to this day, the town's commerce migrates towards the LRN depot, as if wanting to turn its back on the original downtown and the site of the massacre.

Colfax plantation
Colfax plantation

The Calhoun plantation once held over 1,000 enslaved people and was one of the largest cotton producers in Louisiana. The plantation occupied seven miles of river frontage and contained over fourteen thousand acres. It was on this site that the city of Colfax was founded (NW University, Knowla.org).

1873 Apr 19 Daily Evening Express Lancas
1873 Apr 19 Daily Evening Express Lancas

Report in the Daily Evening Express (Lancaster, PA) a few days after the massacre compared the actions of the whites in Colfax to the Modocs in California, who massacred federal soldiers in 1873. However, the Modocs faced imprisonment for their actions, unlike the supremacists in Colfax, who ever faced punishment and were even honored with a statue.

Colfax marker
Colfax marker

At the site of the new courthouse was the former corthouse and store house, both burned during the massacre. White supremacists insist on calling this a "riot," as this 1951 historical marker makes clear: even the 150 men who were killed are not afforded the word, "men," and the preservation of white supremacy is hidden behind "carpetbag misrule."

Colfax plantation
Colfax plantation

The Calhoun plantation once held over 1,000 enslaved people and was one of the largest cotton producers in Louisiana. The plantation occupied seven miles of river frontage and contained over fourteen thousand acres. It was on this site that the city of Colfax was founded (NW University, Knowla.org).

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