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The Colfax Massacre

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

The Colfax Massacre along the Red River was not the only violent episode in Reconstruction Louisiana, but it was definitely the most egregious. Not just in Louisiana, but in the entire South.

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 these 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.

Interestingly, there is only one photograph of the plantation and very few mentions of it in historical records. I found that this is a common occurrence in the American South, where "unpleasantness" (to whites) has been erased. Entire years of newspaper archives that document atrocities against black people are non-existent.

Grant 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," sarcasm intended.

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. 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 1872 elections 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. Black militia members, under orders from the Republican governor, entered the courthouse to keep 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.

Armed with a cannon (possibly secured from a sunken Union ironclad), the whites began shooting and killing any 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 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. Men taken "prisoners" by the mob were thrown into the Red River after being shot, executed-style.

It is said that 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. Research indicates that the figure ranges between 30 to 100. 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. The court ruled that as individuals not affiliated with the state government, the accused were beholden to their states, not to the federation.*** 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 the Kansas City Southern Railroad continues to pass through.

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. In 2022, the city unveiled a monument dedicated to the massacre, and with this reckoning, the town is reviving into a Red River showplace that it always should have been.

*The US army relied heavily on African American freedmen and Creole soldiers in Louisiana during Reconstruction, as Anglo southerners could not, and would not, join the Union army.

**White/ Nationalistic supremacy relies on generating fear of rape by the "alien," which manipulates women to support policies that are not favorable to anyone but to those who spread the fear. As is well documented - especially in the Red River Valley of Louisiana - the racist men who used this tactic were the ones who actually created a "new race" by raping enslaved Native and African American women and then also selling and raping(!) the offspring that resulted. This history is a perfect example of psychological projection.

***The decision demonstrated that even after the Civil War, the southern slave power still held tight in the Supreme Court. It is also one of the reasons why Congress eventually legislated that crimes against Civil Rights would also be considered a federal transgression

The Calhoun plantation, the grounds of which now comprise some of modern Colfax's waterfront downtown, once enslaved over a thousand people and was one of the largest cotton producers in Louisiana. It occupied seven miles of river frontage and contained over fourteen thousand acres. This is the only extant photograph of the operation, to my knowledge. It was destroyed either in 1864 or 1866 (Northwestern University,
Newspaper article
A report in the Daily Evening Express (Lancaster, PA) a few days after the massacre compared the actions in Colfax to a massacre by the Modocs in California earlier that year. However, the Modocs faced imprisonment for their actions, unlike the supremacists in Colfax. Notice the ending sentence, which hints at another riot that occurred in Colfax in 1866 (April 19, 1873).
Marble marker
Inside the town's white-only cemtery is a marker dedicated to the three white men who were "heroes... fighting for white supremacy." This marker was placed in downtown Colfax in the 1920s and moved to the cemetery.
Historical marker
At the site of the former courthouse, a historical marker was placed with help from the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1951, in which the massacre was termed a "riot" and which identified African Americans as "negroes" and not even affording them the dignity of the term, "men." The last sentence, "carpetbag misrule" is part of the "Lost Cause" narrative, in which southern apologists mislabel Republican-led governments during Reconstruction as invasive and harmful, rather than acknowledging that there were native Southeners (former Whigs and northern Democrats) who sided with the Union during the war and brought investment monies to the South. This marker has been replaced by a new monument, which still elicits racist responses as inexplicable hatred against African American still defines much of the United States and retards intellectual and societal growth.

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