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by Farida Dawkins, at 10:57 am, April 13, 2018, History

Colfax Massacre of 1873: The deadly riot which left 150 black men dead

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Background

In 1864, a small number of black people were allowed to vote due to the Union Army’s occupation.  A substantial amount was free and owned property.

In March 1865, James Madison Wells became Governor. He was supposedly against Negro suffrage. Eventually, he sought the votes of blacks, which alienated ex-Confederates. The New Orleans Massacre occurred on July 30, 1866, when the constitutional convention was set.

On March 2, 1866, the Reconstruction Act was passed over a veto of former President Andrew Johnson against the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The passing of the Reconstruction Act meant the Fourteenth Amendment would need to be ratified in reconstructed Southern states so they would be allowed into the Union.

Incident

On April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, 150 black men were killed by white Southern Democrats.

The Colfax Massacre or Riot was the deadliest clash between whites and blacks due to racial tensions that occurred during the Reconstruction Era.

The Governor’s race of 1872 spurred the fatal incident.  On March 28, white Democratic leaders demanded that armed supporters assist them in taking the Colfax Parish Courthouse from black and white GOP officeholders on April 1. This group included black freedmen and militia members as well.

The freedmen were killed after they surrendered and 50 were killed after being held as prisoners.

A white fusionist known as Cazabat directed the riot.  He organized an armed white paramilitary group and veteran officers from neighboring parishes. The defenders of the court were ordered to leave, and the women and children present were given 30 minutes to clear the space. Afterwards, shooting ensued. Any black court defenders who attempted to escape, they were killed.

The defenders surrendered.

More black men were killed following the death of James Hadnot. There is a dispute in events as some recall Hadnot being shot by members of his own party while others believe Hadnot was wounded by someone in the courthouse.

Aftermath

As a result of the riot, members of the white paramilitary totaling 97 men were charged with the killings.  Two trials were held in 1874; one resulted in a mistrial and the second brought charges against three white men charging them with 16 killings.  Nonetheless, the presiding judge, Joseph Bradley ordered that the three men be freed on bail. They disappeared shortly after.

In 1875, the federal government appealed the case in United States v. Cruikshank. The ruling found that individuals could not be held responsible, only government entities. This meant white men would not be held responsible for acts of violence against freed black men.

Subsequently, the growth of paramilitary groups grew such as the White League and Red Shirts. These groups incited violence and intimidation tactics to stop blacks from voting.  This eventually dismantled the Reconstruction Era and enabled white Democrats to garner control of the state legislature.

In the 2000s, books have been written about the Colfax Riot – 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.

There have been efforts to establishing a museum in Colfax for the reason of collecting materials and interpreting the history of the event.

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