The Massacre That Emboldened White SupremacistsHistorians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, violence, Louisiana, Colfax Massacre, White Supremacy
An hour after sunset on Easter Sunday in 1873, a stern-wheel riverboat put ashore at Colfax, La., a ramshackle settlement surrounded by cotton plantations on the east bank of the Red River. Rain was falling. As passengers disembarked, they found themselves stumbling in the dark over what turned out to be the lifeless bodies of African-Americans who had been freed from slavery eight years earlier at the conclusion of the Civil War.
Most of the dead were lying facedown in the grass “and had been shot almost to pieces,” according to Charles Lane in his book “The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.” Others had been bludgeoned or mutilated, and some had burned to death. Flames rose from the ruins of the parish courthouse. The stench of charred human flesh was inescapable.
As Americans debate the merit of tearing down monuments to founding fathers, a monument to the men who massacred Black Americans in Colfax 147 years ago stands unopposed and largely unnoticed. Two blocks off Main Street, a 12-foot marble obelisk is the focal point of the Colfax cemetery. An inscription carved into its base declares it was “erected to the memory of the heroes” who “fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy.” On the north side of the present-day courthouse, a historical marker reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain” and added that the episode “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
These memorials to the perpetrators of mass murder are disturbing enough in their own right. But the impact of the Colfax massacre extended far beyond this flyspeck town. The damage is still felt acutely throughout our entire nation, and the tragedy must not be forgotten.
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