Colfax riot or massacre: A brutal defining moment

COLFAX — A historical marker near the Grant Parish Courthouse describes a day of violence that helped condemn African-Americans to a century of Jim Crow in the American South.

What happened in Colfax 140 years ago was a massacre or a riot, depending on who you talk to. The scars of the event aren’t visible in this town of about 1,500. The community’s pride is the Pecan Festival, which begins with a blessing of the crops the first weekend of November.

But the town’s history includes a brutal conflict that was a defining moment in American history.

The Colfax massacre took place on April 13, 1873. It was Easter Sunday. It was, to quote the title of a 2009 book on the event, “the day freedom died.”

On that day, dozens of black men and three white men died in a fight for control of the parish’s first courthouse after a disputed statewide election. About half of the black participants, and maybe more, were killed later that day after they surrendered.

“Violence was such a big part of Jim Crow,” said LeeAnna Keith, a New York City teacher who wrote “The Colfax Massacre” in 2009. “And (the massacre) was the most violent event.”

The historical marker, erected by what was then the Louisiana Department of Commerce in 1950, tells a different story. “Colfax Riot,” the marker declares. “On this site occurred the Colfax riot in which three white men and 150 Negroes were slain. This event ... marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

“The history of that marker could be a book in itself,” said Charles Lane, the Washington Post reporter who wrote “The Day Freedom Died” in 2009.

The local shorthand says that if you’re white, the event was the Colfax riot. If you’re black, it was the Colfax massacre. But that’s too easy.

Glynn K. Maxwell, who is white, is the editor of The Chronicle, the weekly newspaper in Colfax. When it comes to the massacre, Maxwell believes history must be acknowledged.

“There was a riot,” Maxwell said. “There was a battle. Both sides were trying to kill each other. If you call it a massacre, you don’t give the black people their due for standing up.”

Avery Hamilton disagrees. He’s a descendant of Jesse McKinney, one of the black Colfax residents killed in the events surrounding the massacre.

“If you take an honest look at it, this was not a riot,” he said. “I’ll let them get away with calling it a battle. But it was like me being in the ring with Mike Tyson at his height.”

The Colfax massacre

Louisiana was a bloody place in the aftermath of the Civil War. For nearly a decade, Republicans, including many newly freed black people, struggled against mostly white Democrats who hoped to resurrect something like the old social and political order and resented the federal government’s interference in the state’s affairs.

Intimidation and outright violence, much of it against freed black people and the white Republicans who supported them, were weapons in that struggle.

The election of Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1868 helped bring about the Enforcement Act and anti-Klan legislation as well as the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race.

But Louisiana’s 1872 election was the occasion for more violence. Pro-Reconstruction Republicans were led by governor candidate William Kellogg. The “Fusionist” blend of Democrats and anti-Grant Republicans were intent on electing John McEnery. Both sides claimed victory and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. A federal judge seated Kellogg and other pro- Republican candidates

In spring 1873, a group of black men acting as a militia helped a young boy through a window into the Grant Parish Courthouse. The boy unlocked the door and let the men in, allowing black Republicans to take control of the courthouse. Later, they dug a defensive trench.

Tensions continued to rise. Violent incidents, including the shooting death of black farmer Jesse McKinney, sent black residents fleeing to the courthouse for refuge. The ransacking of white resident Rutland’s home by black residents incensed white residents.

A group of more than 100 armed white men, led by a Confederate veteran named Christopher Columbus Nash, began moving on Colfax.

On April 13, Nash’s men fired a small cannon at the defenders of the courthouse. The black militiamen retreated into the courthouse. The attackers tried to burn them out. At some point, the courthouse defenders waved a piece of cloth as a white flag. White witnesses claimed that as three attackers approached, they were fired upon by someone inside the courthouse.

When the defenders were finally forced out, they were held under guard for a few hours.

Some were hanged. Many were shot to death.

The final death toll for the whites is undisputed. The names of the fatalities — Stephen Parrish, James Hadnot and Sidney Harris — are inscribed on an obelisk, erected in 1921.

The African-American casualty numbers are harder to pin down. Author Charles Lane believes that the real number is between 60 and 80 . The historical marker says 150 blacks died, but Lane thinks that number was exaggerated.

“I don’t know why,” Lane said. “I have a guess. You look at it today and you say, ‘How evil.’ But back then, you’d have said, ‘How powerful.’ ”

David Blight, a Yale history professor who has written about slavery and Reconstruction, said, “Colfax is an egregious case, when people really understand it and really look at it. It’s a case of political murder. It’s murder for political reasons, a political end. ... That’s the kind of society we always say we are not.”

Cruikshank

James Beckwith, an attorney who had witnessed the deaths of 34 black people in the New Orleans massacre of 1868, obtained federal conspiracy convictions against three of the participants in the Colfax attack case. One was a man named William Cruikshank. But in 1876, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overturned the convictions with a ruling known now as United States v. Cruikshank. The ruling said the new constitutional protections for civil rights protected individuals against state action, but not against action by other individuals.

Cruikshank in particular required federal law enforcement to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that conspiracies to limit voting rights, for example, were racially motivated, Lane said. “(The offender) almost had to say, ‘There goes a black person and I’m going to stop him from voting.’ That puts a heavy burden on the prosecution.”

The motives of the Supreme Court justices, seven Republican appointees among them, weren’t necessarily sinister, Lane said. He noted that the idea of federal law enforcement was new. The Department of Justice didn’t exist until 1870.

“Supreme Court justices were wrestling with a whole new set of concepts,” Lane said.

Also, he said, Louisiana’s Reconstruction constitution was a progressive document that included civil rights protections

“The United States v. Cruikshank,” Avery Hamilton said, “had as real an impact on black America as Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education.”

The marker

“A story like this can become galvanizing, powerful in the broader official historical memory,” Blight said. “Or it can be essentially suppressed.”

“It never became part of official memory because the memory of the Reconstruction years that did become official, did make it into the textbooks, did make it into the political conversations, was an opposite kind of memory.

For all the drama and historical impact, the massacre wasn’t a story that those still living in Colfax ever heard much about.

“There may have been individual homes where elderly persons shared it with their families, but it wasn’t taught in schools,” Hamilton said.

“Growing up here, it was nothing that was really talked about in the black community, except what we knew from the sign at the courthouse, which is inaccurate.”

That historical marker, either by design or coincidence, was erected just as the modern civil rights movement began to take shape.

Writer Keith said she found two groups that hoped to deal with the marker’s message. One group is composed of African Americans determined to have the marker removed.

The other group, which included Hamilton and Maxwell, became the Red River Heritage Association. The idea was to keep the marker for its own historical value and develop an interpretive center.

And when the association began meeting in 2006, Maxwell said, “It was the first time we could sit down and discuss it with each other.”

Ultimately, the association’s efforts failed for lack of funds.

Colfax today

Doris Lively, the librarian at the Grant Parish Library next door to the courthouse, said she was apprehensive about moving to Colfax from West Monroe.

“I don’t feel it,” Lively said. “I moved here in 1992 and we were pleasantly surprised.”

“I always sigh when I hear people say that,” Hamilton said.

“I don’t want to say it’s not true. But just because there’s an absence of protest doesn’t mean everything is perfect in Camelot.”

Although the population of Colfax is two-thirds black, Hamilton said, few or no African Americans are employed in some of the major institutions .

But the Hamilton family can point to some progress in local government. In 2006, Avery’s brother, Gerald Hamilton, great-great-great-grandson of Jesse McKinney, became the first black mayor of Colfax.

Author Lane said he talked recently to Gerald Hamilton. Lane said Colfax had experienced some flooding, and Hamilton was worried that townspeople would blame him.

“It’s a reminder that what people in Colfax really care about is not the massacre,” Lane said. “It’s the price of pecans and if the street is fixed.”