Henry Louis Gates Jr.: What Was the Colfax Massacre?

tags: Reconstruction, African American history, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Louisiana, Colfax Massacre



Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

In Colfax, La., on Easter Sunday 1873, a mob of white insurgents, including ex-Confederate and Union soldiers, led an assault on the Grant Parish Courthouse, the center of civic life in the community, which was occupied and surrounded -- and defended -- by black citizens determined to safeguard the results of the state's most recent election. They, too, were armed, but they did not have the ammunition to outlast their foes, who, outflanking them, proceeded to mow down dozens of the courthouse's black defenders, even when they surrendered their weapons. The legal ramifications were as horrifying as the violence -- and certainly more enduring; in an altogether different kind of massacre, United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the U.S. Supreme Court tossed prosecutors' charges against the killers in favor of severely limiting the federal government's role in protecting the emancipated from racial targeting, especially at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

Historians know this tragedy as the Colfax Massacre, though in the aftermath, even today, some whites refer to it as the Colfax Riot in order to lay blame at the feet of those who, lifeless, could not tell their tale. In his canonical history of the period, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Eric Foner has called the Colfax Massacre "[t]he bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era." A generation earlier, Joel A. Rogers cited it to African Americans as an instance of Your History: From Beginning of Time to the Present. As we will see, Rogers saw it through a different lens.




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