One Step Forward, More Steps Back on Acknowledging the Past in Louisiana
tags: racism,Reconstruction,Louisiana,Colfax Massacre,White Supremacy
The recently unveiled monument to the victims and survivors of the Colfax Massacre
The front page headlines of the April 16th New Orleans Times-Picayune tell a horrifying and all-too-familiar story.
In bold type, on the upper left-hand side of the page: “‘We must acknowledge the atrocities’.”
On the right-hand side: “Louisiana GOP wants to ban college study of racism.”
The atrocity referred to is the Colfax Massacre, an 1873 slaughter of as many as 150 newly-enfranchised Black men for the crime of voting. It was the bloodiest such massacre in the post-Reconstruction South. I first learned about the Colfax Massacre from a photo of a shocking Jim Crow era historical marker in front of the town courthouse:
“On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which
three white men and 150 negroes were slain.
This event on April 13th, 1873, marked
the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
Marker to the Colfax "Riot" and white supremacist victory erected in 1951
Erected in 1951, the marker stood on the grounds of the courthouse until it was finally taken down in 2021. Many of the town’s Black citizens had tried to have the memorial to Louisiana’s racist violence removed, including Avery Hamilton, a local pastor, who was a descendant of one of the first men killed in the massacre.
For years his efforts went nowhere. Then he was joined by Dean Woods, a white insurance executive, who had discovered though genealogical research that he was descended from one of the instigators of the “riot.” “It really knocked me back,” he told a reporter, “to discover that I had an ancestor who was involved in this on the wrong side of history.”
He and Hamilton together founded the Colfax Memorial Association, which raised funds for a memorial for the Black victims of the slaughter. It was unveiled this month, on April 15th, 2023, a hundred years after the event. A photo on the front page of the Times-Picayune shows the two men shaking hands in front of the new granite monument. At the unveiling, Hamilton said, “As we stand here today, we must acknowledge the atrocities that were committed against the Black citizens of Colfax.”
Historian Charles Lane, who wrote The Day Freedom Died, a book about the massacre, told the Times-Picayune that “It’s very important that people have a place to refer to an item in the public space that embodies the truth. People can take whatever positions they want to take, but we have to talk about it on the basis of truth.”
Truth is exactly what the Louisiana GOP opposes. On the same Times-Picayune front page containing the story about Colfax massacre, the paper reports that Republican party officials want to outlaw truth, on the grounds that it is “too divisive.” The party has asked state lawmakers to forbid the study of racism at colleges and universities, arguing against “classes examining ‘inglorious aspects’ of United States history. The Times-Picayune goes on to note that the resolution at the GOP meeting “passed by voice vote with no discernable dissent.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities has funded Louisiana Public Broadcasting for a feature-length film on the Colfax Massacre. The documentary will examine “Reconstruction-era violence between southern whites and African Americans and its legal and social legacy.” If the GOP has its way, the film will never see the inside of Louisiana classrooms.
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