Mass Murder at Colfax, The Bloody Death of Reconstruction

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Robert Caldwell

The Colfax Massacre:
The Untold Story of Black Power,
White Terror, & the Death of Reconstruction
By LeeAnna Keith
Oxford University Press. 240 pages, $24.95 cloth.

The Day Freedom Died:
The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court,
and the Betrayal of Reconstruction
By Charles Lane
New York: Henry Holt and Co. 326 pages, $17 paperback.

ON APRIL 13, 1873, white supremacists laid siege to a Black Republican stronghold in rural north Louisiana, brutally slaying freedmen and altering the course of the United States. The Colfax massacre happened at the courthouse of newly created Grant Parish, located in a town named after Vice President Schuyler Colfax. Colfax is situated in cotton country along the Red River.

The Colfax massacre was the single bloodiest event of all Reconstruction-era violence. On Easter Sunday, 1873, the paramilitary forerunners of the White League riled supremacists from throughout north Louisiana to attempt a political coup by crushing Grant Parish’s all-Black militia. When all was said and done, the white supremacists killed up to 150 Black men, including a number of duly elected officials. Most of the remaining men who were taken prisoner were later killed in cold blood.

The chilling effects of the bloody day rippled throughout the U.S. South. But the resulting court case indicted fewer than 10 defendants and ultimately freed all accused, and in doing so offered cover for violent white supremacists for the next 100 years.

Two recent books shed new light on this event. Both tell a dramatic story of the creation of the town of Colfax and Grant Parish by former slaves and William Calhoun, the son of Meredith Calhoun. The elder Calhoun was one of the wealthiest and most notoriously cruel plantation owners in the state. Yet former slaves and William Calhoun, their slavemaster, became Republican partisans after the war. Both books recount the sequence of events leading to the bloody massacre at Colfax and the white supremacist restoration in the United States.

LeeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre is a good read and very accessible. The reader gets a sense of race, class and political dynamics at work in Louisiana during the late Reconstruction period. Her book recounts the deadliest outbreak of political and racial violence during Reconstruction.

Keith frames the context in which the event came to be called a “riot,” a term applied to denigrate freedmen as disrupters of the “natural order.” She recounts Meredith Calhoun’s personal journey, tracing exactly how he acquired his wealth.

Meredith Calhoun started in the global shipping trade, then invested his money in a Alabama cotton plantation. After the land showed diminishing returns, he was able to turn government transportation projects to his favor through an inside deal (Henry Miller Shreve’s clearing of the Great Raft, making the Red River navigable and clearing the way for additional Red River cultivation and westward expansion).

The elder Calhoun retired to France, and on the eve of the Civil War left his Louisiana sugar cane empire to his son William to run.

Keith conveys the daily lives and struggles of Calhoun’s slaves, She points to their arduous journey overland from Huntsville Alabama to northwest Louisiana and dramatizes the inhumanity of the slave system. In case any reader happened to be confused, she recounts Frederick Law Olmsted’s experience of seeing the slaves being mercilessly beaten and noting down their short life expectancy.

Keith devotes three pages to those historians — professional and self-taught — who have researched this story before she did. Many — including W.E.B. DuBois — missed Colfax altogether. However, the “second Reconstruction” of the 1950s and ‘60s opened the political door for this scholarship. Eric Foner briefly included the Colfax massacre in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, but Keith acknowledges that the Angolite, a publication of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, really illuminated the story in the article “Tragedy at Colfax” in 1989.

Freedom Died, Justice Denied

Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died is legalistic and more difficult to read. Lane tells the story of U.S. Attorney J.R. Beckwith attempting to bring the killers to justice and the ultimate Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Cruikshank. That decision overturned the conviction of eight conspirators and rendered Ku Klux Klan Enforcement Acts toothless, ending Reconstruction and paving the way for a litany of Jim Crow laws and the restoration of the white supremacist Democratic Party in Louisiana and throughout the South.

Even though the Enforcement Acts had been designed to allow the federal government to prosecute vigilante groups, the Supreme Court held that equal protection and due process only applied to actions of the state, and not individuals.

Lane’s book also discusses the relationship of Cruikshank to other landmark decisions, including Slaughterhouse, and Blyew v. United States which undermined the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Plessy v. Ferguson, entrenching the notorious “separate but equal” doctrine (1896)

All save Blyew originated in Louisiana. In the wake of these cases, white supremacist Democratic Party mobs were emboldened and Federal troops no longer pretended they could protect Blacks in the South. State governments quickly reverted to Democrats who swiftly disenfranchised Black voters.

Lane’s book is an excellent resource on Reconstruction era civil rights laws and court decisions. The book also documents the inner workings of the national and Louisiana Republican parties of the time. But the book focuses all-too-much on the important men of the day: Attorney General James Beckwith, Samuel F. Miller, Justices Samuel F. Miller and Joseph P. Bradley, Ulysses S. Grant, William Pitt Kellogg, and locally Christopher Columbus Nash and the Calhoun Family.

This focus on “great men” misses much of the class and political dynamics that Keith’s book conveys. Lane’s book is best suited for Civil Rights attorneys, legal historians, and those wanting to know more after reading The Colfax Massacre.

The fate of Reconstruction occurred in a larger national context. Neither book seriously treats the decisive impact of capital in the political economy of the United States during the late Reconstruction period. Likewise both authors refuse to indict U.S. Grant for signing the Amnesty Act in 1872. By Grant’s final year in office (1876), politics had shifted far to the right. The Panic of 1873 and ensuing Long Depression was undoubtedly a major influence on national politics at the time, but neither author offers more than a cursory mention of it.

The idealism and hope of the Reconstruction period was gunned down and buried in a shallow unmarked grave in Colfax, Louisiana. In conveying the events of 1873, the authors have done more than relay grim details and provide a sober assessment of the past. They have helped uncover the amazing will of the freedmen that died that morning while defending their freedom.

If there was a single historical event that effectively erased the gains Black people had made immediately following the Civil War, it was the Colfax Massacre. To the authors’ credit, they help bring the post-Civil War story — initially inspiring, but ultimately overwhelmingly shameful — to a new generation. Activists committed to fighting white supremacy would do well to study what happened at Colfax.

ATC 144, January-February 2010