What Was the Colfax Massacre?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A racially driven rampage changes history.

Harper's Weekly, May 10, 1873
Harper's Weekly, May 10, 1873

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 41: Which massacre resulted in a Supreme Court decision limiting the federal government’s ability to protect black Americans from racial targeting?

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.

The Louisiana Election of 1872

In Louisiana in 1872, there was no line at all between political and actual warfare. Nominally, it was a gubernatorial race between a Republican and a Democrat. What made the election close was a split within the Republican Party, with one wing seeking to advance the goals of Reconstruction and the other so anxious to pull it back that it formed a “Fusionist” coalition with the Democrats. Anyone interested in the full intrigue should read Charles Lane’s thrilling — and, to me, invaluable — account, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.

Suffice it to say the results of the election were disputed, with each side accusing the other of fraud, while holding its own inaugural parade. Because the Reconstruction Republicans still controlled the federal courts, their candidate, William Pitt Kellogg, was ordered in with backup from federal troops President Ulysses Grant deployed. Yet, when the controversy failed to subside, even Kellogg waffled in appointing like-minded men to run the courthouse in Colfax.

Having none of it was William Ward, a black Civil War veteran, militia leader and outspoken Radical Republican of Louisiana soon to have his own seat in the state legislature. Ward is the hero of Joel Rogers’ account of Colfax in Your History and for good reason: He warned Governor Kellogg about what caving in to his Fusionist rivals would mean to the black voters who’d helped put him in office. With pressure from Ward, Kellogg kept his commitments, and in doing so, triggered a chain of events in Colfax that would destroy its backwater anonymity, and with it, innumerable lives.

Prelude to a Massacre

Before the Civil War, the land on which Colfax stood was a sugar and cotton plantation; after the surrender, its owner, William Smith (“Willie”) Calhoun readied his slaves for freedom by conveying to them his parents’ livestock, renting out 800 acres for tenancy and even agreeing to a school for black children. “In all the South,” LeeAnna Keith writes in her book, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction, Willie Calhoun “was probably the greatest slave master ever to embrace the cause of black equality.” Soon Calhoun would have another role to play, to no avail.