The first violent contest over the Grant Parish courthouse took place April 1, 1873. William Ward’s white rival in Colfax, the Fusionist James W. Hadnot, had told one of his black laborers that he intended to lead a posse on the courthouse and hang William Ward and the other Republican officeholders for what they’d taken. The black worker then told Ward, who raised a posse of his own.
Hadnot arrived at the courthouse with about 14 men on the morning of April 1, but what he found was so formidable that he departed without a direct confrontation. Recognizing the threat that Hadnot and his men presented, members of Ward’s band moved out to raid their homes, seizing weapons, food and a horse. The acts that followed “may have been violent,” Lane notes, “but they were not random.” They were a proactive defensive strategy “aimed at people likeliest to organize another attack against the courthouse.” There were no fatalities.
Word of the raids lit through the town, and the following day, April 2, a shootout erupted between whites and blacks near Smithfield Quarters, not far from the courthouse. No one was hurt, but the brief firefight only exacerbated the tensions in Colfax. Many blacks believed their best chance was to join forces with Ward’s men at the courthouse. That evening, 150 blacks camped out. Hope remained for peace talks.
The Slaying of Jesse McKinney
The next trigger point took place three miles east of Colfax, when Jesse McKinney, a former slave, returned home from the courthouse to his wife and child. The next day, April 5, Lane writes:
McKinney was repairing his fence, no more than twenty-four paces from his front door. As he worked, a group of about a dozen white riders suddenly galloped up. Some of them jumped their mounts over the fence. A man in a white shirt and black vest raised a pistol and fired it at McKinney’s head. McKinney let out a ghastly scream, like the wail of a slaughtered pig, and sank to the ground. “I got him, he’s dead as hell!” his attacker cried. The group whooped and capered around his body. It had all happened in an instant — right in front of Laurinda McKinney, who was standing on the front porch, with her six-year-old son, Butler. She hugged Butler to her knees and waited for their turn to die.
Even though “the whites rode off,” Lane explains, “that was the end of the peace conference. The whites had drawn first blood.” Soon the number of blacks at the courthouse increased to 500.
With sporadic fighting spreading over the following days, William Ward became convinced he needed the help of U.S. troops stationed in New Orleans, so he hatched a plan to send a written appeal to the governor. He enlisted the former slaveholder Willie Calhoun to deliver it. The only catch — Ward’s white opponents intercepted Calhoun onboard ship, where they found the appeal hidden in his boot. Threatening Calhoun’s life, they told him the only way he’d survive was if he went back to the courthouse and ordered Ward and his black defenders to disperse. When he did, Ward’s men refused to back down; no friend could convince them to give up ground, especially in a courthouse so symbolic of their still new political rights.
Moving on to plan B, Ward decided to travel to New Orleans himself, and April 11, he and a group of fellow black Republicans departed with hopes of returning with federal enforcements. They had no idea that the battle was about to begin.