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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ward Departs

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.

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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.

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Easter Sunday

By Easter Sunday, April 13, the whites of Grant Parish had mobilized with rifles, shotguns, six-shooters, hunting knives — even a small cannon. "Roughly half of the men were former Confederate soldiers," Lane writes. "Among their leaders were four former rebel officers, including Christopher Columbus Nash," the Fusionist ex-sheriff in town. "There were even three former Union soldiers." Of the originals, 20 men decided not to ride all the way to the courthouse after David Paul, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, warned, "Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy. There are one hundred and sixty five of us to go into Colfax this morning. God only knows who will come out. Those who do will probably be prosecuted for treason, and the punishment for treason is death." The 140 or so who stuck with it now knew what they were getting into, and they were willing to die instead of seeing black men control the future of Grant Parish.

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Back at the courthouse, the black defenders, now without their leader, William Ward, dug a hasty trench and attempted to rig up some artillery, building a makeshift cannon out of steam pipes. Sensing trouble, the few remaining whites inside the courthouse fled, leaving approximately 150 black men to fight for the Republican cause.

At high noon, literally, the white riders galloped through town, with former sheriff Nash shouting at the women whose husbands had gone up to the courthouse: "You see these damned sons of bitches have run off and left you to take care of yourself. Now you women get out of here, and not a damn one of you will get hurt."

Once at the courthouse, Nash and the other members of the white mob set up their cannon and fired it and their guns. The blacks in and around the courthouse met their volley and tried using their own cannon, but in the heat of battle, it simply exploded. For two hours, the fighting continued without either side claiming the advantage until the whites relocated their cannon to an unguarded levee around the blacks' left flank. One black defender, Adam Kimball, was struck in the abdomen, and "[w]hen he looked down," Lane writes, "he saw his intestines falling out."

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Outgunned, the black defenders inside the trenches retreated to the courthouse. Others fled, many of them captured or killed by the whites. The quickest way to smoke the rest of them out, ex-sheriff Nash decided, was to set the two sides' long-fought-over prize on fire, which his men did by hoisting kerosene-soaked cotton wads to the end of a bamboo fishing pole and forcing one of their black prisoners at gunpoint to take it inside. "You're a good old nigger," his former boss, William "Bill" Cruikshank, proclaimed (quoted in Lane's The Day Freedom Died).

With the courthouse up in flames, its black defenders surrendered with handkerchiefs waving, but the whites kept firing. Their new goal: Kill every black person in sight. Among the three whites killed in the crossfire was the Fusionist instigator of the conflict, Jim Hadnot. The black defenders suffered far greater losses. In one ghastly flash, Alexander Tillman, in attempting to escape the fire inside the courthouse, was shot down, his dead body was beaten to a pulp, and his throat was slit.

As night fell, the whites of Colfax celebrated. Once again, they were back on top. Addressing the black prisoners who'd been caught fleeing during the battle, ex-sheriff Nash asked, "If we turn you loose, will you stop this damned foolishness?" But not even Nash could control the other whites now. "[H]ave you no better sense than to send them old niggers home?" one in the mob asked. "[If you do, you] won't live to see two weeks" (quoted in Lane). At that Nash left the scene, a symbolic re-enactment of the action taken by the KKK's first leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who, despite claiming to have killed two dozen Yankees personally during the Civil War, tried to disband the Klan for fear it was becoming too violent.

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With Nash out of sight, Bill Cruikshank and others told the remaining black prisoners they were going to march them out two by two to spend the night in a temporary prison at the local sugar house, but when they commenced on foot, the white riders moved in along the line shooting their defenseless prisoners at point-blank range. Estimates vary, but according to Lane, anywhere from 62 to 81 blacks were killed between the initial fighting and the murder of prisoners in Colfax.

Grading Joel Rogers

When I read Joel Roger's headline in Your History"KU KLUX KLAN ATTACKED!" — I confess I hoped he had been more right about this than any other "Amazing Fact," but I was wrong. True, William Ward had inspired his men to dig in, but except for their deathless raids on their enemies' homes on April 1, Ward himself had been sidelined in New Orleans during the courthouse battle on April 13. And contrary to the impression Rogers gave of "an armed attack" in which "many were killed on both sides," the numbers were lopsided, in the most disturbing ways, and there was no opportunity for the blacks of Colfax even to bury their dead in the trenches they had built until a deputy U.S. marshall arrived two days later, Tuesday, April 15.

Newspaper Reactions

The Colfax Massacre received national attention, but as with coverage by MSNBC and Fox today, the spin was mixed. Up North, April 18, 1873, the New York Times reported, "The details of the massacre, as they are related by eye-witnesses to the terrible scenes at Colfax Court-house, are positively appalling in their atrocity, and would appear to be more like the work of fiends than that of civilized men in a Christian country." On the other hand, defending those "civilized men"' down South, the New Orleans Picayune argued that, if any group had provoked the violence, it was the blacks of Colfax for "threatening the lives of their political opponents, giving some of them a short time to leave the place on pain of death, shooting at others, breaking open and gutting dwelling houses, driving women out, robbing a female school teacher of her jewels and effects, even rifling the coffin of Judge Rutland's dead babe, and flinging its body into the middle of the highway." (As to this last point, according to historian Charles Lane, Ward's men had indeed found a coffin inside Rutland's house, but they placed it on the porch out of harm's way, unopened.)

The Cruikshank Case

As the massacre continued to be rehashed in papers, the ensuing criminal case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. It served as a test case over the meaning of federal-state relations, following ratification of the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing blacks equal protection and banning racial discrimination in voting. In particular, the decision in United States v. Cruikshank (named for the leader of the death march) turned on the constitutionality of Congress' 1870 Enforcement Act, which had been designed to safeguard civil rights and root out the Klan. Instead of charging the white defendants of Colfax with plain old murder — a state crime — the government hurled them into federal court arguing that, under the Enforcement Act, they (like the Klan) had "unlawfully and feloniously [banded] together with the unlawful and felonious intent and purpose to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate … citizens of the United States of African descent." Today, we call these hate crimes.

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The problem, Lawrence Goldstone points out in his critical study, Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903, was that the Enforcement Act of 1870, like other Congressional enforcement acts during Reconstruction, was "drawn broadly so as to provide maximum latitude" under the 14th and 15th Amendments to federal attorneys and judges appointed by Republicans in Washington to advance black civil rights in the former Confederacy. This same "latitude," Goldstone explains, "rendered them constitutionally questionable."

A total of 97 whites were indicted for the Colfax Massacre, but only three were found guilty. Of course, they appealed, and early on, the outcome for black civil rights looked ominous when sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, in reviewing the case at the circuit level, overturned the convictions for defects in the underlying charges. "Perhaps such a design may be inferred from the allegation that the persons injured were of the African race, and that the intent was to deprive them of the exercise and enjoyment of the rights enjoyed by white citizens," Bradley wrote in his opinion. "But it ought not to have been left to inference; it should have been alleged." In other words, even the most racist defendant had to be explicitly informed of the true charges against him.

Backing Bradley up at the Supreme Court, the majority of justices, spoken for by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that racial animus had to be explicit — and explicitly alleged — in order to be actionable at law (a factor federal prosecutors still struggle with in weighing hate crime charges today). At the same time, the court held that the federal government had no role to play in prosecuting individuals for violating the civil rights of African Americans — that was the states' job. As Waite opined, "Sovereignty for the protection of the rights of life and personal liberty within the respective States, rests alone with the States." The translation: The 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection was well and good, "but," in Waite's words, "it add[ed] nothing to the rights of one citizen against another."

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By court fiat, the only role the federal government was to have — after Cruikshank struck down key sections of the 1870 Enforcement Act — was to ensure that states did not violate blacks' civil rights. But with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) just 20 years down the line, the principle of "separate but equal" would be enough for states like Louisiana to pass constitutional muster. In the meantime, private citizens like Bill Cruikshank only had to look to their state and local laws to figure out the consequences of targeting blacks, even lynching them, for now treason was off the table. After Cruikshank, Goldstone argues, "the Redeemers' path to power would become even more accessible, ultimately affording them a clear and simple blueprint to implement Jim Crow laws with impunity." The blueprint for the next 78 years (they hoped longer), until Brown v. Board, was set.

Memorializing the Colfax Massacre

April 13, 1921, whites in Colfax wrote their own narrative when they unveiled a 12-foot marble obelisk hailing the three white victims "Who fell in the Colfax Riot/fighting for White Supremacy." That same year, Tulsa, Okla., another Southern town two states over, would witness another deadly massacre — one sparked by an act of racial profiling in a situation President Obama referenced in his comments about the Trayvon Martin case at the White House earlier this month: "an elevator." But that's for next Monday.

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Perhaps aware of this history, some 30 years after Tulsa, in 1951, the Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry passed up an opportunity to get the history of the Colfax Massacre right. Instead they retreated again into Lost Cause fantasy with the inscription, "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 Negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South." To this day, it stands its ground, which reminds me …  

Two weeks ago, many Americans were horrified to learn of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman. In the background lurked Florida's "Stand your ground" law, which, while not tested by Zimmerman's lawyers, remains on the books and is a troubling part of our gun culture. As shaken as I was, I found myself revisiting another "set of experiences and a history" as I tried, for this column, to wrap my brain around the fact that less than 10 years after black people were guaranteed equal protection under the Constitution following the deaths of some 750,000 soldiers during the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court turned a blind eye to white supremacist groups like the KKK. Groups who, cloaked in their hate for the newly freed black citizens, legislated conditions which, over time, would justify racial targeting and which would help create the conditions that would manifest themselves into the racial profiling so common today. (The court might have called it "Take your ground," and history should call the events at Colfax what they were: a massacre.) 

And even more relevant to the George Zimmerman verdict, the Colfax case contributed to a legal culture that said, in effect, "as long as you don't say you're motivated by racism, we'll look the other way." Goldstone was right: This was, indeed, the blueprint, and its consequences are very much with us to this day.

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As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

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.

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