On the front lines of history
Recently, I contributed a piece called “Days Gone By, Days to Come: Monuments and the Politics of Peace” on the political teeth with which monuments are often imbued (or are deliberately denied). While I do not intend to ramble on about this issue—I hope that the previous piece will do enough to inspire readers to take a critical eye to any monuments that they cross in the future—I felt that one more story of poor documentation deserved illumination. The context: as Charles Lane chronicles in his book The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, on April 13, 1873—Easter Sunday—the racial and political tensions already boiling in Reconstruction-Era Louisiana burst into decisive, open racial warfare. On that date, the Colfax courthouse in Grant Parish was stormed by a mob of white Democrats who, in a final bid to resolve the question of which party’s candidate had won the 1872 gubernatorial election, shattered the trench lines around the courthouse with small arms and a small cannon. Defending the courthouse were hundreds of freedmen and white Republican officials who had fled into Colfax from the countryside as racial violence had grown increasingly prevalent and organized. Most were refugee women and children. By massacre’s end, three whites and up to one hundred and fifty freedmen lay dead. A PBS documentary on Ulysses S. Grant reports that “nearly half [the victims were] murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered.”
In the century and a half following the events of that Easter Sunday, the victims of Colfax have not been allowed to rest. Their memory has primarily been ignored or bent toward political ends, usually by those who couldn’t care less for the massacre’s victims of white supremacy. The site’s monuments reflect this. Perhaps there is no more abhorrent example of blood bound to stone for shallow aims in all of U.S. history.
Colfax only has two monuments—a towering obelisk erected in the local cemetery by local whites, and, at the mayor’s request, a Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry-erected marker from 1950. The two monuments offer strikingly different interpretations from each other and from what scholarly thought has since offered. The cemetery marker—erected in 1921—pays tribute to “the memory of the heroes . . . who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy, April 13, 1873.” The three individuals it pays homage to are, naturally, the three whites who died in the fighting. As befitting the politics of its time period, the monument labels the incident a “Riot,” thus shuffling responsibility for the bloodshed onto violent blacks. To make place for its shameless, triumphal dotage on the awesome victory of white supremacy that Colfax was, the cemetery marker fails to explain any of the events that led to hundreds of armed whites so effectively and brutally quelling a black riot, that led to a concentration of men and arms at just the right time to kill up to one hundred and fifty at the cost of only three. This monument could only exist in a South—and perhaps a nation—well and truly slave to Klan politics and the Klan mindset, and, despite a century of evasions, the overwhelming violence it honors clearly could only have been premeditated.
The second marker is, in some ways, even more depraved. First, it is more recent, having been erected in 1950. And it obfuscates the true causes of the massacre even further, and still to political ends, blaming “carpetbag misrule in the South” for the racial and political violence at Colfax. Again, the time of dedication is key to glimpsing the depths of this second deception. Two years after the United States military was finally integrated and in the same year that the United States Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter ruled the notion of “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional, proponents of white supremacy found that the politics of the time no longer allowed them to roar their ideology so clearly without drawing unkind attention. So they sugared their message once more. They shuffled responsibility for the massacre to another party—the meddlesome North. The violator of local rule. The Federal invader. In one of the clearest, most recent examples of making a monument—and a mis-remembered massacre—into a political weapon, Louisiana resisted the coming of Civil Rights by tying the “riot” of Colfax to its main enemy circa 1950: the Federal government.
Both monuments are still standing in Colfax today.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “What Was the Colfax Massacre?” The Root, July 29, 2013.
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). “General Article: The Colfax Massacre.” Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Rubin, Richard. “The Colfax Riot.” The Atlantic, July 1, 2003.