One of the most violent expressions of white supremacy occured on Easter Sunday 1873 in the Baptist-dominated town of Colfax, Louisiana. The state was still reeling from defeat in the Civil War, and the 1872 election was only the second held under the auspices of the new 1868 state constitution that enfranchised black voters as part of Reconstruction. While antebellum state and local politics had been dominated by the pro-Confederate Democratic Party, the first Reconstruction election had resulted in widespread Republican victories for state and local office, including for the first time black officials such as Lieutenant Governor P.B.S. Pinchback.
Federal authorities had also reorganized the state after the war, with new towns and parishes taking on names of the Union victors. Colfax itself had been renamed in 1868. Originally called Calhoun’s Landing, after a wealthy slave-owning planter, Meredith Calhoun, it now honored Schuyler Colfax, vice president under President Ulysses S. Grant. And Grant Parish, for which Colfax is the county seat, was carved out of the larger Rapides Parish and named for the President. Determined to push back these changes, including what they saw as the humiliation of federal occupation and “negro rule,” white revolted.
In Colfax, a group of armed African American Republicans, hearing of an impending attack, barricaded themselves inside the Grant Parish courthouse to defend the results of the elections and their lawful authority to assume office. Soon thereafter, a group of 150 whites surrounded the courthouse and opened fire. Leading the assault was Christopher Columbus Nash, the local sheriff and ex-Confederate soldier who would go on to found the White League, a paramilitary organization that admonished whites in the South to organize and fight for “the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization.”
Nash’s followers turned a small cannon on the courthouse and set fire to the roof. Nearly seventy African Americans were killed in the initial battle. When the remaining African Americans inside surrendered, thirty-seven were marched outside and publicly executed in the town square. During the remainder of the day, more African Americans were rounded up and jailed, and approximately fifty more were executed that night. After the massacre, the bodies of the executed African Americans were hastily buried in trenches on the courthouse grounds, both as a terrifying symbol of what fate might await African Americans who attempted to assert political power and as an act of cruelty, since it denied their families the opportunity for proper Christian funerals and burials.
Today there are two monuments to these events in Colfax, both erected by whites, which cast the occupation of the courthouse by black elected officials as a “riot” rather than what they were: a defense of the results of a lawful election that ended in a massacre by terrorists. The town cemetery is dominated by a white marble obelisk erected shortly after the event that reads: “In loving remembrance, erected to the memory of the heroes Stephen Decatur Parish, James West Hadnot, Sidney Harris who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.” The other is an official plaque, erected in 1950 at the request of the mayor by the Louisiana State Department of Commerce and Industry, which describes the incident this way: “On this site occurred the Colfax riots, in which 3 white men and 150 black men were slain. This event, on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” And although you might miss it because it is not formally marked, the “Colfax riot cannon,” as it is known by local whites, still sits in the front yard of a Colfax resident.”
From “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” by Robert P. Jones