The Colfax Massacre was one of the bloodiest instances of violence against Black citizens in the U.S. It was one of many during the Reconstruction period and had a long-reaching impact.
Today Colfax, Louisiana is a small town of around 1,500 with a population of close to 70-percent Black. In 1870, it was a town of around 40 people. Based in Grant Parish, Colfax was formed in 1869 while the South was still in Reconstruction following the Civil War.
It was then that President Ulysses S. Grant installed northern politicians into office throughout the region. The move was to ensure that the former Confederacy didn’t have the political power for another secession. For a period, a number of southern states and cities were held by Republicans from the North. In the case of Louisiana, William Pitt Kellogg was the U.S’s pick.
Throughout the South, there was animosity from vocal White citizens against these “carpetbaggers” taking office and writing laws that affected life in the region. While they couldn’t retaliate against politicians, they could retaliate against those they felt were the primary reason for these changes: the Black population.
Prior to the Colfax Massacre, Republicans began digging fortifications around the town’s courthouse in preparation for a raid in early April. Democrats tried to take the town and with a posse of Black Republicans retaliating.
Similar to the massacre being called a “riot” years later, these skirmishes were painted to show Black citizens as the aggressors. The result was a growing White militia from outside of Colfax.
Easter 1873. Colfax, Louisiana would be the stage for such an outburst of violence and anger following a recent election. The target of their aggression: a Black militia posted with the goal of defending the town’s courthouse.
THE COLFAX MASSACRE
The mob—lead by former Confederate officer and now Sheriff—Christopher Columbus Nash was made of White former Confederate and Union soldiers. The militia had weapons but weren’t as armed or supplied as the opposition. The White mob not only had guns, but they had horses, fire, and a cannon.
While the two sides tried to broker peace, someone from the rioters’ side shot one of the Black militiamen, sparking the conflict. Some defenders were giving a chance to flee before the conflict started. Of the 60 that left, a number were hunted down and killed. Unarmed people inside the courthouse were killed as well. By the end, only around 50 people were left. Those survivors were killed later in the night.
When the smoke and gunfire ended, some 150 Black people and three White people lay dead. Of course, this is the number given. As is the case of such massacres such as the Tulsa Riots of 1921, the number was likely worse. Another account puts it at roughly 300 Black people were killed.
FOLLOWING THE MASSACRE
Louisiana’s U.S Attorney, James Roswell Beckwith, charged several men for their actions by using the First KKK Act of 1870. They were charged with one murder and several accounts of conspiracy. Even with a judge leaning towards the prosecution, Beckwith couldn’t get a conviction.
Another case got convictions, but another judge threw those convictions out. The U.S. government took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1875 (United States vs. Cruikshank). This attempt fell flat as well. The Court’s opinion was that the First KKK Act only applied to the government and the Klan. The act did not include obviously Klan adjacent groups.
With the outcome of the Colfax Massacre and the legal results, white supremacist groups grew in power. Similar incidents to the massacre in Colfax occurred in the years that followed in a bid to run “carpetbaggers” and Republicans out of power in the region.
While not the sole reason for the Democrats’ hold on the South for over a century, the Colfax Massacre was a pillar of the party holding power until the Southern Strategy of the 1960s. The political strategy played on racial tension and resentment. As a result, most White southern Democrat leaders and moved to the GOP and the Black voter base moved to the Democratic party, thus changing party ideology.