The New Orleans Riot was a violent conflict in which whites attacked blacks parading outside the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans, where a reconvened Louisiana Constitutional Convention was being held. The Radical Republicans in Louisiana had called for the Convention as they were angered by the legislature’s enactment of the Black Codes and its refusal to give black men the vote. Democrats considered the reconvened convention to be illegal and were suspicious of Republican attempts to increase their power in the state. The riot “stemmed from deeply rooted political, social, and economic causes,” and took place in part because of the battle “between two opposing factions for power and office.” Casualties were estimated at 38 killed and 46 wounded, most of them black people.
The riot illustrated conflicts deeply rooted within the social structure of Louisiana. It was a continuation of the war: more than half of the whites were Confederate veterans, and nearly half of the blacks were veterans of the Union army. The national reaction led to Republicans gaining a majority in the United States House of Representatives and the Senate in the 1866 election.
The convention met at noon on July 30, but a lack of a quorum caused postponement to 1:30. When the convention members left the building, they were met by the black marchers led by a marching band. On the corner of Common and Dryades streets, across from the Mechanics Institute, a group of armed whites awaited the black marchers. This group was composed of Democrats who opposed abolition; most were ex-Confederates who wanted to disrupt the convention and the threat of the increasing power of blacks in the state.
It’s not known which group fired first, but within minutes there was a battle in the streets. The black marchers were unprepared and many were unarmed; they rapidly dispersed, with many seeking refuge within the Mechanics Institute. The white mob brutally attacked blacks on the street. The police responded to suppress the riot, and jailed many of the white agitators. The governor declared the city under martial law until August 2.
The national reaction to the New Orleans riot and a similar incident (Memphis Riots of 1866) was concern about the current Reconstruction strategy and desire for a change of leadership. In the 1866 House of Representatives and Senate elections, the Republicans won in a landslide, gaining winning 77% of the seats in Congress9.
A Reconstruction Bill passed over the President’s veto, early in 1867, to provide for more federal control in the South. Military districts were created to govern until violence could be suppressed, and more democratic political system established. Under the act, Louisiana was put into the Fifth Military District. Ex-Confederates, mostly white Democrats, were temporarily disfranchised, and the right to suffrage was to be enforced for free people of color. Politicians associated with the riot were out of office.