Easter Sunday. 1873. Colfax, Louisiana.
Colfax was originally named Calhoun’s Landing after the wealthy plantation owner Meredith Calhoun. After the Civil War, it was to be renamed taking on names of Union victors. Now named after honored VP Schuyler Colfax.
Determined to push back these changes, including what they saw as the humiliation of federal occupation and “negro rule,” whites revolted. In Colfax, a group of armed African Americans, 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 an 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 most local whites, still sits in the front yard of a Colfax resident.

With success in Colfax, the White League then set its sights on New Orleans and
the newly elected governor. In 1874 more than five thousand armed members of the Crescent City White League, constituted primarily of ex-Confederate soldiers, attacked local New Orleans and state police and drove the governor from office, occupying government buildings for three
days before President Grant sent federal troops that finally forced their retreat. This conflict became known as the battle of Liberty Place, and the white citizens of New Orleans memorialized this conflict with a monument installed prominently on Canal Street in 1891. Its
inscription declared that the White League’s actions had overthrown the “carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).” While the inscription noted that the “usurpers” were reinstated by US troops, it ended with
this declaration of victory, echoing the Colfax monuments: “But the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” This monument stood in place until it was finally removed in 2017 amid threats of violence by local whites.
As the inscription notes, the period of federal protection for African American rights across the South lasted approximately two presidential election cycles. Employing what can only be called organized acts of white Christian terrorism, whites ruthlessly clawed back power in the
southern states, and the federal government largely withdrew, abandoning former slaves to fend for themselves. Southern whites felt vindicated. Mapping the experience of Civil War defeat and the resurgence of white supremacy onto Christian conceptions of crucifixion, resurrection
and salvation, they dubbed this new period “Redemption.” After seizing back control of the formal political institutions, whites focused on reasserting their dominance in the cultural realm. And the means of enforcing racial dominance shifted from paramilitary clashes reminiscent
of the war to the new tool of terrorism, using acts of extreme violence against individual victims to evoke widespread fear among African Americans. Their message was clear: anything but complete deference to whites could result in unspeakable forms of torture and death.
For African Americans, the years immediately following the war were first elating and then devastating. W. E. B. DuBois famously described the period as one where “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
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