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In a bold swap engineered by a Black man and a white man working together, reckoning has come at last to Colfax, Louisiana.
It was 150 years ago in the rural parish seat that scores of Black citizens trying to protect their right to vote were shot, stabbed, brutally beaten and, in at least one case, burned to death by white supremacists in what has become known as the Colfax Massacre.
The ruthless slaughter on April 13, 1873, was the bloodiest single-day death toll of the Reconstruction era and may have forever changed the course of the nation. When attempts by federal authorities to prosecute the murderers failed, prospects that newly emancipated people would achieve the full rights of citizenship in the U.S. were diminished for generations.
This month the Rev. Avery Hamilton, whose great-great-great-grandfather was the first Black man murdered in the rampage, and Dean Woods, whose great-grandfather was part of the paramilitary force that left the courthouse grounds soaked in blood, dispelled the ghosts of their family histories to achieve some measure of justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre. They presided over the unveiling of a monument to the victims.
The memorial, which the two men conceived and shepherded, is their answer to a racist, blatantly dishonest historical marker the state of Louisiana put up in 1951. That marker glorified the murderous rampage as “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” Thanks to the efforts of Woods, following years of attempts by Hamilton, it was yanked out two years ago.
The triumph is remarkable for the extraordinary efforts of the men whose ancestors stood on opposite sides of history. But it is also striking for the pushback it represents to resurgent attempts in the U.S. today to whitewash the nation’s past. Amid a wave of legislation that is banning books, restricting the teaching of racism in classrooms and curtailing the rights of people, especially young people expressing different gender identities, the actions of the Colfax descendants stand both as bold monument to what the U.S. can become, and to the injustice that still must be yanked out of its soil.
As if to underline the complexities of the current moment, on the same day a crowd – among them the governor of Louisiana – bore witness to the unveiling of the new memorial, Louisiana’s state Republican Party passed a resolution calling for doing away with the study of racism at state-funded colleges and universities.
The continuing injustice is epitomized in the stubborn resistance throughout the former Confederate states to taking down monuments, markers and other symbolic heraldry to the myth of the “Lost Cause.” As the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked for years, state laws often protect the monuments, civic leaders often refuse to act to remove them, and white supremacists have repeatedly taken up the cause to perpetuate them. That remains as true in Colfax as elsewhere. Still standing in a cemetery a few blocks from where the old Colfax marker was removed, a large white obelisk built at public expense in 1921 commemorates three white men who died during the massacre while “fighting for white supremacy.”
Nevertheless, despite the continuing obstacles to removing Confederate and white supremacist iconography, the turnabout in Colfax is a significant achievement, said Rivka Maizlish, a historian and senior research analyst on Confederate symbols at the SPLC.
“If we want to be a country that reveres equality and doesn’t stand for white supremacy and hate, and really wants to finish off the struggle of ensuring equal rights of citizenship to everyone, then we need to get rid of these monuments to the traitors who fight for white supremacy,” Maizlish said.
Charles Lane is a Washington Post columnist and the author of a book about the impact on American jurisprudence of the Colfax Massacre and the U.S. Supreme Court case that emanated from it, United States v. Cruikshank.
“By putting this memorial up, [Woods and Hamilton] have enabled people to understand the connection between then and now,” Lane said. “They have enabled people to understand how the Colfax Massacre laid the basis for a lot of other injustice, and how much effort was put into constructing a fraudulent version of history to legitimize that sort of injustice.
“For everyone involved, it is just a colossal achievement.”
The Colfax Massacre is not widely known today. Like so many instances of mass violence against Black people in U.S. history – in Tulsa, Oklahoma; in Rosewood, Florida; and in dozens more towns and cities across the country – it is rarely mentioned in school curriculums. But the battle by federal authorities to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax carnage led to one of the Supreme Court cases that put the nail in the legal coffin of Reconstruction.
When about 150 Black men, some lightly armed and others not at all, crowded into the Colfax Courthouse in that April of 1873, they were acting to defend a racially integrated county government that Black voters had helped to elect just a few months earlier. The men in the courthouse were emboldened by a series of victories in the post-Civil War period that had resulted in scores of Black men winning elected office throughout the former slave states. According to historical accounts, the men took up their position in the courthouse not only to protest the election, but in the hopes it would provide haven. They knew that Jesse McKinney, Avery Hamilton’s ancestor, had already been murdered at his farm several days earlier by local white supremacists. McKinney had been with the others at the courthouse but had left and laid down his arms.
Several white Republican officeholders who had been rightfully elected were also at the courthouse with the Black men during the initial days of the occupation, along with a white traveling salesman from New York who had gravitated to the cause. He helped the Black defenders dig a trench around the courthouse. But as the peril increased, the white allies left. The Black men, standing against the well-organized white paramilitary force moving toward the courthouse, told them to go back to their families. As the white force, most former Confederate soldiers and members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League, surrounded the courthouse, the Black defenders were aware of their peril. But they believed that if they held out long enough, U.S. troops would come to defend them.
The troops didn’t come. The white forces rained cannon fire and bullets on the courthouse. Then they set the courthouse ablaze to force the Black men out. When the courthouse defenders cast down their own small arms and streamed out, waving white cloths and white pieces of paper in surrender, according to later court testimony, they were fired on, chased down, captured and killed.
For days after the massacre, the corpses of the Black defenders lay in heaps. A few were recovered and buried by their terrified families, who had gone into hiding, as white marauders looted Black homes. The rest were eventually buried by Black workers, under the auspices of U.S. Marshals from New Orleans, in a mass grave fashioned from the trench around the courthouse the Black men had dug themselves.
The administration of President Ulysses S. Grant tried to prosecute the Colfax murders, the first time in U.S. history federal authorities sought to prosecute white men for a massacre of Black men. But the few convictions they did manage to secure were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1876. The court ruled that the enforcement clause of the 14th Amendment was not designed to protect individuals against the actions of other individuals, but only those of the state. The decision severely limited the ability of the federal government to prosecute violent crimes against formerly enslaved people.
Given free rein by the Supreme Court, white supremacists continued their coordinated campaign of terror against Black people, hastening the demise of Reconstruction. The Cruikshank ruling ensured that the most basic constitutional rights for Black citizens would be constricted well into the 20th century.
The significance of the Colfax Massacre “lies not just in how horrific it was as an individual event, but in the legal fallout and constitutional fallout that helped to pave the way for more lynchings in the succeeding decades,” Lane said. “That’s why it goes from just being sort of a gross human rights violation into a really historic human rights violation that changed the country, or kind of diverted the country from a democratic path.”
‘Hushed tones and quiet corners’
Unbeknownst to each other, Hamilton, 57, and Woods, 71, had independently discovered their ancestors’ roles in the massacre – and independently set out to seek some measure of justice for the victims.
Hamilton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Colfax, had labored for years to get local officials to remove the infamous “Colfax Riot” marker that stood on the grounds of the parish courthouse. Growing up in the middle of the civil rights era, Hamilton said he had always been distressed by the marker but considered it just another daily injustice. He had been accustomed to such injustices, he said, since second grade, when his teacher used a racial epithet to describe Black boys in her classroom.
“As a Black man raised here in Colfax, we didn’t much discuss what happened,” Hamilton said. “It was not discussed and when it was mentioned it was in hushed tones and quiet corners. But the history of this was not taught at all.”
In 2006, Hamilton started looking into his family history. A cousin told him that family lore held that an ancestor of theirs had died in the massacre. That drove Hamilton to try to find out. At a library, Hamilton said he came across a book on Reconstruction and Black suffrage on a table. He grabbed it, he said.
“Sure enough, on page 47, was the story of a Black man named Jesse McKinney, the first Black man killed in the massacre. That was my great-great-great-grandfather’s name,” Hamilton said.
“And the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was like following the breadcrumbs. I began to research more and more.”
The knowledge, Hamilton said, “lit a fire under me” to expose the true history of the massacre. As a prominent religious leader in Colfax, he said he was emboldened to reach out to local white community leaders. He wanted the marker taken down. He wanted the people of the town to know that this was not a riot, but a massacre. With them, he formed a nonprofit called the Red River Heritage Association. But the other men – who Hamilton said were only “patronizing” him because of his prominence as a Black leader in the community – actually opposed any changes. They were determined to keep the marker where it stood. The effort fell apart within a year.
‘It really shocked me’
Woods, a retired energy company executive living in Houston who grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, came to the effort on his own some years later.
Woods said he had never been much of an activist. Growing up the son of a businessman, he was part of a family that employed a Black maid who showered him with love, he said. But he never asked about her life outside his house, on the other side of town. After he met his wife, he became more conscious of racial injustice, he said, all the more so when his son and daughter-in-law adopted a Black child.
Eight years ago, newly retired and, he said, a bit at a loss for what to do with his time, Woods started looking for more purpose in his life. He took up flying and used his private plane to ferry cancer patients from Louisiana to Houston for treatment. He became deeply involved in his church and in his grandchildren. And he had more time to read novels, among them a fictional account of the Colfax Massacre. The book, Red River, by Lalita Tademy, consumed him. He had visited the Grant Parish region often during his childhood, visiting relatives, and he knew his roots were there, but none of his family had ever mentioned his great-grandfather. He wondered if any of his ancestors may have been contemporary to the massacre just a few miles south of where they had lived. That curiosity led him to begin looking into his family tree.
The digging led him to the obituary for his great-grandfather, Bedford E. Woods, a “proud veteran of the Colfax race riot” and at one time the treasurer of a group of the “veterans.”
“That day when I found out he was involved, it really shocked me and knocked me back on my feet,” Woods said. “And I really had no way of processing what he had done. I didn’t know how to handle it. So, I just keep quiet about it. Should I just not tell my family? This is embarrassing, you know – pretty, pretty bad.”
Woods not only told his family, he became focused on what to do.
“The fact that our ancestor is, you know, one of these guys that did this terrible thing, it just put me over the edge,” Woods said. “I’d been interested in history for years, but not until it was something that my own blood was involved in, so pivotal and so damaging to the lives of so many people for so many years, did it become personal to me. I just had a burning desire to do something. And so, that offensive marker became the first target.”
Hamilton had assumed that Grant Parish owned the marker. But Woods discovered that it had been erected by the state government. He wrote to the modern-day state agency responsible for historical markers, Louisiana Economic Development, telling them of his family ties to the massacre and urging that the marker be removed. Others had made similar requests in recent years. But as luck would have it, Woods’ plea reached Mandi Mitchell, the assistant secretary of economic development. Understanding the import of the request, she took the issue to the office of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who approved the removal. Still, in what is perhaps an indication of just how politically fraught the removal of even such a historically erroneous marker is in Louisiana, while state officials cleared the way for the removal, they did not allocate any funds to get it done.
Members of the parish’s local council objected to the plan, relenting only after Mitchell helpfully informed them that the state agency was the legal owner of the marker. Several months later, Woods flew in from Texas on his own plane and paid for a local Black-owned construction company to pull up the marker. On May 15, 2021, it was hauled away in a private pickup truck.
Woods’ presence as the marker was hauled away reaped what both men call a true gift. Hamilton was not there that day. He was presiding over a funeral. But he got word that someone had managed to pull off what he had sought to do for so long. He sent his wife to take pictures, and, talking with Woods, she quickly discovered the two men’s extraordinary historical connection. Soon the men formed a partnership to finish what their efforts had started. They began brainstorming ideas to raise funds for a memorial to the victims of the massacre.
The result is three black granite slabs atop a heavy base carved with the names of victims, the history of the massacre and a searing relief on the Black experience during Reconstruction crafted by Black visual artist Jazzmen Lee-Johnson. Paid for, transported and installed entirely by more than $65,000 in private donations, it doesn’t sit on the courthouse grounds. Grant Parish officials did not permit it.
The memorial has been erected instead on the site of an annual state pecan festival, just yards from railroad tracks where freight trains rumble past.
“We believe without question this was by divine providence,” Hamilton said of meeting Woods. “You know, we were both working years apart but toward the same goal. And in due course of time, our lives intersected. It was two people who met at the right time to accomplish what was long overdue.”
Photo at top: The Colfax Massacre Memorial is unveiled during a ceremony in Colfax, Louisiana, on April 13, 2023, 150 years after the deadly confrontation at the Colfax Courthouse. (Credit: Melinda Martinez/The Town Talk/USA Today Network)