|Colfax: Checkered Facts & Checkered Past
|Colfax's old downtown sits just a block from the Red River. Its newer downtown faces the LRN depot.
|If you think current U.S. politics and racial discord are bad, you haven't read about Colfax, Louisiana yet.
Colfax, founded in 1869 as the seat of Grant Parish, began life at the site of one of Louisiana's largest cotton plantations. The Calhoun
compound enslaved at one point over 1,000 people, and its location on the east bank of the Red River made it a perfect place for trade
beyond its cash crops. The plantation was so large, in fact, that from the one image extant, it looks like a city. With the end of the Civil War,
Grant Parish was carved out of Rapides and Winn Parishes, and part of the plantation's holdings became the nascent city of Colfax.
The parish was named for Ulysses S. Grant, and the seat for Grant's Vice President, Schuyler Colfax. Perhaps the names partly explain the
troubles that would befall the parish and town within a short four year period, as I doubt white, southern Democrats were keen on having
their new parish and seat be named after their "oppressors."
Racial and political tensions ran high in the period of Reconstruction (1863-1877) after the Civil War, and Colfax became the epicenter of this
tension. Because of the massive Calhoun plantation, the black population in the new parish was slightly higher than the white population -
and the freedmen, of course, favored a Republican government, which was in control of Grant Parish in 1873. The 14th Amendment, ratified
into the U.S. Constitution by 1868, forbade former Confederates from holding office; this created a power vacuum in the Louisiana state
house that was filled by Republicans and African Americans. Democrats in Louisiana - including those in Grant Parish - did not recognize the
legitimacy of the Republican-led government, just as the Republicans did not recognize the legitimacy of the old, white-led, Dixie Democrat
The November elections of 1872 escalated the political troubles, as the Democrats viewed their elected office holders as legitimate and the
Republicans viewed their elected office holders the same way. In all of the parish seats throughout Louisiana, the two opposing factions of
government officials laid claim to their respective courthouses. This happened in Colfax as well... and the already brewing racial tensions
spilled over. Black militia members entered the courthouse to gain control for the Republicans. White Democrats spread rumors that the
black militia planned to kill all the white men in the Parish and ravage the white women to create a "new race." On Easter Sunday (April 13),
1873, white men, many of whom claimed allegiance to the "White League," a supremacist organization similar to the KKK and used to incite
terror and discrimination towards blacks, stormed the courthouse. Before the attack, the White League announced that they 'd offer "safe
passage" to any blacks who wanted to leave the town peacefully, and many people assembled at the courthouse at dawn.
Armed with a cannon (possibly secured from a sunken Union ironclad), the whites began shooting and killing the unarmed blacks, then fired
at the black militia, who repeated fire through the courthouse windows. The white vigilantes torched the courthouse, and several militia men
burned in the fire; those who escaped the blaze were shot or butchered, and their bodies thrown into the river or dumped in a mass grave.
Several burned bodies apparently were just left to rot outdoors, as excavations of the old courthouse in the mid-20th century revealed the
bones of massacre victims.
Approximately 150 militia men were killed during the massacre - the largest mass killing of militia citizens, and the largest mass killing of
African Americans, in the post-bellum period. Three members of the White League were also killed.
Less than ten men were charged with violating the militia's civil rights. Four men were convicted, but a series of appeals led the case to the
Supreme Court by 1876. The Supreme Court was still heavily Dixie-Democrat, and it ruled in the landmark case, United States v. Cruikshank
(1876), that the men should never have been tried in federal court - their case belonged to the state government. As individuals not affiliated
with the state government, they were beholden to their states, not to the federation (a decision that demonstrates that even after the Civil
War, the southern slave power still held tight in the Supreme Court). Of course, this meant that the convictions were tossed and the state of
Louisiana refused to try them at all.
|The Calhoun plantation once held over 1,000 enslaved people and was one of the largest cotton producers in Louisiana. The plantation occupied
seven miles of river frontage and contained 14,000 acres. It was on this site that the city of Colfax was founded (Northwestern Louisiana State
University, via Knowla.org).
|The LeSage Hotel was built in 1876 as accommodations for people traveling up and down the Red River (see the levee behind it) and also as a
community banquet hall/ meeting place. In the 1890s, the hotel was used as a temporary Catholic church preceding its new building. This newer
building was erected in 1902.
The massacre had a major effect on Grant Parish: over half of African Americans left, and whites became firmly established as the dominant
population. And the sordid history did not really hurt the city - by the turn of the century, when the Louisiana Railway and Navigation
Company built tracks through town, Colfax was deemed by the New Orleans Picayune as a future economic powerhouse. Private ferries
shuttled travelers over the Red River (oddly, a traffic bridge was never erected at Colfax). Tragedy struck again when the Calhoun cotton
gins exploded in 1889, which killed eight men and wounded over a dozen more. But Colfax persevered, and at the turn of the 20th century
boasted at least three newspapers, public schools for both blacks and whites, a literary society, and two large farmers' alliances. Today, it
hosts the Louisiana Pecan Festival each November; its "second downtown" along the railroad tracks is quite busy; and it still sees the
Kansas City Southern Railroad pass through town.
Nonetheless, Colfax still has to deal with the past. The city's history has been given a fresh look by scholars, as time has passed and the
city's history gains more recognition. In 2007, concerned citizens of Colfax established a historical association to help interpret their
history, and wanted to renovate the bank building across the street from the new courthouse to build a museum, but it seems as though
this effort has been abandoned. However, even to this day, the town's commerce migrates towards the LRN depot, as if wanting to turn its
back on the original downtown and the site of the massacre.
|The Colfax jail, situated inside the city's cemetery, was constructed 1890-1891.
|Mentions of the massacre within Colfax embrace a defiant history in the spirit of the William Dunning School of Reconstruction - where the white
South was seen as a victim being punished by the North. A historical non-profit wanted to address this in a museum that they wanted to open
inside this old bank building, but the organization has been disbanded.
|The depot for the Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company now buys, shells, and sells pecans.
|The monument inscription reads: "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 April 13, 1873." There is no mention anywhere of the 150 other men who were killed.
|At the site of the new courthouse was the former courthouse and store house, both burned during the "riot," and commemorated by this plaque
that was erected in 1950. The historical marker blames "carpetbag misrule" but does not mention the nearby mass grave.
|Colfax's location along the Red River makes it picturesque, but without a direct bridge, it's
not that easy to get to. But it's definitely worth a trip!