If you think current U.S. politics and racial discord are bad, you haven't read about
Colfax, Louisiana yet.

Reconstruction Baby
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 government.
Election of 1872
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.
Emptying a city
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.
Massacre at Colfax
Colfax's old downtown sits just a block from the Red River. Its newer downtown
faces the LRN depot.
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.
A monument sits inside the Colfax cemetery, erected in the 1920s to commemorate
the massacre, which white supremacists insisted was a riot. Its
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
195
1. The historical marker
differentiates between who
was considered "men" and
who were simply
"negroes." It
 blames
"carpetbag misrule"
and
doesn't explain the politics
nor the aftermath.
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 Colfax jail,
situated inside
the city's
cemetery, was
constructed
1890-1891.
The depot for
the Louisiana
Railway and
Navigation
Company
anchors
Colfax's "new
downtown,"
where the city
fronts the
railroad tracks
and not the
river.
Report in the Daily Evening Express (Lancaster, PA) a few days after the massacre
indicates the horrors that occurred in Colfax. Editors compared the actions by the
whites in Colfax to the Modocs, a tribe that was waging war against the U.S. army,
which led to a massacre in California in April of 1873. However, the Modocs faced
imprisonment for their war, unlike the supremacists in Colfax, who never faced
any punishment for the crimes they committed.
The all-white Colfax
High School named
its school newspaper
"The Colfax Riot" as
if it was  a joke
(Town Talk,
Alexandria LA,
November 19 1960).