•  
  •  
 

Abstract

On April 13, 1873, hundreds of armed, white men laid siege to the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. A smaller group of African American men defended the courthouse, asserting their claim that Republicans were the legitimate victors in highly contested 1872 state election. The white paramilitary forces attacked the courthouse on Easter Sunday, slaughtered many of the defendants, and executed dozens of prisoners. Known today as the Colfax Massacre, it is one of the largest mass murders to ever occur on American soil.

Although as many as a hundred and no fewer than sixty-two black men were killed at Colfax, it is disregarded in traditional narratives of Reconstruction. This is due to the fact that many people would prefer to think that the violence that shook the United States during the Civil War came to an end with the defeat of the Confederacy. Omitting Colfax from the narrative also omits the paramilitary patterns of reconstruction violence, allowing racial violence to be relegated to a few isolated incidents. This promotes the view that the failure of Reconstruction was due to shortcomings of the North and an inability of the freedmen to manage their freedom and citizenship.

My paper attempts to show why understanding the Colfax Massacre, and the violence it inspired, is central to explaining how white southerners were able to so effectively combat African Americans’ political power during Reconstruction. It also forces us to confront the role that violence played in Reconstruction and the legacy of white supremacy.

Share

COinS