The Ghosts of Colfax
By Nick Pittman
Like many small towns, Colfax, Louisiana has its own supernatural tall tale: in the middle of the town—the seat of Grant Parish—a well of water actually spewed fire, the result of an underground pocket of water mixing with natural gas. For years, it burned near the parish courthouse, even earning the small town, which today consists of about a thousand residents, a mention in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.
Then, in the early 1950s, according to LeeAnna Keith’s book The Colfax Massacre, the flow of water and fire abruptly stopped. Some say the cause and date of the cessation was construction of a new courthouse in 1959, but Keith tells of local lore that puts it on the very same day the state of Louisiana erected a historic marker – the third marker of its kind to go up in the state – commemorating what happened on the spot on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873.
On what was supposed to be a holy day, white militias representing disgruntled white Democrats and those still holding onto the goals of the Confederacy ended a multiple week occupancy of the courthouse by blacks supporting the Republican party. Freed blacks had hunkered down in a bid to control the parish government and escape the violence following the previous year’s gubernatorial election. In and around Colfax, once powerful white Democrats – already agitated by a black Republican majority and a Republican and former Union colonel claiming victory as governor–were at their boiling point. After the courthouse fell to the Democrats–made up of members of the White League, The Ku Klux Klan and the similar Knights of the White Camellia-the unarmed blacks were executed. With a body count well over 100, it is said to be the single bloodiest event in the turbulent post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction–which is no small feat.
If Keith’s research is correct, the day the state-sanctioned historic marker was staked into the spot, the fiery well sputtered out, as if the fallen freedmen crawled from the mass graves they dug themselves to blot out the light so it could not shine on a marker that seems to celebrate such a dark event. After all, this is a state-sanctioned marker–one that went through the state’s review process and is similar to the benign markers denoting where a city was founded or the location of a hamlet’s first church. It is a marker whose removal may be contingent upon the consent of the group that purchased it.
Further adding to the injustice of the event, the marker’s wording is cause for alarm, given the history and context behind it. It reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” The monument’s description of what happened here as a “riot”–not the more accurate “massacre”– seems to downplay the viciousness of the event. For a casual observer, it also seems to celebrate the perpetrators as heroes who brought down a misguided government. The intent of this monument becomes a little clearer when compared to another found in the nearby town cemetery. In that yard –the kind of resting place most of the fallen in the massacre were not afforded—a devastatingly worded obelisk, worn and weathered by age but still readable, props up the trio of slain whites as heroes of the white supremacy. Yes, it says “white supremacy”.
Colfax, some 229 miles and a world away from New Orleans, offers a different perspective on how we consider our history. As the protests and counter-protests went back and forth in the Crescent City and legislators in Baton Rouge debated bills to save the four Confederate monuments, Colfax residents continued walking past their relic of a shameful history without questioning it.
What led to the event at Colfax and its aftermath is quite complicated—rival governments acting under the assumption of power in both Colfax and New Orleans (Louisiana’s capital at the time) plus a rift between those who saw an unchecked crime spree while others saw legitimate means to staking out a role in government. Furthermore, these events were set during a time in our nation’s history when laws and order were long forgotten concepts when it came to race and politics. The marker itself is a bit of a riddle but what it stands for provides a simple and clear argument against monuments like those in New Orleans and across the South–debate has started about at least three other Confederate monuments in the Pelican State alone.
Knowing the history of Colfax shows that it and by extension others like it are not simply commemorating what one man on the wrong side of history did, but instead are monuments to violence, oppression, and attempts at thwarting democracy.
The Second Civil War
It can be argued that Reconstruction – which followed the devastation of the Civil War and was to be a time of rebuilding and reconciliation between the country’s two distinct halves – was the most violent and turbulent time in our nation’s history. Although it did not reach the body count of the Civil War, it – unlike that conflict – was fought by civilians and former soldiers alike in the streets and homes of the South, a war waged directly against the citizenry. These battles on the home front did not happen in a vacuum.
One key argument against abolition before the Civil War was the fear of what would happen to society if slavery were ended and freedmen were to enter white-dominated society. During Reconstruction, whites were enraged as former slaves not only voted but held public office at nearly every level in government.
This cocktail of hatred and fear only added to the complicated mess of classism, politics, and unionism versus secessionism. Now, the violence and disarray of the Civil War left the battlefield and came to Main Street. Uniforms were no more; instead, skin color and party affiliation now determined one’s enemy.
“There has never been a more violent period here than the Civil War era,” says Keith, a label she uses to include clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces going back to events such as Bleeding Kansas in the mid-1850s, the war itself, and through the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
Reconstruction was also hindered by the missteps of the federal government and the angst of former slave owners, Confederates, and Democrats in regard to that government. Making matters worse, conflicts over control of the nation seemed to begin at the top and work their way down. Most historians regard this time as one replete with fraudulent elections and corruption in all levels of government. Even the way that government operated on federal level was in flux.
“Reconstruction was a big fight about what government can do and should do,” says Keith. “It was a revolutionary period, in that the various branches of the government surged in power: first the executive, swelled up by the war with hundreds of thousands in arms and dispersed in war postures throughout the country; Congress had a Radical Republican supermajority committed to facilitating the rapid rise of former slaves to the status of equals, an unheard of event; later the judiciary, as in U.S. v. Cruikshank and a number of similar cases, reversing the revolutionary trends on race while [also] allowing the Reconstruction-era acts (passed by Congress) to hugely empower the government, especially vis a vis organized labor.”
As the Civil War drew to a close, politicians were left with the question of what to do with the South as it now looked to rejoin the Union. In Louisiana, that question needed answering before Appomattox Court House. In fact – as portions of the state fell to Union control early in the war – federally sponsored elections were held as early as 1862. Gov. Michael Hahn, a Unionist who had lived in New Orleans since 1840, took office in 1864, a year and a month before generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant shook hands at in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. Despite a new constitution, Louisiana was denied re-entry into the Union until 1868. In many ways, Louisiana put on a face that seemed ready to turn away from the old days of the Cotton Belt – or Sugar Cane Kingdom in the southern part of the state – and move toward the future.
The new constitution, after all, granted more freedoms to African Americans but stopped short of issuing them voting rights. In reality, Louisiana was only masking the truth, which came out on July 30, 1866 in New Orleans. Radical Republicans – who drew their political base from those who opposed secession, called the unflattering term scalawag, if not worse – reconvened the constitutional convention in what was known as the Mechanics Institute – a hall for members of nationwide union – near Canal Street. (During the war, the Union set up New Orleans as the capital as the Confederates moved their capital north and west as the Union soldiers advanced.) Joined by freedmen, the Republicans hoped to give voting rights to African Americans as they amended the new constitution. Whites, Democrats, the police force and former Confederates saw this as an attempt by Republicans to cement their political power as black voters supported Republican candidates – after all Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.
As blacks marched behind the American flag to the Institute, whites led by the mayor of New Orleans attempted to stop them. Violence erupted in the streets and the Republicans and blacks fled to the Institute, where the mob gunned them down in the hall and from outside through the windows. In all, more than 200 were injured and around 50 were killed (there are sources that put the number of slain above 200, but that number likely combines the slain and wounded). The Mechanics Institute Riot – coupled with violence in Tennessee – caught national headlines and was a deciding factor in the elections that soon followed. Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson’s lenient postbellum policies would never happen as Radical Republicans – who favored strict control over the South – swept into office fueled by the nation’s idea that violence like that in the streets of New Orleans proved the South was not in full surrender and needed to be under closer scrutiny.
With their majority power and ability to override Johnson’s veto, the Radicals passed the Reconstruction Acts, one of which divided the South into military districts. Military governors were given powers to appoint and remove elected officials from office. The once powerful white Democrats – now under the control of Union generals they fought on battlefields – lashed out against white Republicans and freedmen.
By 1868, the federal government and Radical Republicans required Louisiana to rewrite its constitution and guarantee African Americans equal rights, including the right to vote. Black voting power was suddenly powerful – especially, in theory, in Colfax, which had a slim African American majority. Before long, freedmen won local elections and a quarter of the 137 state legislators were black. The headlines that announced this change in political power prompted angry whites to organize and take bloody action. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White League – the militarized arm of the Democratic Party – flourished and committed unspeakable crimes with little regard for their consequences.
This would happen across Louisiana and around the country. In the Red River Parish town of Coushatta, the White League abducted six white Republican officials and demanded they resign from office and leave the state. After being exiled, they were executed by a band of whites. The White League then killed the possible witnesses – the purported body count ranges between four and 20 innocent, black witnesses. Horrifically, one victim’s arms and legs were broken before he was burned alive. No one was brought to trial.
Like its metropolitan counterparts, New Orleans to the south and Coushatta to the northwest, Colfax was familiar with seesawing political struggles. Here, the violent fires of Reconstruction would burn the brightest.
A Parish Divided
In terms of Louisiana parish names, Grant Parish sticks out. Many parishes draw their moniker from the state’s mixed heritage – French, Spanish or Native American words or names serve as eponyms for many parishes, meaning a child is likely able to pronounce Tangipahoa – an Indian word relating to corn – before they can say the word “parish” itself. There are also homages to American history – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Livingston parishes honor figures from our nation’s formative years. Confederates such as Gov. Henry Watkins Allen, Gen. PGT Beauregard and President Jefferson Davis also live on as arguably problematic parish names.
On the other side, there are three honoring men who were significant to the Union’s cause: Cameron Parish, named for Simon Cameron, who served Lincoln as secretary of war for the early part of the war; Lincoln himself; and Grant Parish, named during the former general’s time in the White House, during Reconstruction – a presidency viewed by historians as one of the worst. Schuyler M. Colfax, Grant’s vice president, gave his name to the parish’s seat, which was once a 14,000 acre plantation.
Admittedly, Grant Parish was created during Reconstruction to gerrymander districts so to give power to the Republicans – in hindsight, it was a recipe for trouble. Cut from Rapides Parish, it consisted of both wooded areas and vast amounts of plantation land, which factored into producing the black majority it still possesses to this day. In the 1870s, the black majority is said to have been slight – about 200 voters – leading to tight political races. To offset their opponent’s numbers statewide, White League and similar groups threatened Republican voters – white and black – in an attempt to scare them away from the polling place (it also did not help that ballots were not cast in secrecy at this time). When threats didn’t work, they beat them. When beatings didn’t work, they killed them. Historians assert that during this time and until the secret ballot, election day in Louisiana was one of the most violent days of the year. It was so dangerous for black voters, Keith writes that the 1872 statewide election saw them march to and from the polls in military formation, under armed protection.
In 1872, the intimidation of the Democrats paid off and the party had a shot at taking the governor’s race. In that election, Republican William Pitt Kellogg – a colonel in the Union army – faced Democrat John McEnery (who drew power from Fusionist Democrats – a marriage of Democrats and anti-Grant Republicans) at the polls. The results – which gave the victory to Kellogg – were hotly contested. Sitting governor Henry Clay Warmoth, a Republican, crossed party lines and sided with McEnery, throwing behind him the weight of the State Returning Board, which he controlled. A Republican faction called the Custom House Gang dissented and gave it to Kellogg. In response, Warmoth called a special session at the Mechanics Institute, which was ruled unlawful by a federal judge and led to Warmoth’s impeachment. He was replaced by P.B.S. Pinchback, the first African American governor in the nation – an ascension that caused further pandemonium at the hands of Democrats. Ultimately, both Kellog and McEnery would take the oath of office and begin serving as governor in two separate partisan governments.
The friction grew until in September, five months after Colfax, the White League gathered to oust Kellogg from office. Soon, the Battle of Liberty Place had started, claiming the lives of nearly 30 from both the White League and their New Orleans police force enemies and putting the Democrats briefly in control before President Grant – who sided with Kellogg despite Congress’s support of McEnery – sent federal troops to restore Kellogg to power. Before Liberty Place, however, there was Colfax.
The violence at Colfax’s court house was set in motion by Louisiana’s dueling governments. Republicans and Fusionist Democrats asked their respective leaders in New Orleans to support their choices for local government. Republicans picked Daniel Shaw for sheriff and R. C. Register, an African American, for parish judge. Democrats supported Alphonse Cazabat, born in France but a Confederate veteran, as judge and Christopher Columbus Nash, also a Confederate veteran, as sheriﬀ. For the first two months of 1873, Cazabat and Nash occupied the respective roles. In March, the Republicans discovered the courthouse was empty and broke in through a window. During the next few weeks, Shaw and Register were in power through their occupancy.
According to an eye-witness account given by John I. McCain some 54 years later (and later retold in a 2003 article for The Atlantic by Richard Rubin), this occupancy was a time of lawlessness at the hands of the black Republicans. McCain claimed that Democrats were ousted by force by an armed mob which then kicked off a reign of terror. McCain recalled some 300 armed African Americans arriving in Colfax early the same morning that whites came to take back the courthouse. McCain says the blacks “made play of their weapons” and threw out threats of killing all white men and taking their women and girls. In her book, Keith includes similar accounts of whites stirred by lascivious rumors about the blacks’ plans for white females. After the outnumbered whites disbanded, some fled their homes, which were later looted. In one home, McCain recalls that the Republicans found a casket containing the body of a child awaiting shipment to be buried in a family plot. He says it was mockingly thrown into the family’s yard, nearly ejecting the corpse. McCain also made allegations of rape and other crimes.
Primary sources and secondary accounts of this time are dominated by the point of view of the massacre’s perpetrators. Though Keith includes details about the violence whites committed before the showdown at the courthouse, there are few testimonials refuting white claims of rape and terror at the hands of the black occupants. However, former mayor of Colfax Connie Youngblood told The Atlantic, “That (the coffin story) never happened.”
McCain says that even as whites rallied any help they could, Nash continued to ask blacks for peaceful reconciliation. Following the shooting death of a black bystander, the two sides could not reach peace.
On Easter morning, April 13, the white militias from Grant and other parishes surrounded the court house. With the help of a small cannon, supposedly manned by one a former Union soldier from New York, the white militias scared off many of the court house occupants. (Some accounts say those who fled were gunned down.) Those who remained exchanged fire with the whites before a captured black was forced to set fire to the building. From inside, a white flag made of either a page of a book or from a shirt signaled their surrender. The battle of Colfax was over and the massacre was set to begin.
The whites sent James Hadnot and four other men to confront those who remained inside. In the Democrat version of the story, Hadnot and his men were met with gunfire. In Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, Nicholas Lemann refutes this account with the claim that blacks were stacking their weapons in surrender and an overly excited white accidentally shot Hadnot from behind. After the shooting of Hadnot – whose name is on the cemetery monument – whites stormed the courthouse, beating, stabbing and shooting those inside and those who attempted to escape. Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died adds that whites marched captured blacks in pairs and shot them execution style in the back of the head.
The Atlantic’s account quotes a master’s thesis by Manie White Johnson that says the families of the fallen Republicans were allowed to bury their dead. However, most went unclaimed and were instead pitched into the trenches the Republicans dug around the court house, noting “’buried as it were in the graves dug with their own hands.'” Others were said to have been thrown into the Red River.
Because of the removal of the bodies and the mass burials, numbers of the fallen vary. Lane puts the number at 62 while a military report sent to Congress identified 81 killed black men by name, in addition to unidentified bodies, leaving a total of 105. Youngblood tells of another alarming event that may add to the body count. “The next day the whites went to the blacks and said that if they had participated in the riot and if they stepped forward now, they would be granted pardons. So, a bunch of the blacks came forward—I don’t know how many, maybe 100 —and the whites shot them instead.”
Keith writes of locals discovering human bones in the area as the years passed. Her number is based on local historians’ accounts, including that of a doctor who participated in the event. The doctor puts it at 167 but Keith backs it down from that as “he may have been bragging.” She also acknowledges killings – like Youngblood – away from the site and settles at 150, the largest of credible and researched numbers.
After the bodies were taken away, buried or dumped, the news of Colfax spread across the state. The story made national news and an illustration of a black family dragging a fallen loved one in a makeshift cart away from the scene ran in Harper’s Weekly, a well-known political magazine. Yet, over time, the story of Colfax faded away and is barely mentioned in history books, including Louisiana history books. Its legacy lives on in effects that would be felt through the days of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggle.
Eric Foner, a Civil War and Reconstruction historian, wrote that it was the bloodiest single incident of racial carnage in the period and testified the lengths that Democrats would go to fight for their power. It had a chilling effect on blacks in Louisiana both legally and psychologically, showing that “in any large confrontation, they stood at a fatal disadvantage.” For many years, they would have to take whatever treatment whites sent their way. In his writing, Foner quotes black Reconstruction legislator John G. Lewis as saying “The organization against them is too strong…They attempted [armed self-defense] in Colfax. The result was that on Easter Sunday of 1873 when the sun went down that night, it went down on the corpses of two hundred and eighty negroes.”
Unlike Coushatta, Colfax’s massacre did result in criminal charges. Oddly, this only empowered its participants and those like them. In U.S. v. Cruikshank, 100 white participants in the massacre were indicted under the Federal Enforcement and Ku Klux Klan Acts, which allowed for federal prosecution of murder and intimidation aimed to suppress civil rights and voting rights. However, these laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Keith, via e-mail, saysthat this is one possible origin of the language on the marker, as white supremacists in Louisiana took it as the end of Reconstruction – or carpetbag misrule.
The White League and the Klan were now free to harass blacks out of their newly-won voting rights and usher in a return to white Democrat controlled governments in the South. “These whites-only governments passed segregation laws – and more importantly, facilitated black economic subjugation by the abuse of criminal justice and the underfunding of education for African Americans,” says Keith.
A Resting Place
In the end, there should be a marker on the lawn of Colfax’s courthouse. Absolutely. Removing it is another slight to those lost their lives there and those still buried beneath it. It just should not be this one. Something happened at that spot, but it was not what is described on the current marker.
In New Orleans, as the monuments to Jefferson Davis, PGT Beauregard, Robert E. Lee and Liberty Place came down, cries arose of Orwellian re-writes of history. Those with a knack for trivia reminisced about Beauregard’s contributions to the city’s streetcar system, New Orleans’ claim as Davis’ final home and final resting place, and Lee’s time serving his country in the city, along with his notable military strategy. Yet, Colfax’s monument pulls the mask off this sophistry in its own way. Here, history was re-written a long time ago. Here, men are honored for the wrong reasons – like Lee and Beauregard in their dress grays – and not for any action other than their work on the battlefield or in a state house against the United States. In the wake of their fall, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke about telling both sides of history. He could have easily been standing on the lawn in Colfax.
In Colfax, the marker is wrong because it does not tell the complete history. Even in the words it choses—notably “riot” instead of “massacre”— it presents only the victors’ side. This technique is not limited to Colfax, as the Gettysburg Complier – a site maintained by students at the Civil War Institute of Gettysburg College – explains that this type of rhetoric is frequently used to shift responsibility for the killings from the white perpetrators to the black victims. Keith explains that the better label would be a battle followed by a massacre, as “an estimated 48 of the victims were taken prisoner and shot.”
To further understand this difference, Colfax can be compared to an event in the Texas Revolution. Called “The Other Alamo,” this event took place after a battle. Following the capture of some 400 Texan Revolutionaries, the Mexicans executed most of them. As it happened in the town of Goliad, it is called the Goliad Massacre. Unlike Colfax, this event inspired Texan soldiers to fight and cries of “Remember Goliad!” could be heard alongside cries of “Remember the Alamo!” at the final battle for Texas independence. Despite the Texan army’s resistance to the rule of the Mexican government, it is never referred to as the Goliad Riot.
The Colfax marker also seems to celebrate the event and its perpetrators as bringing an end to “Carpetbag misrule.” The term carpetbagger was a derogatory pejorative describing northerners who came to the South to gain wealth or political power after the Civil War, many carrying their belongings in luggage that was either made from or looked to be made of carpeting material. Admittedly, there is an argument to be made against the carpetbaggers. Many of them exploited the South for profit – at the worst by directly scamming southerners out of money. Others simply entered southern politics and gained political office. Elected carpetbagger officials like Warmoth used their power to make money – he quintupled the state’s printing budget (he owned part of the newspaper that had the contract for printing), sold state bonds, took bribes, and used the State Returning Board to control elections. By the end of his four years in office, he managed to make $1 million despite having a salary of only $8,000 a year.
This, however, is likely not the misrule of which the marker speaks. Reconstruction didn’t end until 1877, following a backroom deal to hand the disputed presidential election of 1876 to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South. Once this happened, Republican governments collapsed and officials left office, fearing violence from the White League. In essence, the South lost the Civil War but won Reconstruction.
What the marker calls misrule likely refers to is the power gained by blacks who elected Republicans – some from the North – as leaders. Or it could be the 1950s’ view of contemporary blacks holding power in Grant Parish. It could also relate to the role Colfax played in ushering in Jim Crow. Another interpretation is that Colfax had a reverse effect on the nation to events such as the Mechanics Institute Riot. Whereas at the start of Reconstruction, northerners were shocked by the violence in the South and thought intervention was the answer, by this time they were weary of the continued bloodshed and just wanted it to end by any means.
Keith poses a simpler answer, “ Jim Crow southerners were gasbags?”
Now that the monuments have been removed in New Orleans, what is to be done with others like them across the state? Unfortunately, in the case of Colfax, there is no clear answer.
Lynne Coxwell, director of research at the Louisiana Office of Tourism, which administers the historic marker program, states that removing one of the hundreds of markers across the state falls somewhere along a “weird, weird line.”
“We don’t remove them. … It depends. We administer this program,” she says from her Baton Rouge office. “We do not purchase them. They are bought by individuals or companies or whatever. We don’t necessarily own them.”
According to the inscription at the bottom of the Colfax marker, it was erected by Department of Commerce and Industry in 1950, while Louisiana was still under Jim Crow (Keith’s book has it going up in 1951, but it may have been ordered in 1950). This would put the call for removal in the hands of Louisiana’s Economic Development’s Board of Commerce & Industry, a committee that represents major economic groups and includes gubernatorial appointees representing both the lieutenant governor and governor. Questions sent to some members of the current board were not returned.
With the board’s consent, removing it or changing it would be easier, involving a simple fact check and bypassing much of the usual application process.
Another obstacle is the cost of replacing the monument. When originally purchased, the marker cost only $100, under $1,000 in today’s dollars. Today, it would cost between $1,900 and $2,260.
But says Coxwell, “Certainly if its incorrect, we wouldn’t want that to be there.”
If the board has the mindset of Terry Ralph Brown, an independent who represents Colfax’s district in the Louisiana House of Representatives, the marker isn’t going anywhere.
A discussion of the marker with Brown, who is from Colfax, veers into a discussion of his childhood without indoor plumbing and pulling himself up by his bootstraps, the burning of Atlanta, Abraham Lincoln’s blockade of New Orleans that caused starvation and disease, his Cherokee heritage and how his ancestry includes both a captain in the Confederacy and a sergeant in the Union, both of whom were at the siege of the Vicksburg, Mississippi. Brown is quick to recuse himself from the debate, stating he has no dog in the hunt, but stands behind leaving the marker – and the New Orleans monuments, which he voted to protect – firmly planted on Louisiana ground.
Between indictments of the Founding Fathers’ treatment of Native Americans and tales of his own visits to Holocaust Concentration Camps, Brown recalls hearing accounts of what led to battle for Colfax. He includes mentions of marauding and rape and says “there are two sides to the story and then there is a right side.”
Yet technically Brown sidesteps the debate over the veracity of the marker, saying that he values it as a part of history. Unlike those who rallied around the removal of Lee, Davis, and Beauregard, Brown values the Colfax marker’s worth even as its accuracy is up for debate.
“My deal is this it is a part of our history,” says Brown, calling from Baton Rouge during the legislative session. “And whether we like it or not, whether we like the wording on the makers or not, that is debatable. … But to take down something that is history … that it is up to the people of Grant Parish.”
Adds Brown, “… I am not going to try to rewrite history. That marker is there. It is up to the judgement of the people to decide what actually went on.”
Although Brown warns of forgetting history just to be condemned to repeat it, at one point, he concedes that some history is contested, saying, “It is a controversial marker. Whether it is an accurate description or not remains to be seen.”
Colfax’s current mayor sees things a bit differently. When Ossie Clark took office he was only the second African American mayor of the town. His predecessor was the first. Although he is quick to brag about the progress Colfax has made, he readily admits that it still faces many issues – but they are far more hidden than in the past.
“You don’t see it as overtly as you would 40 years ago or 50 years ago,” says Clark, a pastor in a central Louisiana church. “Right now, you could look at things and say things are somewhat better but they could always improve and get better.”
Of the marker Clark says, “It has ever been a sore spot for a lot of people.” While he doesn’t consider its removal a pressing issue for the townspeople and there is no real movement to take it down, yearly memorials are held on the anniversary of the massacre.
Clark does share some of the thoughts that Brown holds on the value of history. However, in the interest of history, Clark wouldn’t mind a change being made.
“I would definitely like to see the wording change, being that it wasn’t really a riot,” says Clark. “Let’s face it: the historical facts are just what they are – the facts. That way, people can have a better understanding of what transpired during that particular time period, so it doesn’t make it seem like it was just an uprising. Well no, it was blatant killing that took place.
Ends Clark, “It really was a massacre in the greatest sense.”
Keith opens her book with an ode to the men who lost their lives in or around the Colfax Courthouse:
“Let the ghosts of Colfax have the first word. They do not rest in peace; their bones have been restless.”
Today she views the marking of the mass grave or graves as a priority. After all, visitors to the courthouse may never realize what they are treading on as they go about their legal business. She also favors moving the historical marker to a spot that is likely not a grave. During her research, she encountered locals who supported a supplemental marker and perhaps a visitors’ center. There was also talk of a National Parks Service commemoration on the massacre’s anniversary. Currently, it does not look like any of those ideas will be realized. Still she offers her own take on what Colfax’ marker should read:
“Colfax Massacre: On this site on April 13, 1873, black and white paramilitaries clashed in a battle over control of the Grant Parish courthouse and voting rights. The remains of 69 African American men are buried here.”
In the end, will this help those ghosts to linger no more? Even if a new marker is erected, it doesn’t change what happened at the site. Possibly, it will change how we remember it. As evidenced in New Orleans and echoed in Brown’s views, any moves toward changing the nearly 70-year-old marker on the yard of the Grant Parish Courthouse will ruffle feathers and cause some to cry out that history is being re-written. Let them. History has already been re-written in Colfax; now it just needs to be corrected.