The Colfax Riot

Stumbling on a forgotten Reconstruction tragedy, in a forgotten corner of Louisiana 

It is highly unlikely that you might just stumble upon Colfax, Louisiana; it's not on an interstate, and the only two things in the immediate vicinity that might qualify as conventional tourist attractions—a pair of Union warships that were sunk nearby during the Civil War—are, in fact, buried deep beneath the soil. But if, by some chance, you should find yourself in Colfax—as I did a few years ago—and take the time to look around a bit, you will discover that it is a place with a story you're unlikely to hear anywhere else. To be honest, you're not terribly likely to hear it in Colfax, either, unless you know whom to ask, and what.

Colfax sits on the Red River, about 220 miles northwest of New Orleans, in a largely Baptist part of the state that, according to my Official Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Highway Map, is known as "The Crossroads," though what those roads are and where they lead is left unspecified. It is anything but a stereotypical small southern town: no stately old courthouse, no picturesque courthouse square, no sprawling whitewashed Victorian mansions with expansive front lawns and cavernous front porches, no quaint little general store with an ancient Coke cooler and a checkerboard out front. That kind of southern town is dominated by shades of white and green; Colfax is gray and brown.

Colfax, population 1,659, is the seat of Grant Parish; both were created in 1869, the latter being carved out of Rapides and Winn Parishes and named by northern Republicans (sometimes called "carpetbaggers") and local Republicans (sometimes called "scalawags"). The parish is named for the Civil War general and our eighteenth President, its seat for his Vice President, Schuyler Colfax.

Logging was long the main industry here, but nowadays 34 percent of the parish is untouchable federal forest preserve, and most of the rest has been cleared. Consequently, there isn't much work to be had in Grant Parish. Ninety percent of its work force commutes to jobs elsewhere (most in Alexandria or Pineville, twin cities in neighboring Rapides Parish, about half an hour away). The combined population of Colfax and Grant Parish's other towns—Dry Prong, Georgetown, Montgomery, and Pollock—is about 3,500; the rest of Grant's residents, some 15,000 people, live, as the locals say, "in the woods." Colfax itself is mostly one street—Main Street—with a railroad crossing, a small supermarket, a gas station, an alcohol-and-drug-abuse clinic, a modern library shaped like a cog, and a modern courthouse shaped like a concrete box. As I pulled into the courthouse's parking lot for the first time, I noticed two young black men hosing down a van. Later I learned that the two were in fact prisoners—trusties, incarcerated in the jail behind the courthouse—who would wash any car, inside and out, for five dollars. For fifteen they'd add a coat of wax.

I spent that afternoon and much of the evening doing genealogical research (don't ask), first in the courthouse and later in the library; by the time I decided to quit for the day, the sun had long since set. I stumbled out of the library, tired and half dazed from hours spent poring over marriage licenses and census records, and lurched across the courthouse parking lot toward my car; the car-washing trusties had returned to their cells. Colfax was dark and quiet—deserted, really. For a moment, as I gazed across the courthouse's front lawn, I thought I spotted a human figure in the far corner, standing under a magnolia tree; but looking closer, I realized that it was actually a historic marker. I walked over to read it.

COLFAX RIOT

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.

Erected by the Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry 1950

Some time later I was sitting at a table in a genealogy library in nearby Alexandria when I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between what appeared to be two friends: a stocky, balding man in his forties, wearing an ID badge from a local power company, and a skinny, somewhat older man sporting a Caterpillar cap and a white brush moustache. "I found another wife in Ouachita, ten years later," the former said animatedly, pointing to some notes on a legal pad. "This one's even younger. He sure got around." The older man smiled back, nodding his head. I imagined they were regulars at the library, and I soon became enmeshed in a conversation with them as they sought to educate me about Louisiana history and the pitfalls of genealogy. We talked for the better part of an hour; then, as I was getting up to leave, I remembered the historic marker outside the Grant Parish courthouse. Now, I'd studied the Civil War and Reconstruction quite extensively, and I'd never even heard of the Colfax Riot. Neither had the half dozen history professors and the dozen Louisianans from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria I'd asked about it since I'd first read that marker. I had a feeling, though, that these two men might be able to tell me a little more about it.

I was right.

"You know," said the thin man with the white moustache, "after the Civil War these carpetbaggers came down from up north, and they played games back and forth with the local government, switching back and forth. So during one of these games a mob of blacks takes over the courthouse up in Colfax. They just take it, and decide they're going to run Grant Parish. You heard the expression 'gettin' uppity'? Well, that's what these people did—they got uppity, and decided they would run things, and of course they couldn't."

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