The Colfax Riot

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

"After the war," his friend said, "the government took the blacks and said 'Here's your freedom,' but they didn't give 'em jobs and they didn't have the money to support them or feed them."

"And the whites," the other man continued, "started putting together militias to go up there and take the courthouse back. Some men from right around here put together a cavalry and rode up. And they got a two-pound cannon and brought it down on a boat, the first ironclad ship ever to sail on the Red River. They took it off the boat at Montgomery and wheeled it down, and they had to get a Union soldier to show 'em how to use it. And on Easter Sunday they set it up there and just fired the hell out of that courthouse. Killed a bunch of blacks, drove 'em out. Ben Littlepage up there still has that cannon, sittin' on his front lawn."

When I returned to the genealogy library the next day, the man with the white moustache handed me an eyewitness account of the riot, written fifty-four years after the event by one John I. McCain, of Montgomery, Louisiana, a white man who asserted with perfect confidence that the Colfax Riot was "one of the most important events in the history of the nation." As he recalled,

The Democrats, or white officials were in possession of their offices ... but were soon forced out by a mob of armed negroes, who installed their officers. A meeting of the white Democrats was called ... some three hundred armed negroes assembled in Colfax early in the morning, making play of their weapons, making open threats of violence, and the white people disbanded. This action of the whites seemed to give the negroes more confidence and they began to make open threats to the effect that they would kill all the white men and appropriate the women and girls to fiendish desires. At this juncture ... the white families left their homes, by night or day, as opportunity offered. Then the negroes broke open stores and residences and took everything of value away. In the home of Judge Rutland they found a casket containing the remains of their baby, awaiting shipment for burial in their family burying plot, somewhere in north Louisiana. This they threw into the back yard with face downward and the cover nearly off. Besides this, they committed robbery, rape and other crimes that have escaped my memory.

The white people were so alarmed at their atrocious acts that they called for help from adjoining parishes, which was liberally responded to ... Nash, the sheriff, from day to day, sent [the blacks] proposals that would settle the matter without bloodshed, all of which they insultingly refused ...

So on Sunday morning, the 13th of April, the whites marched into Colfax ... and with a little twenty-four inch cannon (sent to the white people by Capt. Bill Boardman, owner and captain of the large steel hull steam-boat W.F. Moore,) kept up an effective fire until the afternoon. And here I must say that the cannon mentioned above was manned by a man named Sid Shewman, from the state of New York, and belonged to the artillery of the Federal army during the Civil War. During the engagement in the forenoon he was wounded but stayed by his little gun until victory was won. This northern soldier endeared himself to the people of this parish and was loved and honored for his bravery and patriotism ever after ... At the first volley [the blacks] were terrorized and broke to run. Some took the highway down the river and made their escape, but something like one hundred and twenty-five negroes took refuge in the court house ... where they kept up a continuous fire, wounding three white men ... Then a bundle of fodder was tied to a long pole and a negro prisoner was made to go to the building, light the fodder and hold it to the roof until it blazed ... In a little while a flag of truce was displayed from a window, so at once the firing ceased. At this instant, Mr. James Hadnot, with four other men, went up to capitulate for peace, and here one of the most cowardly acts on the part of the negroes occurred. When they got close to the door of the building, a volley was fired at them from inside, mortally wounding Mr. Hadnot and wounding Frank Moses and others. After this act of perfidy, the negroes attempted to escape in the confusion that followed. The whites were confounded at this treachery, and as the negroes rushed out of the building, they were shot down in their tracks, and those that escaped the first fire were run down in the field and were shot down by men on horseback ...

I have written this from memory and every word of it can be substantiated by only a few living witnesses, who are now old and decrepit men.

Back at the public library in Colfax, the librarian, Doris Lively, dug up more than a half dozen theses and term papers about the riot, written by local residents many years after the event. Most reiterated some of the starker details from John I. McCain's reminiscence—the vandalizing of the baby's coffin, the torching of the courthouse roof, the shooting of the white men sent to negotiate peace, the slaughter of the blacks fleeing the burning courthouse. Most also mentioned an epilogue that McCain left out of his account: that a large number of blacks—estimates ranged from about twenty to sixty—who surrendered and were taken prisoner were, that same night, shot or hanged. None of the authors expressed any dismay or even surprise that the prisoners were executed. One, Manie White Johnson, wrote in her master's thesis, "Privilege was given to the negroes to bury their dead but as only a few came to do this, most of the bodies were thrown into trenches, 'buried as it were in the graves dug with their own hands.'" In another passage Johnson referred to the captured as "darkies," and quoted an account that likened the sound of the shooting of forty-eight black prisoners to that of "popcorn in a skillet."

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