The Day Freedom Died

Two book reviews from Eric Foner, courtesy of the Washington Post:

Unbeknownst to most Americans, our nation’s history includes home-grown terrorism as well as attacks from abroad. Scholars estimate that during Reconstruction, the turbulent period that followed the Civil War, upwards of 3,000 persons were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups. That’s roughly the same number of Americans who have died at the hands of Osama bin Laden.

In the last generation, no part of the American past has undergone a more complete scholarly reinterpretation than Reconstruction. Once portrayed as a tragic era of rampant misgovernment presided over by unscrupulous carpetbaggers and ignorant former slaves, Reconstruction is today seen as a noble, if flawed, experiment in interracial democracy, an effort to provide free blacks with land, education and political rights. The tragedy is not that Reconstruction was attempted, but that it failed.

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Foner adds some information about the authors and the primary focus of their attention – the Colfax Massacre:

Thus, the new books by LeeAnna Keith and Charles Lane are doubly welcome. Not only do they tell the story of the single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction (a piece of “lost history,” as Keith puts it), but they do so in vivid, compelling prose. Keith, who teaches at the Collegiate School in New York, and Lane, a journalist who covered the Supreme Court for The Washington Post, have immersed themselves in the relevant sources and current historical writing. Both accomplish a goal often aspired to but rarely achieved, producing works of serious scholarship accessible to a non-academic readership.

The Colfax massacre took place on Easter Sunday 1873, when a force of about 150 heavily armed whites assaulted an equal number of blacks, many of them militia members, holed up in the courthouse at Colfax, La. After chivalrously allowing women and children to leave, they overran the outgunned defenders. Some blacks were killed trying to escape; 40 or so were taken prisoner and then executed. The final death toll remains unknown — Lane estimates between 62 and 81, Keith thinks it may have reached 150. Three whites also died.

Wikipedia offers this bit of background:

The ostensible cause of the massacre was a contested local election, which set the stage for the violent attack. The massacre would become a turning point in the violent dismantling of Louisiana’s post-Civil War Reconstruction government, which had seen a brief period of political empowerment for African Americans in the state and across the South.

Prosecutions of perpetrators led to a key Supreme Court case, United States v. Cruikshank. In this 1875 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that protections offered to former slaves by the Fourteenth Amendment against racial violence did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of state governments. The Enforcement Act could not be used to protect them against groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

It seems that, today, the city of Colfax is also home to the official Louisiana Pecan Festival and dates all the way back to 1869.

The Louisiana Pecan Festival takes place on the first full weekend of November each year. The festival board and the Town of Colfax play hosts to 60,000 to 75,000 visitors each year, who come from all over the parish, central Louisiana, the state and throughout the U.S. for three days of fun, great food, live musical entertainment and much more.

The festival grew out of the parish’s Centennial celebration 1969. Grant Parish had been created by legislative act in 1869, carved out of portions of Winn and Rapides Parishes. In 1969, Governor Jimmie Davis was the special guest, and a local girl, Nancy Dean of Colfax, was crowned Centennial Queen. Several thousand local residents and visitors took part in the event, and with its success, organizers began to plan even more activities and festivities for the next year…and the Louisiana Pecan Festival was born.

Why celebrate the pecan? Well, for one thing, many area farmers grow the crop, and pecans were native to the area. Pecans were staples of the diets of the local Native Americans, and when the settlers began arriving here from the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, large plantations grew pecans along with their other crops. Wild pecans were grafted and new varieties cultivated, and soon the crop flourished in the rich river land soils. Local homesteaders also benefited because almost every yard had one or two trees that produced enough pecans to “keep some and sell the rest”, providing them a small money crop in the fall.

During the early years of the festival, which had “Frontier Days” as its theme, special guests were invited, including such popular movie and television stars as Fess Parker (Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett), James Drury, television’s “The Virginian”, Buck Taylor, Dale Robertson and Ken Curtis. The festival goers loved meeting the celebrities, and from all accounts, most of the guests enjoyed themselves as well. Sorrell Booke, “Boss Hogg” from The Dukes of Hazzard, was probably the most popular of all the early guests, and people still talk about his visit.

It would be interesting to know what became of those American terrorists. Did any of them rise to become powerful political or economic figures in the state? Did these men become judges or Congressional representatives? Did any of the terrorists seize the property and possessions of persons killed on that Easter evening? Did their families ever make restitution to the persons subjected to those terrorist actions? How has the town (and surrounding towns in the county; and surrounding counties in the state) addressed this event over time?

8 comments

  1. Here is a link to a discussion about South Africa’s current attempt at transformation. Please pardon the shared file but the journal won’t allow a direct link to the article.

  2. Temple, “The day freedom died” was it ever alive? Are you familiar with Elliot Jaspin, “Buried in the Bitter Waters” the hidden history of racial cleansing in America? This work deals exclusively with the black people being killed & run out of several counties around the country, between reconstruction and the 1920. The most prominent of these counties would be Forsyth in GA.

    The book also talks about the subsequent history of cover-up in these counties, and that these counties have remained all white.

  3. I’m not familiar with that particular book, but there was an exhaustive series down in the Austin Statesman that mapped much of what you’re referring to. Freedom has been ritually crucified by the states and its citizens. Take note of the limitation of the 14th Amendment in this case. Law was not an option. Guns were not an option…just runnin’ and dyin’.

    Things have changed a great deal. Folks need roadmaps to the future that run through our past.

  4. That piece by the Austin Statesman is an excerpt from the book. The irony is that the Stateman is under the unbrella of Cox News, which have a near nationwide circulation; however the Austin Stateman and one other paper were the only circulation to carry the story.

    There is another book that I heard about, “Slavery by another Name” by Douglas Blackmon. It deals with the neoslavery, the period after emancipation till ww2. This was a period where black men were arrested enmass in the south, then farmed out to wealth land owners, or companies. This was how the south was able to sustain its growth after emancipation.

  5. Thanks for that. I’ll check that out as well. I have a few books on the era that I peruse every once in awhile. There are some amazing stories from the era. The creation of all-Black towns in Oklahoma is one of my favorite “finds” from that time period.

  6. You ask if any racist perpetrators rose to national political office? The only example I know was a participant in the White League Battle of Canal Street in New Orleans in 1874. He became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. You can read about the White League in the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities encyclopedia, and in many good books. — LeeAnna Keith, Author of _The Colfax Massacre_

  7. Thank you for stopping by. I haven’t read your book as yet, but I am pleased that you’ve done such an exhaustive job. Getting kudos from Foner is a big deal. Congrats and thanks for the additional information.

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