[This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, one of many such Reconstruction sesquicentennials over the next decade. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five Reconstruction histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the Civil Rights Act.]
I’ve written a good deal, in this space and elsewhere, about the 1898 Wilmington massacre and the 1921 Tulsa massacre (both too often described as “race riots”), among other such acts of racial violence. But just as under-remembered, and perhaps even more historically telling, are the massacres that marred and helped undermine Reconstruction. Here are three:
1) New Orleans (1866): In late July, 1866, a group of African Americans (many of them Civil War veterans) marching to the Louisiana Constitutional Convention were stopped and attacked by Mayor John Monroe (a longtime Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist), New Orleans police forces, and an angry white mob. As happened in Wilmington, Tulsa, and so many other massacres, this individual starting point morphed into a city-wide rampage against African Americans citizens and communities, one that ended with hundreds of African Americans (both convention delegates and others) dead and wounded. This massacre took place early enough in Reconstruction that a federal response was both possible and swift—Monroe and many other officials were moved from office, and Reconstruction efforts in the city intensified. Yet at the same time, the New Orleans massacre (along with another 1866 massacre, in Memphis) reveals just how fully white supremacists were prepared to use official and political as well as mob and vigilante violence to oppose both Reconstruction and African American rights.
2) Colfax (1873): By the early 1870s, such white supremacist racial violence had been codified into organized groups—most famously the Ku Klux Klan, but also parallel groups such as Louisiana’s White League (which, as that platform reflects, was not only a paramilitary terrorist group but also a political appendage of the state’s Democratic Party). Not coincidentally, the League’s first organized action was the Colfax Massacre, in which members attacked an African American militia; although at first shots were exchanged by both sides, the militiamen were outnumbered and quickly surrendered, only to continue being massacred by the League members. All told more than 100 African Americans were killed, and only three White League members convicted of murder—and those convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The Charles Lane book reviewed at that last hyperlink argues in its subtitle that both Colfax and the Court decision represented “the betrayal of Reconstruction,” and it’s hard not to agree that by this time, every level of America’s social and political power structure seemed allied with the white supremacists.
3) Hamburg (1876): The ultimate betrayal and abandonment of Reconstruction are usually associated with the 1876 Presidential election, but racial violence played a significant part in that culminating year as well. In many ways, the massacre in Hamburg (South Carolina) echoes the others I’ve written about here: a seemingly small incident of racial tension (two white farmers had a difficult time driving their wagon through a July 4th march by African American militiamen) exploded into an orgy of racial violence, as a July 8th attempt to disband the militia was followed by the arrival of a white mob who first attacked the militia’s armory and then expanded their massacre to much of the city’s African American population. Yet not only were there no federal or legal responses to the massacre, but instead it became part of the Democratic Party’s triumph in the state’s elections, as white supremacist candidate Wade Hampton uses a mythologized narrative of the massacre as a “race riot” to help gain the governor’s seat and put an end to Reconstruction in South Carolina—one more reflection of the central role that these acts of racial violence played in opposing and undermining Reconstruction throughout the period.
Next Reconstruction remembrance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction histories you’d highlight?
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