The Deadliest Massacre in Reconstruction-Era Louisiana Happened 150 Years Ago
So read the note found on the schoolhouse door by its intended recipient: Emerson Bentley, a white school teacher. He found the message in early September 1868, illustrated with a coffin, a skull and bones, and a dagger dripping with blood. The straightforward message represented a menacing threat to Bentley, who was teaching African-American children in Louisiana at the time. Little could the Ohio-born Republican have predicted just how soon that violence would come about.
Bentley, an 18-year-old who also worked as one of the editors of the Republican paper The St. Landry Progress, was one of the few white Republicans in the Louisiana parish of St. Landry. He and others came to the region to assist recently emancipated African-Americans find jobs, access education and become politically active. With Louisiana passing a new state constitution in April 1868 that included male enfranchisement and access to state schools regardless of color, Bentley had reason to feel optimistic about the state’s future.
But southern, white Democrats were nowhere near willing to concede the power they’d held for decades before the Civil War. And in St. Landry, one of the largest and most populous parishes in the state, thousands of white men were eager to take up arms to defend their political power.
The summer of 1868 was a tumultuous one. With the help of tens of thousands of black citizens who finally had the right to vote, Republicans handily won local and state elections that spring. Henry Clay Warmoth, a Republican, won the race for state governor, but the votes African-Americans cast for those elections cost them. Over the summer, armed white men harassed black families, shot at them outside of Opelousas (the largest city in St. Landry Parish), and killed men, women and children with impunity. Editors of Democratic newspapers repeatedly warned of dire consequences if the Republican party continued winning victories at the polls.
Those editorials spurred Democrats to action and instigated violence everywhere, wrote Warmoth in his book War, Politics, and Reconstruction: Stormy Days in Louisiana. “Secret Democratic organizations were formed, and all armed. We had ‘The Knights of the White Camellia,’ ‘The Ku-Klux Klan,’ and an Italian organization called ‘The Innocents,’ who nightly paraded the streets of New Orleans and the roads in the country parishes, producing terror among the Republicans.”
The vigilante groups were so widespread that they often included nearly every white man in the region. One Democratic newspaper editor estimated that more than 3,000 men belonged to the Knights of the White Camellia of St. Landry Parish—an area that included only 13,776 white people in total, including women and children.
With the approach of the presidential elections in November, the tension only increased. On September 13, the Republicans held a meeting in the town of Washington, not far from Opelousas, and found streets lined with armed Seymour Knights. A misfired rifle nearly caused a riot to break out, but in the end, everyone departed peacefully—though the Democrats threatened Bentley if he failed to publish an “honest” account of the event in the St. Landry Progress. Sure enough, they used Bentley’s account, in which he wrote the men had been intimidating the Republicans, to instigate a wave of violence on September 28, 1868.
Displeased with the way Bentley had portrayed the Democrats, Democrats John Williams, James R. Dickson (who later became a local judge), and constable Sebastian May visited Bentley’s schoolhouse to make good on the anonymous threats of the earlier September note. They forced him to sign a retraction of the article, and then Dickson savagely beat Bentley, sending the children who were sitting for lessons scattering in terror. Rumors spread, and soon many Republicans were convinced Bentley had been killed, though he managed to escape with his life. As a small number of African-Americans prepared to rescue Bentley, word spread around the parish that a black rebellion was imminent. Thousands of white men began arming themselves and raiding houses around the area.
“St. Landrians reacted to armed Negroes and rumors of an uprising in the same manner that Southerners had reacted for generations,” wrote historian Carolyn deLatte in 1976. “If anything, the vengeance visited upon the Negro population was greater, as blacks were no longer protected by any consideration of their monetary value.”
On the first night, only one small group of armed African-Americans assembled to deal with the report they’d heard about Bentley. They were met by an armed group of white men, mounted on horses, outside Opelousas. Of those men, 29 were taken to the local prison, and 27 of them were summarily executed. The bloodshed continued for two weeks, with African-American families killed in their homes, shot in public, and chased down by vigilante groups. C.E. Durand, the other editor of the St. Landry Progress, was murdered in the early days of the massacre and his body displayed outside the Opelousas drug store. By the end of the two weeks, estimates of the number killed were around 250 people, the vast majority of them African-American.
When the Bureau of Freedmen (a governmental organization created to provide emancipated African-Americans with legal, health and educational assistance and help them settle abandoned lands) sent Lieutenant Jesse Lee to investigate, he called it “a quiet reign of terror so far as the freed people were concerned.” Influential Republican Beverly Wilson, an African-American blacksmith in Opelousas, believed black citizens were “in a worse condition now than in slavery.” Another observer was led outside the town of Opelousas and shown the half-buried bodies of more than a dozen African-Americans.
But Democratic papers—the only remaining sources of news in the region, as all Republican presses had been burned—downplayed the horrific violence. “The people generally are well satisfied with the result of the St. Landry riot, only they regret that the Carpet-Baggers escaped,” wrote Daniel Dennet, editor of the Democratic Franklin Planter’s Banner. “The editor escaped; and a hundred dead negroes, and perhaps a hundred more wounded and crippled, a dead white Radical, a dead Democrat, and three or four wounded Democrats are the upshot of the business.”
The groups managed to achieve their ultimate purpose, as was borne out by the results of the November presidential elections. Even though Republican nominee Ulysses Grant won, not a single Republican vote was counted in St. Landry Parish. Those who oversaw the election felt “fully convinced that no man on that day could have voted any other than the democratic ticket and not been killed inside of 24 hours thereafter.”
“St. Landry Parish illustrates the local shift of power after 1868, where an instance of conservative boss rule occurred and the parish Republican Party was unable to fully recover for the remainder of Reconstruction,” writes historian Matthew Christensen. There would be no Republican organization in the parish for the next four years, and no Republican paper until 1876.
The Opelousas massacre also set the stage for future acts of violence and intimidation. “Lynching became routinized in Louisiana, a systematic way by which whites sought to assert white supremacy in response to African-American resistance,” said historian Michael Pfeifer, the author of The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching, by email. “This would be an important precedent for the subsequent wave of lynchings that occurred in Louisiana from the 1890s through the early decades of the twentieth century, in which lynch mobs killed more than 400 persons, most of them African American.”
Yet for all that it was the deadliest instance of racial violence during the Reconstruction period, the Opleousas massacre is little remembered today. Only slightly better known is the 1873 Colfax massacre in which an estimated 60 to 150 people were killed—a massacre largely following the pattern set by Opelousas.
“The United States has done comparatively little until quite recently to memorialize its history of significant racial violence,” Pfeifer said. “Reconstruction remains contested in local memory and efforts to remember the achievements of Reconstruction are cancelled out by the seeming failure of the period to achieve lasting change.”
Lorraine Boissoneault is a contributing writer to SmithsonianMag.com covering history and archaeology. She has previously written for The Atlantic, Salon, Nautilus and others. She is also the author of The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America. Website: http://www.lboissoneault.com/
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