The 1868 Louisiana Massacre that Reversed Reconstruction-Era Gains - HISTORY

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The 1868 Louisiana Massacre That Reversed Reconstruction-Era Gains

The Opelousas Massacre terrorized African American voters and stopped local Black political progress in its tracks.
The Opelousas Massacre, 1868

'THIS IS A WHITE MAN'S GOVERNMENT... We regard the Reconstruction Acts (so called) of Congress as usurpations, and unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void. —Democratic Platform.'  Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly, September 1868. 

In September 1868, a dispute over a column published in an Opelousas, Louisiana partisan newspaper provoked one of the bloodiest incidents of racial violence in the Reconstruction era. The attackers' goal: to reverse dramatic political gains made by Black citizens after the Civil War, intimidate them from exercising their newly found rights and restore the racial hierarchy of the slavery era.

The Opelousas massacre remains one of the harshest examples of African American voter suppression in U.S. history, with estimates of the dead ranging from several dozen to several hundred. Occurring in the run-up to the 1868 presidential election, which pitted conservative Democrat Horatio Seymour against Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant, the killings also underlined the importance of partisan media in shaping the postwar political discourse.

Throughout American history, political parties have used partisan newspapers to influence the electorate, starting with the Federalist party’s Gazette of the United States, founded in 1789. (Motto: "He that is not for us, is against us.") After the upheaval of the Civil War, newspapers became a hotly contested space for Democrats and Republicans to communicate their competing visions for the political, economic and social futures of some 4 million formerly enslaved people. While Republicans used their newspapers to advocate expanding Black people’s rights and privileges, Democratic papers aligned with the slogan of their party’s presidential nominee Seymour: “This is a White Man’s Government,” one that hoped to keep Black Americans in perpetual bondage—or at least perpetual servitude.

In Opelousas, the seat of Louisiana’s St. Landry parish, The St. Landry Progress served as the official organ of the local Republican Party—one of 73 Republican papers in the state. And in fall 1868, a strongly worded editorial, penned by a precocious young editor, ignited a firestorm.

READ MORE: How Power Grabs in the South Erased Reforms After Reconstruction

In the South, Postwar Politics Hinged on Rights for the Formerly Enslaved

Illustration from the late 1860s depicting freedmen voting in New Orleans. 

Illustration from the late 1860s depicting freedmen voting in New Orleans. 

That year hadn’t been good for Louisiana Democrats. The state’s white planter class, beset by labor shortages and repeated crop failures, was suffering financially. Politically, their world order was crumbling as formerly enslaved people gained new rights. In April, Louisiana’s new state constitution, one of the most far-reaching pieces of Radical Reconstruction legislation, passed on the strength of Black Republican support, granting full citizenship to Black men with equal civil and political rights, while banning segregation in public schools and on public transportation. In July, the Fourteenth Amendment gave African Americans equal status under federal law.

“The April election returns left white leaders fully cognizant of the radical Black voting strength and the future implications that strength had for the Democratic party,” wrote Carolyn DeLatte, an early historian of the Opelousas massacre.

But while Black voters immediately after the Civil War skewed largely Republican, they weren’t a monolithic group. Some did join the Democratic party—a fact that, in St. Landry parish, drew ire on both sides. In early September 1868, a rumor circulated among local Democrats that Republican Blacks were going to reclaim Black Democrats for the party, if they had to do it “at the point of a bayonet.”

These rumors led to a mostly peaceful standoff on September 13, 1868 between Black Republicans and white Democrats, where leaders of each party gave speeches and negotiated a peace accord between the two parties that banned guns at gatherings. It also required the editor of the St. Landry Progress, Emerson Bentley, to refrain from making “incendiary” comments about the Democrats in the paper or in speeches.

An 18-year-old Ohio native, Bentley also served as secretary of the local Radical Republican party and taught at a Methodist school for Black students. Deemed by local Democrats a “carpetbagger,” a derogatory term used for Northerners who came South after the war to profit economically or politically, Bentley regularly received threats. But he himself expressed religious motivation for his politics, crediting his “Christian spirit, and a desire to do something for the general good.”

READ MORE: When Did African Americans Get the Right to Vote?

'They Are Killing Mr. Bentley!'

On September 19, 1868, Bentley broke the truce by lambasting Democrats in a Progress editorial. “The assembly of armed men from all parts of the parish did not indicate peaceful intentions, but a total blindness to the interests of the people,” he wrote. Declaring a measure of moral authority over the Democrats, Bentley added that Republicans “do not plot in the dark; we do not assassinate inoffensive citizens or threaten to do so; we do not seek the lives of political opponents; we do not seek to array one class against another; but we do intend to defend our just rights at all hazards.” In the article, he appealed to Black Democrats to rejoin the party that didn’t seek to intimidate them with violence.

On September 28, Bentley was teaching at the Methodist church on the outskirts of Opelousas when three Seymour Knights, the local branch of the white supremacist organization, came to confront him about his “incendiary” article.

“You have a published a report which is both false and malicious,” said one of the Seymour Knights, according to an account in the New Orleans Advocate.

“Do you mean to say that I lied in that report?” Bentley asked.

The Seymour Knight replied, “ Yes sir, God Damn you, I do,” and then began hitting Bentley with a cane on his back and shoulders.

“They are killing Mr. Bentley!” the Black children shouted, running from the schoolhouse.

Before leaving, the Seymour Knights forced Bentley to sign a retraction of the story. When word spread about the attack, Republicans, fearing for their lives, assembled in Opelousas. Rumors spread among white citizens that armed Black locals were plotting an uprising. After signing an affidavit with legal authorities about the attack and then hiding overnight in a barn behind the Progress office, Bentley left town. Eluding a white mob with help from numerous Republican party safe houses, he eventually made his way to New Orleans.

READ MORE: How the 1876 Election Tested the Constitution and Effectively Ended Reconstruction

The Ultimate Goal: Destroying the Republican Party

African American men voting in the South during Reconstruction, in an 1867 illustration from Harper's Weekly. That year in the Reconstruction states, 703,000 Black Americans voted, compared with 627,000 white citizens, a political imbalance that spurred reactionary violence.

African American men voting in the South during Reconstruction, in an 1867 illustration from Harper's Weekly. That year in the Reconstruction states, 703,000 Black Americans voted, compared with 627,000 white citizens, a political imbalance that spurred reactionary violence.

As Bentley fled, white mobs began a killing rampage that lasted several weeks, targeting Opelousas’ Black citizens—ostensibly to keep them from organizing. “Colored men were not allowed to stand in groups upon the sidewalks,” according to the New Orleans Advocate. “Each day new victims fell.” In St. Landry parish, dozens of black bodies were found scattered in shallow graves. The Republican party estimated casualties at between 200 and 300, while Democrats put it between 25 and 30. An Army investigation cited 233.

Over time, the real agenda—of demolishing St. Landry parish’s Republic party—became clear. Several white party leaders were hunted and killed, with one corpse displayed outside the local drugstore as a warning. Mobs destroyed the Progress office’s press and ransacked the Methodist school. “The Negroes all over the Parish have been disarmed, and have gone to work briskly,” declared the Franklin Planter’s Banner, a Democratic party paper. “Their Loyal League clubs have been broken up, the scalawags have turned Democrats…and their carpet-bag press…have been destroyed.”

Republicans who weren’t killed fled or switched parties. 

Back in April 1868, when they’d voted to ratify the new state constitution, Bentley and a very active local Black Republican party had looked excitedly to the November presidential election, when they would support Ulysses S. Grant over white supremacist Horatio Seymour. But they never got to cast those ballots. The former Union Army general didn’t receive a single vote in St. Landry parish.

“I am fully convinced that no man on that day could have voted any other than the Democratic ticket,” said the parish voter registration supervisor, “and not been killed inside of 24 hours.”

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