This Day In History: April 13

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An armed group of white supremacists attacks a courthouse guarded by a mostly-Black militia in the town of Colfax, Louisiana on April 13, 1873. A bloodbath ensues, as the militia surrenders and the white supremacists carry out a day-long campaign of terror that came to be known as the Colfax Massacre.

In the years following the U.S. Civil War, a number of freedmen and white candidates sympathetic to the cause of racial equality were elected to office across the South. This progress stirred up deep resentments among other white Southerners, bitter over the loss of the Civil War and eager to once again enshrine white supremacy into law. During this period, known as Reconstruction, federal troops were stationed throughout the South to pacify the region and protect elections. The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 prohibited people from congregating with the purpose of disrupting an election and gave the federal government the authority to use its troops in defense of African Americans and their recently granted constitutional rights

The 1872 Louisiana gubernatorial election resulted in both sides claiming victory. The segregationist and Reconstructionist sides fought a legal battle as well as physical battles, sending armed men to occupy various government buildings. In March of 1873, pro-Reconstruction forces occupied the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax. The occupation lasted several weeks, until a group of nearly 300 whites marched on the courthouse on Easter Sunday, April 13th. The two sides exchanged fire, but the roughly 60 defenders of the courthouse surrendered after the white supremacists aimed a cannon at the building. The battle turned out to be only a prelude to a day of bloodshed.

Reportedly in response to the accidental shooting of their leader by one of their own, the white supremacist force began to execute captured and wounded members of the militia. They then spread out into town, indiscriminately murdering Black residents of Colfax. By the time Louisiana state militia arrived on April 14, an estimated 150 people had been killed—an exact count was made difficult by the hiding of many of the bodies. Nearly all the dead were African American, while only three were white. The state made no arrests, but federal troops arrived a few days later and arrested 97 white men in connection with the massacre. Several of them were convicted of crimes under the Enforcement Acts, but were released when the Supreme Court declared the laws unconstitutional.

The Colfax Massacre is believed to be the deadliest single incident of racial violence of the Reconstruction period, though it was by no means the only one. Faced with a still-powerful segregationist force that was willing to use violence to hamper the work of Reconstruction, the project of enforcing racial equality in the South collapsed in the late 1870s and had been abandoned by 1880, leading to the Jim Crow Era.

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