The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror and the Death of Reconstruction

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On Easter Sunday, 1873, in the tiny hamlet of Colfax, Louisiana, more than 150 members of an all-black Republican militia, defending the town's courthouse, were slain by an armed force of rampaging white supremacists. The most deadly incident of racial violence of the Reconstruction era, the Colfax Massacre unleashed a reign of terror that all but extinguished the campaign for racial equality.
LeeAnna Keith's The Colfax Massacre is the first full-length book to tell the history of this decisive event. Drawing on a huge body of documents, including eyewitness accounts of the massacre, as well as newly discovered evidence from the site itself, Keith explores the racial tensions that led to the fateful encounter, during which surrendering blacks were mercilessly slaughtered, and the reverberations this message of terror sent throughout the South. Keith also recounts the heroic attempts by U.S. Attorney J.R. Beckwith to bring the killers to justice and the many legal issues raised by the massacre. In 1875, disregarding the poignant testimony of 300 witnesses, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in U.S. v. Cruikshank to overturn a lower court conviction of eight conspirators. This decision virtually nullified the Ku Klux Klan Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871--which had made federal offenses of a variety of acts to intimidate voters and officeholders--and cleared the way for the Jim Crow era.
If there was a single historical moment that effectively killed Reconstruction and erased the gains blacks had made since the civil war, it was the day of the Colfax Massacre. LeeAnna Keith gives readers both a gripping narrative account of that portentous day and a nuanced historical analysis of its far-reaching repercussions.
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Editorial Reviews

Kevin Boyle
In The Colfax Massacre, Keith, who teaches history at the Collegiate School in New York, painstakingly recreates the town's complicated racial and political dynamics, both before and after emancipation. She places its leading family, the Calhouns, at the center, and their twists and turns take up almost a third of her brief book. Centering a story of black activism on a slave-owning family might seem strange, but it works, largely because the Calhouns never played to type.
—The New York Times
Eric Foner
…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…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…Both authors offer a gripping account of the assault and subsequent atrocities. But overall, their books complement rather than repeat each other. While shorter, Keith's is more comprehensive, devoting more space to the history of slavery, emancipation and Reconstruction in west-central Louisiana.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

It happened in Colfax, La., on Easter Sunday, 1873; when it ended, the "the largest number of victims in the history of racial violence in the United States," more than one hundred and fifty African-Americans, were dead. Keith places the massacre at the center of her book, but her sharpest focus is upon white political figures and the slave-holding Calhoun family (the character Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabinwas based upon a Calhoun forebear), most notably William, who witnessed the violence. Keith traces the fortunes of the Calhoun family to the events leading to the massacre, then turns to the Colfax Courthouse assault and judicial aftermath that deepened the complexity of this tragic event. Three white men were convicted, not for murders but for conspiracy in one murder. These convictions were then overturned, and Reconstruction effectively ended according to Keith. Louisiana's Governor Kellogg declared "no white man could be punished for killing a negro." Later memorialized by the state with a plaque "celebrating the demise of 'carpetbag misrule in the South,' " the horrific massacre has received scant attention from American historians. Keith's aim is admirable, but the execution could be bolstered with more substantive research. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In Colfax, LA, in 1873, one of the country's worst incidents of racial violence took place when white supremacists slayed dozens of black men, a tragedy that would effectively signal the U.S. government's abandonment of Reconstruction efforts. The massacre led ultimately to the Supreme Court's 1875 decision in United States v. Cruikshank, in which it was declared that it was not the federal government's province to defend the rights of the murdered blacks. These two well-researched and accessible treatments, each with its own emphasis, shed further light on the massacre and should pave the way for a wider consideration of its significance. Keith's (history, Collegiate Sch., New York; coauthor, with Sandy Fekete, Companies Are People Too) is a fast-moving, sympathetic account focusing on the Louisiana setting, the participants, local reactions, and the lore that grew up around that day. Keith recognizes the significance of the tragedy but argues against exaggerated claims about its national impact. She suggests that "its story must yet be reconciled into the broader narrative of American History."

Lane, who has covered the Supreme Court for the Washington Post, offers a longer study not only of the massacre but also of the national scene and the resulting court proceedings, both local and federal, that produced legal and political aftermaths as tragic as the massacre itself. Lane sees the event as a "turning point in the history of American race relations and racial politics," stating that after the above Supreme Court case "the federal government did not mount another substantial effort to enforce black citizens' right to vote in the South until thecivil rights revolution in the 1950s and 1960s." His maps and provided "cast of characters" are helpful. Public and academic libraries should purchase at least one or the other of these books, both welcome additions to the historiography of the Reconstruction era, and if choosing one, should pick depending on whether they prefer the local historical and personal context (Keith) or the long-term political and constitutional significance (Lane).
—Theresa McDevitt

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195310269
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/28/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School in New York City. Her historical articles have appeared in The Dictionary of American History and The Encyclopedia of American Foreign Relations. She is co-author, with Sandra Fekete, of Companies Are People, Too.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: On Bones and Their Markers     xi
Alabama Fever     3
The Philosopher     21
The Fall     32
Led by a Damned Puppy     46
A Town Called Fight     62
Carnival of the Animals     82
Battle of the Colfax Courthouse     88
Voyage of the Ozark     111
Getting Away with Murder     131
The Legacy of Cruikshank     153
Acknowledgments     173
Notes     175
Bibliography     201
Index     211
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