Sunday, April 9, 2023

The Colfax Massacre Trial

Levi Nelson and Benjamin Brim
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

“The Louisiana Murders—Gathering the Dead and Wounded,” from the May 10, 1873, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Courtesy New York Public Library.
Tensions had been rising across the state of Louisiana during the months following the election of 1872. Two candidates declared victory in the governor’s race: John McEnery, supported by a “Fusion” ticket of Democrats and conservative Republicans, and William Pitt Kellogg, the Republican nominee. Both parties held inauguration ceremonies on January 14 and established rival state governments and legislatures, although President Ulysses S. Grant recognized Kellogg as the legitimate governor. “It has been bitterly and persistently alleged that Kellogg was not elected,” Grant wrote two years later. “Whether he was or not is not altogether certain, nor is it any more certain that his competitor, McEnery, was chosen. The election was a gigantic fraud, and there are no reliable returns of its result.” The tensions reached a climax with the Battle of Liberty Place in September 1874, when five thousand members and supporters of the Crescent City White League attempted a coup against Kellogg’s government in New Orleans and held the city for three days, disbanding only when federal troops were dispatched to the city.

During the two years leading up to the skirmish, similar actions occurred across the state, as local factions vied for control. Grant Parish, which had been formed in 1869 in north-central Louisiana out of portions of two existing parishes, was named after the recently inaugurated president; its seat was named after Grant’s vice president, Schuyler Colfax. Black citizens outnumbered white, yet in January 1873 the two Confederate veterans who ran on the Fusionist ticket for sheriff and judge assumed control. During the night of March 25, however, the Republican candidates took possession of the courthouse in Colfax and established as guards an improvised militia of Black citizens. Brawls and arguments continued over the next two weeks and attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution were shattered on April 5, when Jesse McKinney, a Black farmer, was shot by white men on horseback in front of his wife and six-year-old son. His murder caused hundreds of African American men, women, and children to flee to the Colfax courthouse for safety.

Christopher Columbus Nash, the ousted Fusionist sheriff, formed a posse to retake the courthouse, and entered Colfax on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873. What happened next is perhaps best summarized by U.S. Attorney James R. Beckwith, who had sent a representative to the town after hearing what turned out to be false reports of an earlier “riot” by Black residents. Beckwith’s telegram to the Attorney General on April 17 was soon published in newspapers throughout the country:
Deputy Marshal DeKlyne has returned from Colfax. He arrived there the day after the massacre. The details are horrible. The democrats (white) of Grant parish attempted to oust the incumbant parish officers and failed, and the sheriff protecting the officers with a colored posse. Several days afterward recruits from other parishes, to the number of 300, came to the assistance of the assailants, when they demanded the surrender of the colored posse. This was refused. An attack was made and the negroes were driven into the court house, the court house fired, and the negroes killed as they left the burning building. After resistance ceased, 65 negroes terribly mutilated, were found dead near the ruins of the court house, and 30 known to have been taken prisoners, are said to have been shot after they surrendered and thrown into the river. Two [of] the assailants wounded. The slaughter is greater than in the riot of 1866 in this city [New Orleans]. I will send a full report by mail.
At least seventy and probably more than a hundred Black men were murdered in the confrontation and the subsequent massacre. According to the judge’s summary at the trial the following year, the corpses were left where they were until Tuesday, when they were “buried by a deputy marshal [DeKlyne] and an officer of the militia from New Orleans. These persons found fifty-nine dead bodies. They showed pistol-shot wounds, the great majority in the head, and most of them in the back of the head.” Other charred remains were found near the courthouse, and six other bodies were discovered under a warehouse. Three members of the white posse also died from their wounds; two of them—including James Hadnot, the state representative from the parish—appear to have been struck by fire from their own men.

Beckwith indicted more than one hundred men for the massacre but was unable to arrest most of them because of local resistance. He ended up bringing nine of the ringleaders to trial in New Orleans on February 23, 1874, and charged them with conspiring to violate the Enforcement Act of 1870, a federal statute passed to prevent attacks by state officials and by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Among the survivors who testified were Levi Nelson and Benjamin Brim, and their testimonies are presented below as our Story of the Week selection.

The trial ended with the acquittal of one man, but the fate of the remaining defendants was delayed by a hung jury. Beckwith retried the case from May 18 to June 10, and won convictions against three of the defendants, who faced possible sentences of ten years in prison. William B. Woods, the federal circuit court judge who tried the case, rejected motions for a new trial, but Joseph P. Bradley, the U.S. Supreme Court justice assigned to the Fifth Circuit, overturned the verdicts. The case, United States v. Cruikshank, went on appeal to the full court, which unanimously upheld Bradley’s decision on March 27, 1876, and the perpetrators were never punished for their crimes.

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite severely limited the reach of the Enforcement Act, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment did not enable the Federal government to protect the right to assemble, to bear arms, or to vote. “Sovereignty, for this purpose, rests alone with the State,” concluded Waite. “It is no more the duty or within the power of the United States to punish for a conspiracy to falsely imprison or murder within a State, than it would be to punish for false imprisonment or murder itself.” Similarly, Waite contended, the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect citizens against the criminal acts of private individuals: it merely “prohibits a State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; but this adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another.” The Cruikshank decision effectively eviscerated federal post–Civil War civil rights acts, led to the rule of “Jim Crow” in the South, and inhibited prosecutions of white supremacist terrorism cases for ninety years.

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Notes: The nine defendants were William Cruikshank, Austin P. Gibbons, John Hadnot (brother of James Hadnot, who had been killed during the massacre), Tom Hickman, Bill Irwin, Alfred Lewis, Donas Lemoine, Prudhomme Lemoine, and Clement Penn. All but Gibbons are mentioned in the testimony reprinted below. Lewis was the sole defendant aquitted in the first trial.

Alexander Tillman, a Black farmer, was one of the leaders of the courthouse defenders. Daniel Wesley Shaw, the white Republican sheriff of Grant Parish who had helped wrest control of the courthouse from the Fusionists in late March, ended up testifying as a defense witness, claiming implausibly that he had been held prisoner by the Black defenders of the courthouse and denying that he had authorized them to act as guards or as a posse against the intruders. After the massacre, both Shaw and Robert A. Register, the Republican who had been installed in March as judge, retained their positions. .

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Fifth day’s proceedings in the trial of J. P. Hadnot and others, charged with conspiracy and murder in Grant parish, in April of last year. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.