September 28, 1868 – Massacre of Blacks in Opelousas, Louisiana

On September 28, 1868, this day in history, between 30 and 150 people died from a riot begun by white residents of Opelousas, Louisiana over African Americans exercising their new voting rights.

After the Civil War, the Southern economy was in shambles. But as Matthew Christensen, writing in 2012 for his history dissertation “The 1868 St. Landry Massacre: Reconstruction’s Deadliest Episode of Violence,” pointed out:

Although economic hardships, disease, and natural disasters were all influential in the lives of Southern whites, the fate of the newly emancipated slaves was their foremost concern.”

Louisiana enacted “Black Codes” in 1865 and 1866 that “reflected white fears and desires regarding the newly emancipated slaves.” Basically, they wanted to keep blacks “in their place” but just without the label of “slavery” attached. When enacting laws didn’t entirely accomplish their goals, they resorted to violence.

As the Equal Justice Initiative reports, white St. Landry Parish voters in the April 1868 election supported candidates who were white supremacists. But there was a large black electorate that voted Republican. EJI recounts:

After half-hearted efforts to sway black voters to the white-controlled Democratic party failed, many white voters in St. Landry resorted to violent intimidation tactics. In response, Republicans like Emerson Bentley, white publisher of the radical St. Landry Progress newspaper, organized and encouraged black people to become politically active. Racial and political tensions continued to escalate as the 1868 presidential election neared.”

St. Landry Parish, Louisiana

Mr. Bentley, who inflamed matters by teaching at a school for black children he had established, was physically attacked by a local judge, and the rumor spread that he had been killed. Republicans in town panicked, and summoned black allies from a nearby town for help. The arrival of armed black men caused the white supremacists to assemble. It was black men who were arrested, of course, and the next night, white forces forcibly removed twenty-seven of the twenty-nine arrested black men from jail and shot them dead, with the sheriff’s full cooperation.

For the next two weeks, murderous violence swept the parish as white mobs terrorized the black community. When the attacks subsided, six white people had been killed, but many more black people were dead. Christensen explains that accurate death tolls were difficult to obtain. Whites certainly were not eager to disclose how many they had killed, and blacks feared retribution unless they remained silent. Thus, Democratic testimonies fell between 23-75 total deaths while Republican estimates ranged between 200-500. Christensen notes that s spokesperson for the far right at that time stated that the Democrats were “well satisfied with the result,” leading one to suspect the high estimates were more accurate.

EJI summarizes the matter thusly:

As a means of political and racial intimidation, the Opelousas Massacre was a great success. St. Landry was one of few Louisiana parishes not politically controlled by Republicans by late 1868. Mr. Bentley and other white Radical Republicans fled the area, leaving a solidly Democratic white electorate, while black voters had learned the consequences of opposing white political will. In the November 1868 presidential election, held just weeks after the massacre and just a few months after St. Landry’s black voters had solidly supported Republican candidates in state and local races, Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant did not receive a single vote.”

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