April 30, 1812 – Louisiana Joins the Union as the 18th State

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Louisiana was named by a French discoverer to honor France’s King Louis XIV. Once part of the French Colonial Empire, the Louisiana Territory stretched from present-day Mobile Bay to just north of the present-day Canadian border, and included a small part of what is now southwestern Canada. France ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain in 1762 by the Treaty of Fountainbleau. Louisiana was retroceded to France on October 1, 1800, by the Treaty of San Idelfonso. The United States took possession of the territory on December 20, 1803 by virtue of the Louisiana Purchase. And on this day in history, the Territory of Orleans joined the United States as the state of Louisiana. The larger District of Louisiana was simultaneously renamed the Missouri Territory.

Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana has a unique legal system which is based on the French Napoleonic Code. Rulings in the French-influenced system derive from direct interpretation of the law; rulings in the common-law system give greater authority to legal precedent. (In practice, however, findings in both systems often dovetail with one another.) In addition, the Louisiana political and legal structure has maintained several elements from the times of French and Spanish governance, such as the use of the term “parish” instead of “county” for administrative subdivisions. Louisiana is divided into 64 parishes. (Alaska is the other exception to states with counties; it is instead divided into “boroughs” and “census areas.”)

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Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had the biggest slave market in the United States. According to the 1860 census, 331,726 people were enslaved, nearly 47% of the state’s total population of 708,002. Enfranchised elite whites’ strong economic interest in maintaining the slave system contributed to Louisiana’s decision to secede from the Union in 1861. Louisiana’s secession was announced on January 26, 1861, and Louisiana became part of the Confederate States of America.

The state was taken over by the North relatively early in the Civil War, however, pursuant to Union perception of the importance of the Mississippi and its strategy to cut the Confederacy in two by seizing the Mississippi. Federal troops captured New Orleans on April 25, 1862, and placed New Orleans under Union-imposed martial law.

Racism persisted, however, an in May of 1866, four years of Union Army imposed martial law ended. Mayor John T. Monroe, who had headed city government before the Civil War and supported the Confederacy, was reinstated as acting mayor. The Louisiana Constitutional Convention that summer enacted “Black Codes,” laws passed by Louisiana and other Southern states with the intent and the effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom. On July 30, 1866, a delegation of black New Orleans residents marched behind the U.S. flag toward the convention center. Both the rioters and victims included people who were never part of the original confrontation. By the end of the rioting, estimates of casualties ranged as high as 300, including a number of black Union war veterans. Martial law was immediately reimposed in New Orleans.

The riot in New Orleans – murdering negroes in the rear of Mechanics' Institute ; Platform in Mechanics' Institute after the riot, Harper's Weekly, 1866

The riot in New Orleans – murdering negroes in the rear of Mechanics’ Institute ; Platform in Mechanics’ Institute after the riot, Harper’s Weekly, 1866

The national reaction of outrage at the riots in Louisiana helped Republicans gain a majority in the 1866 national elections for Congress. It also generated support for the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended suffrage and full citizenship to freedmen, and for the Reconstruction Act of 1867 which, supplemented later by three related acts, divided the South (except Tennessee, which had already ratified the 14th Amendment and had been readmitted to the Union) into five military districts in which the authority of the U.S. Army commander was supreme.

Louisiana again saw violence in early 1873, with the Colfax Massacre. The results of the 1872 election were disputed, and blacks occupied the town. Armed whites, calling themselves “The White League,” surrounded the town and began bombarding it with cannon. Eventually, the blacks surrendered and somewhere between 60 to 100 African-American militiamen were murdered in cold blood by the White League.

New York Times, April 16, 1873

New York Times, April 16, 1873

In 1874, the White League staged an uprising in New Orleans (then the capital of Louisiana) to seize control of the state government. (The capital eventually moved to Baton Rouge.) Five thousand members of the White League, made up of Confederate veterans, fought against the outnumbered Metropolitan Police and state militia. Again, federal troops had to come in and suppress the White League.

Between 1890 and 1940, there were an estimated 4,000 lynchings in the United States, almost all of them in the South. The largest group lynching in this period was in New Orleans, but it was a lynching of Italian immigrants, rather than blacks. But the vast majority of those lynched were African Americans.

Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537, 1896), the famous 1896 Supreme Court case establishing the principle of “separate but equal” also came out of Louisiana. A Louisiana state law mandated that railroad companies were to have separate cars for black and white passengers. Remnants of the free black leadership from Reconstruction days organized a challenge to the law. They hired Albion Tourgee, a famous carpetbagger, to fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court, however, upheld the Louisiana law in an 8-1 decision, asserting that laws that separate the races are not a violation of the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of equal protection, so long as the facilities were separate but equal. The decision opened the door to the massive implementation of segregation by law in every area of life in the South.

Albion W. Tourgée

Albion W. Tourgée

The lone dissenter, John Marshall Harlan, was a former slaveowner from Kentucky, but viewed segregation as a violation of the principle of equality established by the Civil War. Harlan argued that freedom meant the right to participate equally and fully in American society; that segregation was a way of stigmatizing one group of citizens as unfit to associate with another group of citizens; and that this in itself was a violation of equality, regardless of whether the facilities were equal or not. (Justice Brown asserted in the opinion: “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” And as for how much “blood” determines to which race one belongs, he added, that’s a matter for each state to determine.)

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Today Louisiana regularly shows up in lists of “top ten racists U.S. states.” One such list, for example, based on analysis of racist tweets and the number of Ku Klux Klan organizations known to operate in the state, puts Louisiana at number eight. Louisiana Tech is one of the schools being investigated for claims that members of The Sigma Alpha Epsilon national fraternity sang the same racist chant sung by members of the University of Oklahoma Chapter on a now-infamous video. Then there was the well-publicized 2012 incident in which, in the town of St. Martinville, Louisiana, part of a 1973 high school graduation reunion letter specifically asked for “White graduates only” for one of the events. In 2014, Baton Rouge Police Department 15-year veteran police officer Michael Elsbury was caught sending this text message about the mostly black community where he worked: “I wish someone would pull a Ferguson on them and take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work … I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants.” One could provide many more incidents in this state in which only fifteen percent of white voters approve of President Obama. Louisiana’s Governor denied racism was a factor.

The state motto, shown on the flag, is “Union, Justice, Confidence.”

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Louisiana is also notable for having the world’s longest porch swing; the longest bridge over water in the U.S. (The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway); the world’s largest freshwater river basin (The Atchafalaya Basin); and of course for the famous New Orleans Mardi Gras – celebrations beginning on or after the Epiphany or Kings Day and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday.

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Louisiana is known for its excellent Cajun and Creole cuisine. The Cajuns are descendants of the Acadians who were driven out of Canada in the 1700s because they wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the King of England. Today, Cajuns make up a significant portion of south Louisiana’s population. The Louisiana Cajun descendants speak a dialect of American English called Cajun English, with several also speaking Cajun French, a close relative of the original dialect from Canada influenced by Spanish and West African languages.

Flag of the Acadiana region of Louisiana

Flag of the Acadiana region of Louisiana

Louisiana Creole people are those who are descended from the colonial settlers of Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase, especially those of French, Spanish, African and/or Native American origins. The term “creole” denotes a culture which embraces these cultural influences.

Well-known Creole dishes include gumbo and jambalaya.

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April 28, 1758 – Birthdate of James Monroe

On this day in history, James Monroe – the last president called a Founding Father of the United States – was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

James Madison

James Madison

Monroe studied law under Thomas Jefferson from 1780 to 1783, and became a lifelong disciple of Jefferson. An anti-federalist, while acting as a delegate to the Virginia convention, he opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1790 Monroe was elected to the Senate of the first U.S. Congress, replacing a deceased delegate. He was reelected in 1791, but resigned in 1794 after President George Washington appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to France. In 1799 Monroe became Governor of Virginia, facing a slave insurrection in his first year.

Gabriel Prosser was a skilled slave who was hired out as a blacksmith to other masters in and around Richmond. Prosser became exposed to the freedom rhetoric of the American Revolution, and heard news of the uprising of slaves in Saint Domingue. He came to believe that if American slaves rose and fought for their rights, poor whites and Native Americans would join them.

The Virginia State Marker on Route 301 of Gabriel's Rebellion

The Virginia State Marker on Route 301 of Gabriel’s Rebellion

Prosser began to recruit others, and by August of 1800 had formed an “army.” They were betrayed however, and Governor James Monroe was alerted. He sent out white patrols to round up the rebels. The arrested were tried and convicted, and 26 slaves were executed by hanging; one more died by hanging while in custody. Of those not hanged, some were transported to other states, some were found not guilty, and a few were pardoned. But after this incident, Virginia under Monroe’s administration toughened existing slave codes, including an act to ban hiring out of slaves.

Monroe was elected to two additional one-year terms as governor, and then in 1803 was once again appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to France, this time by President Thomas Jefferson. He also served as Minister Plenipotentiary to England from 1803 until 1807. Monroe returned to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1810 and was again elected Governor on January 19, 1811 but resigned to serve as Secretary of State and then Secretary of War for President James Madison.

He won election as the fifth President of the United States in 1816 was handily reelected four years later. In 1823, he announced the United States’ opposition to any European intervention in the recently independent countries of the Americas with the Monroe Doctrine (largely penned by his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams), which became a landmark in American foreign policy.

James Monroe White House portrait 1819

James Monroe White House portrait 1819

When his presidency ended on March 4, 1825, Monroe returned to live in Virginia until his wife’s death in 1830. He then moved to New York City into the house of his daughter and son-in-law. Monroe died there from heart failure and tuberculosis on July 4, 1831, becoming the third president to die on Independence Day. His death came 55 years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence was proclaimed and five years after the death of two other Founding Fathers who became Presidents: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

April 24, 1915 – Beginning of the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide – the first genocide of the 20th Century, occurred when approximately two million Armenians living in Turkey were eliminated from their historic homeland through forced deportations and massacres between 1915-1918.

As “The New York Times” reports in its overview of the Armenian genocide of 1915:

On the eve of World War I, there were two million Armenians in the declining Ottoman Empire. By 1922, there were fewer than 400,000. The others — some 1.5 million — were killed in what historians consider a genocide.”

The “Young Turk” movement seized power in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. In March of 1914, the Young Turks entered World War I on the side of Germany, and were defeated by Russian forces at the battle of Sarikemish. The Turks blamed the loss on the Armenians, who the Turks claimed sided with the Russians. The Turks were also interested in eastward expansion, and the historical homeland of the Armenian people was in their path. Third, the Young Turk movement was accompanied by a rise in Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian Armenians were considered infidels. Armenians, like the Jews in Europe, were comparatively better educated and more prosperous than their neighbors, and this fact also created envy, greed, and resentment.

Founders of the Young Turk Movement in 1915

Founders of the Young Turk Movement in 1915

There were precedents for scapegoating the Armenians and staging pogroms against them: massacres took place in 1894, 1895, 1896, and 1909.

After the Sarikemish loss, the Turks began another movement against the Armenians, beginning with what has been described by historians as a “decapitation strike,” intended to weaken the Armenian population by destroying its leadership.

On this day in history, the order was given by the Minister of the Interior to arrest the first wave of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. Eventually, the total number of arrests and deportations amounted to 2,345. These detainees were later relocated within the Ottoman Empire and most of them were ultimately killed.

The Turks then disarmed the entire Armenian population under the pretext that the people were naturally sympathetic toward Christian Russia. The 40,000-some Armenian men were serving in the Turkish Army were also disarmed and put into slave labor battalions, which had a high death rate.

The decision to annihilate the entire population came directly from the ruling triumvirate of ultra-nationalist Young Turks, who transmitted their orders to all provincial governors via coded telegrams. Mass arrests and killings began with Armenian men, and then continued with the weaker and frightened women, children, and elderly. As with the Nazi practice only two decades later, they were ordered to pack a few belongings and told they were being relocated to a non-military zone for their own safety. They were actually being taken on death marches heading south toward the Syrian Desert.

Armenians who escaped from the Turkish starvation zone approaching the British lines for protection, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Armenians who escaped from the Turkish starvation zone approaching the British lines for protection, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923.

To commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide, April 24 is observed as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. First observed in 1919 on the four-year anniversary of the events in Constantinople, the date is generally considered the date on which the genocide began. The Armenian Genocide has since been commemorated annually on the same day, which has become a national holiday in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and is observed by the Armenian diaspora around the world.

You can read a more thorough history of the genocide at the website of the United Human Rights Council, here.

On the April 23, 2014, Turkey’s Prime Minister offered his “condolences” to Armenians who had family members that died during what the Prime Minister described as “the events of 1915”.

On the April 23, 2014, Turkey’s Prime Minister offered his “condolences” to Armenians who had family members that died during what the Prime Minister described as “the events of 1915”.

April 20, 1946 – The League of Nations Is Officially Disbanded

The League of Nations had been formed in 1919, and the final version of the Covenant of the League of Nations became Part I of the Treaty of Versailles, and could only begin to function, formally and officially, after the Peace Treaty of Versailles came into effect. Thus, the League of Nations was not officially inaugurated until January, 1920.

The 32 original Members of the League of Nations were also Signatories of the Versailles Treaty. In addition, 13 additional States were invited to accede to the Covenant. The League of Nations was open to all other States, providing they fulfilled certain requirements.

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The League was marked by notable failures, most glaringly, in preventing the invasion of Manchuria by Japan, the annexation of Ethiopia by Italy, and the onset of World War II. The powerlessness of the League contributed to the alienation from it by the Member States.

It did have a number of successes, however, including cooperative ventures that were transferred to the United Nations.

April 18, 1864 – Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas

On this day in history, during the American Civil War, Confederate troops overwhelmed a Union wagon train at Poison Springs, Arkansas, and massacred the wounded black soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.

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The black troops faced odds of approximately four to one. Also, a severe artillery cross fire played on them during much of the battle. Nevertheless, they repelled the first two attacks, but ran low on ammunition and were beaten back by the third.

The Confederates would not take the wounded black soldiers as prisoners, but instead brutally killed, scalped, and stripped them. In all, the regiment lost nearly half of its numbers. Estimated casualties were 301 for the Union troops and 114 for the Confederates. The First Kansas suffered most, losing 41 per cent of its personnel. With 438 men engaged, the Negro regiment had 117 killed and sixty-five wounded.

For black soldiers in the west, “Remember Poison Springs!” was a battle cry for the remainder of the war.

First Kansas Colored Infantry flag, after conservation treatment

First Kansas Colored Infantry flag, after conservation treatment

April 16, 1883 – Frederick Douglass on Current Events

On this day in history, the great intellectual and orator Frederick Douglass delivered a speech commemorating the twenty-first anniversary of emancipation in the District of Columbia. In his speech, the last one he gave, he looks back with unfortunate prescience on the condition of blacks since emancipation and reflects on new challenges.

Frederick Douglass, circa 1874

Frederick Douglass, circa 1874

He observes:

While a slave there was a mountain of gold on his breast to keep him down–now that he is free there is a mountain of prejudice to hold him down. . . . If his course is downward he meets very little resistance, but if upward, his way is disputed at every turn of the road. If he comes in rags and in wretchedness, he answers the public demand for a negro, and provokes no anger, though he may provoke derision, but if he presumes to be a gentleman and a scholar, he is then entirely out of his place. He excites resentment and calls forth stern and bitter opposition. If he offers himself to a builder as a mechanic, to a client as a lawyer, to a patient as a physician, to a university as a professor, or to a department as a clerk, no matter what may be his ability or his attainments, there is a presumption based upon his color or his previous condition, of incompetency, and if he succeeds at all, he has to do so against this most discouraging presumption.”

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It is a real calamity, in this country, for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime, but it is an incomparably greater calamity for any colored man to be so accused Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial. Here, even more than elsewhere, he will find all presumptions of law and evidence against him. It is not so much the business of his enemies to prove him guilty, as it is the business of himself to prove his innocence. The reasonable doubt which is usually interposed to save the life and liberty of a white man charged with crime, seldom has any force or effect when a colored man is accused of crime. Indeed, color is a far better protection to the white criminal, than anything else.”

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You can read the entire speech here.

April 13, 1743 – Birthdate of Thomas Jefferson

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. In 1775 he was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence, and in 1800 he defeated John Adams to become the third president of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

In 1859, Abraham Lincoln was invited to speak in Boston at a birthday celebration on April 13 in honor of the late Jefferson’s birthday. Writing from Springfield on April 6, 1859, Lincoln declined the invitation, but used the occasion to comment on the current strife in the country:

Bearing in mind that about seventy years ago, two great political parties were first formed in this country, that Thomas Jefferson was the head of one of them, and Boston the head-quarters of the other, it is both curious and interesting that those supposed to descend politically from the party opposed to Jefferson should now be celebrating his birthday in their own original seat of empire, while those claiming political descent from him have nearly ceased to breathe his name everywhere.

Remembering too, that the Jefferson party were formed upon its supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior, and then assuming that the so-called democracy of to-day, are the Jefferson, and their opponents, the anti-Jefferson parties, it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.

. . .

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.
And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard–the miners, and sappers–of returning despotism.

We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.”

You can read his entire letter here.

Abraham Lincoln in October, 1959

Abraham Lincoln in October, 1959

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