History is a Gift: The Colfax Massacre
LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School in New York City. Her new book, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and The Death of Reconstruction looks at one decisive event, the April 13th massacre, as the moment that killed Reconstruction. Colfax Massacre is both a gripping narrative of one portentous day and a nuanced analysis of its far-reaching repercussions. In the article below Keith reflects on the anniversary of the massacre. The picture is of Keith in Colfax on the anniversary, read more about it here. Pictured are Malva Kimble, Diana Kimble, Jahmilah Sekhmet, Kadijah Assaia Rashad, Lena Kimble, Charles Neal, Sam Keith, and Rico Rice.
This April 13 marked the 135th anniversary of the Colfax Massacre, a pivotal event in the history of Emancipation and civil rights that is only now becoming part of the broader dialogue on race in America. Like April 13, 1873, which was Easter, this year’s anniversary falls on a Sunday. Though the anniversary has been commemorated in the past – most elaborately during the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s – this year’s modest ceremonies will be the first to be racially integrated. Blacks and whites alike will pay respects in the vicinity of the only monuments erected in its honor, an obelisk and historical marker dedicated to the cause of white supremacy. White roses will adorn the unmarked gravesite of 59 of as many as 150 victims of the violence.
For years, the historical marker in Colfax has been the most visible claim for the significance of the event. Its text insists that the “Colfax Riot” had resulted in the “end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” Placed alongside the country road that links the tiny town to Central Louisiana’s highways, it is rarely seen by outsiders and mostly ignored in polite company in Colfax today. The rest of the nation remained oblivious to its significance, mesmerized by the cinematic romance of the Old South into thinking of the death of Reconstruction as an acceptable rebuke.
People in Colfax cannot be blamed. No one there can be said to be responsible for the fact that this story has not been told. Everyone who hears it and tells it today can say thank you to Colfax for telling this story again and again. Thanks to the scholars and writers – many of them women – who inscribed this history in scrapbooks and newsprint, fine paper and typescript, on library photocopiers and genealogy websites; the old timers and tale-tellers, secret keepers, and firebrands. We owe thanks to them for keeping this history alive. For one hundred and thirty five years, they have held the candle in a dark place and in so doing held onto something rich and important.
So much of our history has been lost. The loss of history has been an inexorable hallmark of defeat, especially upon the contested ground of this American continent, the prize of the conquest of the ages. On the site of the Colfax Massacre the Indian tribes had surrendered up their stories and their languages and the handwork and flavors and kings of ancient Africa had disappeared. The priests and caballeros of the old regimes passed through, along with countless thousands destined for the Open West. Their tales were unrecorded and their names forgotten. Not least amid the night, the stifling darkness of enslavement, the impoverishment of memory prevailed.
Black history is a gift, a restitution. The force of history’s conquests in the present is diminished when we see the way the stolen generations could adapt and fight. And we may also take heart to learn where acts of kindness and courage by whites transcended custom and came to champion the right. Even shameful acts are worth remembering, insofar as they lay bare the mystery and will of the undying past. The history of Reconstruction shows the nation and its worst and noblest, and no place more terrible or promising than Colfax, Louisiana.
Citizens in Colfax and Grant Parish have worn a scarlet letter to commemorate its brush with history even as the nation turned its head and refused to be schooled. It is not their fault that the lessons of the Colfax Massacre remained untold. They have preserved it in marble and specimen drawers: the residue of conquest, the record of resistance, and the heartless calculation of liberty and its price. We have not listened, and professional historians must shoulder the blame.
Racism thrived up North, down South, and racists wrote the history that Americans would learn. Those who wrote the first major studies of Reconstruction in the late 1800s and early 20th century made a choice to suppress this history out of conscious solidarity with the white perpetrators of the massacre at Colfax.
Indeed, the story of the untold story of the Colfax Massacre illustrates the dynamics of what W. E. B. DuBois called a “field [of study] devastated by passion and belief.”
Today Colfax bears the burden for all of us as it seeks to reconcile its past with the passions and beliefs of the 21st century. May the courage of the old timers sustain the present generation in its reckoning with history.