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The 1868 Louisiana Massacre That Reversed Reconstruction-Era Gains

September 29, 2020 in History

By Farrell Evans

The Opelousas Massacre terrorized African American voters and stopped local Black political progress in its tracks.

‘THIS IS A WHITE MAN’S GOVERNMENT… We regard the Reconstruction Acts (so called) of Congress as usurpations, and unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void. —Democratic Platform.’ Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, September 1868.

In September 1868, a dispute over a column published in an Opelousas, Louisiana partisan newspaper provoked one of the bloodiest incidents of racial violence in the Reconstruction era. The attackers’ goal: to reverse dramatic political gains made by Black citizens after the Civil War, intimidate them from exercising their newly found rights and restore the racial hierarchy of the slavery era.

The Opelousas massacre remains one of the harshest examples of African American voter suppression in U.S. history, with estimates of the dead ranging from several dozen to several hundred. Occurring in the run-up to the 1868 presidential election, which pitted conservative Democrat Horatio Seymour against Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant, the killings also underlined the importance of partisan media in shaping the postwar political discourse.

Throughout American history, political parties have used partisan newspapers to influence the electorate, starting with the Federalist party’s Gazette of the United States, founded in 1789. (Motto: “He that is not for us, is against us.”) After the upheaval of the Civil War, newspapers became a hotly contested space for Democrats and Republicans to communicate their competing visions for the political, economic and social futures of some 4 million formerly enslaved people. While Republicans used their newspapers to advocate expanding Black people’s rights and privileges, Democratic papers aligned with the slogan of their party’s presidential nominee Seymour: “This is a White Man’s Government,” one that hoped to keep Black Americans in perpetual bondage—or at least perpetual servitude.

In Opelousas, the seat of Louisiana’s St. Landry parish, The St. Landry Progress served as the official organ of the local Republican Party—one of 73 Republican papers in the state. And in fall 1868, a strongly worded editorial, penned by a precocious young editor, ignited a firestorm.

READ MORE: How Power Grabs in the South Erased Reforms After Reconstruction

In the South, Postwar Politics Hinged on Rights for the Formerly Enslaved

Illustration from the late 1860s depicting freedmen voting in New Orleans.

That year hadn’t been good for Louisiana Democrats. The state’s white planter class, beset by labor shortages and repeated …read more


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