Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Shameful Easter Massacre of 1873

This coming Sunday is Easter, and I would like to post something uplifting and inspiring about that extra-special day for Christian believers. But I am writing this about a shameful event that occurred in Louisiana on Easter Sunday 1873.  

The Basic Facts of the Easter Massacre of 1873

In 1869, a new parish (county) was formed in north-central Louisiana. It was named Grant Parish after the U.S. President, and the small town that served as the parish seat was named Colfax, after the sitting Vice President.

The majority of the citizens in the new county were Black Americans, and more than half of the voters in the contentious election of 1872 were Black. But the Whites, almost certainly incorrectly, claimed a landslide victory.

Fearful that the Whites might try to take over the local parish government, in April 1873, an all-Black militia took control of the local courthouse of Grant Parish in Colfax. Many local Blacks gathered there in support and for protection.

Shortly after noon on Easter Sunday (April 13), a mob of around 300 White men, most former Confederate soldiers and members of the KKK and the similar White League, surrounded the courthouse.

In the subsequent battle, which included the Whites firing a cannon at the courthouse and then setting it afire, three Whites and perhaps as many as 150 (or more) Blacks were killed.

In the 1920s, local officials erected a monument honoring the three White men who died in the attack, calling the battle a riot. Then in 1951, officials marked the site, mistakenly saying that it “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”  

In the words of historian Eric Foner, “The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority.”

A Serious Problem Raised by the Easter Massacre

Perhaps I had never heard of the Easter Massacre of 1873 until I read the second chapter of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s superlative 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.

That chapter, titled “Immoral Majority,” begins with these words:

Eight years after the end of the Civil War, on Easter Sunday 1873, the white men of Grant Parish, Louisiana, were conspicuously absent from their families’ dinner tables. It is unclear how many of them had attended church that morning, but by noon some three hundred souls were assembled with rifles in hand outside the Colfax Courthouse.

I have been unable to find reliable information about the percentage of Whites in the 1870s who were members of a Christian church. That percentage was likely smaller than it is today, but even if it were only 33%, that would mean at least 100 were a part of the Colfax Massacre.

And even if only half of the Christian men in Grant Parish attended Easter Sunday worship services in 1873, still that would mean that perhaps 50 were directly involved in the killing of 150 or more Black men that day.

What was the response of the churches to that Easter Sunday Massacre? I could find no information about that. Sadly, most members and maybe even their pastors may have approved of what they did.

A 2018 book about the Colfax Massacre is titled Unpunished Murder, and the author writes that those involved in that event “went on to live prosperous lives.” None of the Whites who participated in the massacre were ever convicted of any crime.

Now, 148 years later, Whites in the South, and especially in Georgia, seem to be doing what they can to suppress Black voting rights. And, sadly, many of those Whites will go to church on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who loved and died for all people equally.

I pray that on Easter Sunday as we Christians celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, we will all take to heart Jesus’ challenging words: “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matt. 7:21, CEB).


In addition to Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, here are others directly related to this post:

Lawrence Goldstone, Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice (2018).

Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (2008).

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988).


  1. This is a sad one, reminding us how deeply rooted is our white racism.

  2. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson, who is a good personal friend both of Anton and me, sent the following brief comments:

    "Thanks for sharing a bit of history I was not familiar with. A sad way to spend Easter on either side. Some people of faith suspend the fighting in holidays."

  3. Thanks for writing, David. It was only because of reading Wilson-Hartgrove's book that I knew about that event of 1873, made even more shameful because of happening on Easter Sunday.

    Wilson-Hartgrove (b. 1980) has a more recent (2020) book, "Revolution of Values," which I would also like to read. In recent years he has worked a lot with William Barber on racial equality issues. There is a good Wikipedia article about him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Wilson-Hartgrove .

  4. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago emailed me these pertinent comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing this piece of history as I was not aware of the Colfax massacre.

    "The latest issue of the Smithsonian has an article about the Tulsa riot in 1921 in which about 300 persons of color were killed. We often hear some whites say that blacks should work harder and pull themselves up by the bootstrap. They did so in Tulsa and look at what happened. And it is still happening, albeit in other ways such as voter suppression.

    "It is sad that racism, and perverted forms of Christianity, are still so powerful in America; so we must continue the fight for justice."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric -- and thanks for mentioning the Tulsa riot of 1921 (and for telling me about the Smithsonian article, which I did not know about). On my blog planning file, I have that as the subject for my blog article on May 30, two months from today, just before the 100th anniversary of that atrocity.

  5. I appreciate these comments from Thinking Friend Drew Hill in Virginia:

    "Thanks for this timely post, Dr. Seat. Like you, I am most troubled by the role of the church and churchgoers in these scenes of racial carnage and the disconnect today between professed faith in Christ and unjust laws in support of white supremacy. It all points to the church’s failure and cultural captivity."

    1. Drew, as I wrote earlier this morning in an email to you, I was very well impressed with the blog post you made yesterday, and I am pasting a link to it here so some of my other Thinking Friends can read it:


  6. I just read about this Easter tragedy in the novel "Grant" by Ronald Chernow, of "Hamilton" fame. The sign in the picture mentions that this was the end of Reconstruction. After the Civil War, it wasn't only the freed people who needed education and a new economic start, it was the Southern white aristocracy and redundantly, the state governments that needed to be Reconstructed into the Union. It never happened. The South rallied around the call to "Redeem" the states from Union military occupation. When thinking about the Civil War and Heather Cox Richardson's book title, "How the South Won the Civil War," I always remember what I heard an atomic bomb survivor say in Japan: "I am so glad we lost the war; can you imagine what the world would be like if we had won."

    1. Thanks, Lydia, for posting comments here and referring to Chernow's highly-acclaimed biography of Grant--although I was puzzled about you calling it a novel. When I was working on my Nov. 5, 2018, blog post about the election of 1868 and Grant, I checked out Chernow's book from the library and read snatches of it (and included a reference to it in a footnote). As a rule, I don't read books of 1,000+ pages, which it is, and I am impressed that you read it and remembered his reference to the shameful Easter massacre of 1873.

    2. In an email response to my comments above, Lydia wrote,

      "I never read a non-fiction book cover to cover. True, GRANT is not really a novel, but it reads enough like a novel that I haven't really skipped over much."

  7. I had heard this story in "Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson. That is a book worth reading for this and other stories that Ms. Wilkerson uses to argue that a caste system is very much a part of America. She also states that the Nazis examined the USA for how to persecute a minority and still have a positive reputation among the rest of the world. While comparing anyone to Hitler is considered extreme now, she states that they observed the USA doing things that not even Hitler and the Nazis were comfortable doing. It would seem the Nazis decided to go further as time went on. Unfortunately the USA is still a good example of the persecution part, although I question that the reputation is still holding up.

    1. I must apologize for my post above about hearing the story in "Caste". My source is "White Too Long" by Robert P. Jones. Leroy asked me about the reference and I did more research than I had previously. The Nazi information is from "Caste".

  8. When will the 60s ever end? I imagine people who came of age in different decades wonder the same thing about their decades. Silly me, I thought the 60s ended in 1970. With time, I realized things were more complicated. For instance, as an insane war bogged down in Iraq, President Bush (guess which one) assured America that Iraq was not Vietnam. So, of course, General Vo Nguyen Giap emerged from the shadows of history to pen an editorial in the New York Times, explaining that America cannot just push little countries around. Well, America had not learned from the French defeat in Vietnam. America did not learn from the American defeat in Vietnam. America did not even learn from the flood waters of the Euphrates. (Isaiah 8:5-8) So we got to hear from the victor against both the French and the Americans, in a new millennium. We are still in Iraq. I can still hear Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind." You can, too, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMFj8uDubsE

    "How long can some people exist before they are allowed to be free?"

    1. Thanks for your comments, Craig. I came of age a decade earlier than you and didn't experience all the turmoil the way you did in the 1960s. Sure, there was bad stuff going on, but it was a time of peace and progress after the Korean Conflict ended. As you know, in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. It seemed that progress was being made and Blacks were going to be allowed to be free.

      Even in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. The former was passed by the Senate after a 54-day filibuster by a vote of 73-27! The latter was passed in the Senate by a vote of 77-19, with 30 Republicans voting for it! So, progress for freedom was certainly evident in the 1960s.

      But turning laws into reality and fully allowing people to be free is a long, long struggle. And, sadly, the insistence on White supremacy and on Black subjugation is still an issue. So, yes, "How long can some people exist before they are allowed to be free?"

  9. Here is a response received from a Thinking Friend in Louisiana, where the 1873 massacre took place:

    "Wow! Leroy.  What a negative way to celebrate the greatest event in the history of the world! What a negative way to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ, and his resurrection from the dead!"

    1. I don't wish to be defensive here, but my last post was not about celebrating Easter but how in the history of the U.S. some who did, apparently, celebrate Easter were involved that very day in a shameful massacre.The discrepancy between what some Christians say and do has very harmful effects on the evaluation many non-Christians make about Christianity.

      After starting this blog in the summer of 2009, my first Easter blog post was made on April 5, 2010. Here is the link to that post--and I added a sunrise picture I took yesterday morning.