OPELOUSAS (KLFY) — What has been called the deadliest massacre of the Reconstruction era, the 1868 Opelousas Massacre, was commemorated with a vigil on Wednesday, but many local residents remain unfamiliar with this particular piece of history.
The story of the Opelousas Massacre is seemingly forgotten, according to the response to our story on the vigil. Many of those responding to KLFY’s Facebook post on the vigil said they never heard of the massacre.
“It’s pitiful that I’ve lived here in south Louisiana for pretty much my entire 40 years on this earth and never heard anything about this until just now,” Facebook commenter Erica Norris posted. “We had to take an entire year of Louisiana History in 8th grade and an event this major was somehow left out of our textbooks and lessons?”
“I’ve lived here in Louisiana literally my entire life and I’ve never heard about this,” Melissa Paige Guillory posted. “This is a disgrace and I can’t believe that this is kept a secret.”
The root cause of the massacre, which claimed the lives of as many as 300 people, is a familiar one to those who follow present-day politics: voter suppression.
The Louisiana Constitution of 1868 established a bill of rights, which included giving Black men the right to vote.
With the help of tens of thousands of Black citizens, Republicans handily won local and state elections that spring. Henry Clay Warmoth, a Republican, won the race for governor, but the votes African-Americans cast in those elections led to a violent backlash.
Over the summer, armed white men harassed black families, shot at them outside of Opelousas and killed men, women and children with impunity. Editors of Democratic newspapers warned of dire consequences if the Republican party continued winning victories at the polls.
Enter Emerson Bentley, an 18-year-old teacher from Ohio who also worked as one of the editors of a Republican newspaper, and was one of the few white Republicans in St. Landry Parish.
Bentley wrote an editorial criticizing Democrats, praising the “morals” of the Republican party and attributing the violence against Black citizens to the Democratic party.
Shortly after the article appeared, Bentley was severely beaten by a group of whites, John Williams, James R. Dickson (who later became a local judge) and constable Sebastian May, while he taught his class. Students who escaped the beating thought Bentley was killed. He survived, but fled the area in secret, causing the rumors of his death to gain steam.
Black Republicans urged retaliatory violence on local white-supremacist groups, who in turn viewed this as the beginning of the long anticipated, inevitable “Black Revolt” and race war. One such group, The Knights of the White Camellia, mobilized thousand of members. Both sides were armed and prepared for conflict as they gathered in Opelousas.
It is unclear as to who initiated the battle that began on Sept. 28, 1868. What is clear is that the white Democrats had the overwhelming advantage in numbers and weapons.
By the afternoon of Sept. 28 the battle had become a massacre. A number of Black combatants were shot and killed or captured and later executed. Many others who were not captured were chased into the swamps and killed on sight. Twelve leaders of the Black Republicans who surrendered were executed the next day on the edge of town.
The bloodshed continued for two weeks, with African-American families killed in their homes, shot in public and chased down by the vigilantes. C.E. Durand, the other editor of the St. Landry Progress, the newspaper Bentley worked for, was murdered and his body displayed outside an Opelousas drug store.
The vigilante groups got what they wanted, as shown by the results of the November 1868 presidential election. Even though Republican Ulysses S. Grant won, not a single Republican vote was counted in St. Landry Parish. The Bureau of Freedmen, who oversaw the election, felt “fully convinced that no man on that day could have voted any other than the democratic ticket and not been killed inside of 24 hours thereafter.”
By the end of the two weeks, estimates of the number killed were upwards of 300 people, but the number is a source of debate among historians and will likely never be known.
The Opelousas massacre also set the stage for future acts of violence and intimidation.
“Lynching became routinized in Louisiana, a systematic way by which whites sought to assert white supremacy in response to African-American resistance,” said historian Michael Pfeifer, the author of The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching. “This would be an important precedent for the subsequent wave of lynchings that occurred in Louisiana from the 1890s through the early decades of the twentieth century, in which lynch mobs killed more than 400 persons, most of them African-American.”
By 1870, Republicans in St. Landry were still pacified to the point of inactivity, according to historian Matthew Christensen.
“St. Landry Parish illustrates the local shift of power after 1868, where an instance of conservative boss rule occurred and the parish Republican Party was unable to fully recover for the remainder of Reconstruction,” writes Christensen.
There would be no Republican organization in the parish for the next four years, and no Republican newspaper until 1876.