Removing the White Supremacy Marker at Colfax, Louisiana: A 2021 Success Story

Removing the White Supremacy Marker at Colfax, Louisiana: A 2021 Success Story

On May 15, 2021, state officers, parish officials, and private citizens gathered in Colfax, Louisiana to watch local contractors remove an historical marker in front of Grant Parish Courthouse. Erected on June 14, 1951, the sign’s bold white letters announced that a civil disturbance claimed the lives of “three white men and 150 negroes.” The sign’s second, and final sentence, assured readers that the deaths ended “carpetbag misrule” and restored order to the South. The sign’s brevity belied the event’s importance. The lopsided slaughter of Black men and their families on Easter Sunday of April 13, 1873, emboldened a generation of white supremacists who viewed Black political power as a threat.[1]

The small marker’s removal represented years of effort from activists and students. In 1989, Black convict-journalists of The Angolite first challenged the “Riot” sign’s white supremacist roots. They first gave voice to the Black victims of what they titled the “Tragedy at Colfax.” Local activists continued the fight for the sign’s removal. As Louisiana State University graduate students Jeff Crawford and I participated in the latest, and what would be, final attempt to have the marker removed. 

Our involvement with the marker in late 2016 came after reading LeeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre (2008). In that book she described two signs: the 1951 Riot sign and a marble obelisk in the town’s cemetery dedicated in 1921 to three men who died “fighting for white supremacy” in the 1873 massacre. We visited both. Each sign’s brazen omissions and admissions shocked us. On the drive back to Baton Rouge, we discussed how and why these signs remained standing and came to no good conclusions.[2]

The menace conveyed by both markers lingered in our heads after the visit. Though less outwardly offensive, the Riot marker seemed more egregious than the one dedicated to white supremacy. Its continued presence on public property perpetuated the myth that Black political power represented disorder. To us, the marker’s existence also condoned violence as a valid avenue for those dissatisfied with the democratic process.

Even with this realization, what could we do? A whites-only government had authorized the message. Would the State of Louisiana today be willing to send a new message by removing or revising the sign?

In early 2017, before the well-publicized monument removals in New Orleans and Charlottesville, Jeff and I lacked the experience required to answer these questions. Hindsight now offers some clarity. Willingness to remove depended entirely on individual officials and legal authority. New Orleans white Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration arranged for its prominent statues of Confederate elites to be removed. Whereas North Carolina’s legislature prohibited any such actions by state officials and pushed citizens to take more drastic steps.[3]

Pragmatists by nature, Jeff and I planned for resistance. Our road trips in central and northern Louisiana confirmed the region’s small “c” conservatism that was reluctant to change of any sort, especially regarding race and memory. Rather than simply asking for removal or maintaining “empty pedestals,” we planned to offer Colfax authorities two options: removal and preservation of the marker in a museum or permission to erect a new and more accurate marker beside the “Riot” marker.[4]

The point here was not capitulation. By early 2017, nearly seventy years after the “Riot” marker’s placement, the plaque was an historical artifact. It symbolized white southerners’ commitment to the Lost Cause ideology that imagined Black Americans as second-class citizens just a few years before the Supreme Court deemed segregation unconstitutional. As such, removal without museum placement or leaving an empty marker post never crossed our minds.

Our choices were also deliberately tactical. We guessed that if local authorities publicly rejected a well-researched compromise position, then their biases would become public record. If successful, we hoped that a second historical marker set in opposition would encourage onlookers to seek out the truth about the tragedy and draw their own conclusions.

To that end, we started with who owned the sign and the state’s procedure for historical markers. No longer in existence, legal counsel from the Department of Commerce and Industry’s present incarnation, the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) initiative, informed me that the sign’s fate was now in the hands of the Department of Culture and Tourism. Over email, the department’s research director assured us that anyone could request a state historical marker so long as they secured the property owner’s permission, covered the costs, completed a form, and had their language approved by LSU’s Department of History. We hoped to install a replacement plaque that would accurately explain the Colfax Massacre and its long-term significance.

The Grant Parish Police Jury (GPPJ) proved to be the toughest barrier to any change of the Riot marker. The police jury exercises authority over the land where the marker sat. At the time, those of us close to the project assumed land ownership gave the GPPJ power over the sign itself.

After speaking with the GPPJ’s public liaison, I learned that before any action could be taken, the issue would have to be brought before the Jury at their monthly public meeting. In preparation for the meeting, I sent Jury members provisional language for a new sign, a short list of sources regarding the massacre, and the contact information of LSU professors who offered to answer any of their questions.

In early May I was slated to speak with Jury members. My hope was that by having the solutions at hand, the Jury would have no decision except to act. I was completely wrong.

While we hoped to initiate a discussion of a difficult topic, the meeting’s tone changed once they understood that our provisional language condemned the incident as a massacre for the sake of white supremacy. One member asked if Jeff and I had any affiliation with the Black Lives Matter movement. Another member worried that making any kind of change would attract negative attention to the city and cause violent protests. Others in the body claimed that no public interest existed to change the marker. I offered the truth: we appeared before them as concerned private citizens and students of history who believed that the public deserved an accurate sign.

Luckily, by this point, my presentation piqued the audience’s interest. People at the meeting on other municipal business asked me for more elaboration as I stood in front of the Jury. Still the Jury members claimed that the broader community had no interest in the marker. The predominantly white jury (it had one Black member at the time) reached no definitive conclusions that evening. The board thanked me for my time and promised to contact their legal counsel about the options I presented.

In the months following the meeting Jeff and I learned that we had little reason to be hopeful. Communication with the Jury became intermittent, many of my texts, phone calls, and emails went unanswered. When we finally made contact, the member I spoke to said that there were not enough votes to make any changes to the marker and that no substantive public opinion existed on the issue. As such, rather than voting, the Jury decided to table the issue.

Believing that only a groundswell of local pressure could both bring the matter to a successful vote, Jeff and I scheduled a meeting with Colfax’s Mayor Ossie Clark. At that meeting, Mayor Clark convened some of the local activists responsible for both honoring the memory of the massacre’s Black participants and restoring the event to public memory. The meeting removed any doubt that we had regarding public support. As the activists disclosed their experiences, the Jury’s omission of residents’ previous efforts to remove, or contextualize the sign, confirmed the local officials’ quiet conspiracy to thwart any attempts to correct the sign’s inaccuracies.

Beneath the wealth of information shared between all parties, and commitments to continue to fight, rested inertia, the Jury’s most formidable weapon. For everyone at the meeting, the Riot marker agenda was something to be done in the extra hours of an already busy life. Mr. Clark and his guests were visibly exhausted by their long efforts to remove the sign in addition to their roles as public officials, educators, ministers, and community leaders.

Thanks to the agency of a white resident of Houston who traced his roots to one of the original “veterans,” the impasse broke in early 2021. Dean Woods had grown up in the vicinity, but he had come to deplore the harsh language of the historical marker. His citizen’s inquiry to the Office of Louisiana Economic Development, facilitated by the LSU History Department, inspired a legal workaround to the resistance of the Grant Parish Police Jury.

Through her own research, LED Assistant Secretary Mandi Mitchell determined that in fact, by way of legacy as the successor to the original Department of Commerce and Industry, LED owned the sign and possessed the authority to remove it. In hindsight, our effort created a template of action for Ms. Mitchell. Our interactions with Grant Parish officials laid bare how the Jury would react and ascertained which members were interested in action. Maybe most importantly, our failed effort made the need for legal leverage clear.

In the end, it was this legal technicality that enabled the removal of the Riot marker and ended this (asymmetrical) war of attrition between past and present. The Jury remained unphased by the historical evidence or the offers of inter-agency cooperation Ms. Mitchell offered at her presentation. With no other options left, aside from a costly legal battle, the Jury acquiesced to the marker’s removal.

The battle for Colfax’s memory remains half won. Only the Jury’s single Black member appeared at the removal to show his support. The effort to properly memorialize the lives lost on Easter Sunday April 1873 is not over. Though the Riot marker will be housed in a state museum, no memorial stands that recognizes those murdered or explains why such a tragedy took place. There is still cause for optimism. At minimum, the marker’s quiet removal at the behest of a public official suggests that other monuments and markers can be removed without the fanfare that first accompanied the flurry of removals in the wake of  the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and George Floyd’s murder. The removal also hints that a larger public will exists to reclaim a civic landscape marred by previous generations’ commitment to white supremacy.

 

[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877—1st Perennial Classic ed (New York: Harperperennial, 2014), 313; James K. Hogue, “The 1873 Battle of Colfax: Paramilitarism and Counterrevolution in Louisiana,” paper presented at the 1997 Southern Historical Association Conference, Atlanta, GA; LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xiv-xv; Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and The Betrayal of Reconstruction (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 253-54.

[2] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre, vii.

[3] “See all 4 Confederate monument removals in New Orleans in photos and video,” nola.com, 07/22/2019, accessed: 06/23/2021, https://www.nola.com/news/politics/article_3a11f27b-bce2-5a2c-98ac-53ab0d67d259.html; Karen L. Cox, “Why Confederate Monuments Must Fall,” newyorktimes.com, 08/15/2017, accessed 06/23/2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/opinion/confederate-monuments-white-supremacy-charlottesville.html.

[4] “Empty Pedestals: What should be done with civic monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders?” historynet.com, October 2017, accessed: 06/23/2021, https://www.historynet.com/empty-pedestals-civic-monuments-confederacy-leaders.htm.

Tom Barber Jeff Crawford

Tom Barber earned his PhD from LSU in 2019 and currently works as a Child Protective Investigator for Florida’s Department of Children and Families. Jeff Crawford is completing his doctorate at LSU.

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