Haunted Former Safe Havens of Reconstruction

Haunted Former Safe Havens of Reconstruction

I had had enough of ghost stories as the author of a book about the Colfax Massacre.  I had discovered the awkwardness of being a white woman who became the expert on the suffering of Black people. And while no one had told me it was not right, I came to see my role as distasteful.  I had resolved to focus on happier material for my second book, finding in the Radical Republicans of the Civil War era a set of doughty champions and telling the story of their great victories over slavery and racism.

I was still seeking out less grim history when I initiated my research into New-Orleans area “safe havens” during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.  Surely there were instances to be rediscovered in the archives when the presence of the Union Army, sympathetic officials, and ultimately Black voters created bastions of physical security and political power for African Americans in the city.  The country town of Colfax – 225 miles to the north – had been one such safe haven. The town had been a center of law and order for Black residents and a reliably Republican polling place in 1870 and 1872 elections.  Already I knew the names of New Orleans sites with similar reputations: the federal Custom House, Economy Hall in Treme, the Mechanics Institute, home to the Reconstruction-era legislature, and Elephant Johnny’s, a bar and polling site depicted in a well-known lithograph.  I was following a hunch that Provost Marshal courts were sometimes dispensers of justice where Black people went for redress of post-Emancipation grievances.  And in case my research proved partial or fruitless, I knew I could rely on the one surviving relic in New Orleans that was already almost famous as a haven for refugees from slavery in the Civil War era, Camp Parapet.

Camp Parapet served as the setting of one of the most bombastic confrontations I discovered for When It Was Grand, my book about the Radical Republican movement.  In 1862, the pure-hearted Vermont abolitionist General John W. Phelps had told the wily and political Major General Benjamin Butler that he would not obey orders to put Black men to work building levees at Camp Parapet. Phelps resigned his commission rather than obey orders to stop raiding nearby plantations and forming Black army regiments at Parapet.[1]

Historic map with a river at top and historic fort identified.
“Approaches to New Orleans,” 1863, featuring Camp Parapet in red on the left. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

For my new project, a quick review of historical sources suggested I would find plenty of examples of the use of military power and the largess of the federal state to improve the prospects for Black people in the vicinity of Camp Parapet after Phelps’s resignation.  This safe haven remained at the center of Black life in that part of Jefferson Parish even after the departure of federal troops and Freedmen’s Bureau agents.  And unlike most of the other identified locations, the physical footprint of Camp Parapet remained partially intact and still designated today by a historical marker – one that made no mention of the site’s history as a bastion of Black power in New Orleans.

How had our memory of Camp Parapet as a civil rights site been forgotten?  To answer this question, I had to reckon with the ghostly post-Reconstruction history of the location.

Local newspapers hold onto stories that ultimately slip out of the historical narrative. With digitization, researchers, including my own students, are transformed into history detectives after a few keystrokes.  Early in my research into Camp Parapet, I was struck by the way my chronological list of matches confirmed my hunch that Black families benefited from federal intervention at Camp Parapet.  I read about the establishment of Black churches, a hospital, and medical offices in the vicinity.  A series of reports documented how wartime Provosts Marshal, a Freedmen’s Bureau court, and a justice of the peace office headed by a Black official addressed crimes against Black laborers and residents at Camp Parapet.[2]  I found evidence of community life such as a Black-owned nightclub, parades, and a mutual aid and parade society calling itself Sons and Daughters of Camparapet.[3]  I also found evidence that this prosperity did not escape the observation of conservative white Jefferson Parish residents.

At Parapet (now part of Carrollton in metropolitan New Orleans but then a satellite community with open farmland), the earliest signs of trouble concerned elections.  An early victim was a white man well known for his whiskers who was attacked violently with scissors and shorn of his beard after voting against a local white coalition.  An attack on the poll station at Camp Parapet muddied 1876 election results with more than 500 false Democratic Party ballots, and the arrest there on trumped-up charges of William Smith Calhoun, Colfax, Louisiana’s white Republican eminence, is a clear indicator in retrospect of the onset of KKK-style agitation.[4]

By the time serious violence broke out in 1893, the management of Camp Parapet had passed from Civil War and Reconstruction-era Black-friendly authorities to a generation of white male officials elected mainly by white voters. The new political leaders desired demonstrating their commitment to white supremacy for their most virulent constituents.  These men found special meaning in an incidence of deplorable violence in the still-operating Camp Parapet justice of the peace precinct office. Now staffed entirely by white officials, the office still symbolized thirty years of law and order and even racial justice for East Bank Jefferson Parish residents.  The murder of a white official on the site and the disappearance of the perpetrator into adjacent swamps aroused suspicions of collaboration, a possible race war, and fears of local Black aggression.  Eight days of rioting ensued. Armed white residents interrogated Black residents. Consisting of every elected official in the parish, several mobs perpetrated murders, tortures, and other crimes in and around this early Reconstruction safe haven.[5]

After killing an uncounted number inside the ruins of the old fort, white officials circulated gleeful detailed accounts of their atrocities in the press before consolidating their symbolic victory. They purchased Camp Parapet and transformed the subterranean powder magazine and grounds into an unofficial parish jail and pauper’s graveyard. Without generating records, the watery, pitch-black detention facility and prior site of  hair-raising tortures operated until 1922.[6]  By the 1960s, white women wearing hoop skirts were commemorating “acts of Confederate valor” on the site in a ritual that persists into the present day.[7]

B/W photo of earthen mound with an entrance in foreground.
Camp Parapet Powder Magazine in 1976, Courtesy of the National Parks Service

The version of myself that wrote The Colfax Massacre in the early 2000s would have documented in detail the terrible things that I learned about Camp Parapet, acting on the principle that we all should bear witness to so much suffering and crime.  Now I can hardly bring myself to type the grisly titles of newspaper accounts into my citations.  Surely the alignment of state power with the violence of white supremacy in this instance is too important to ignore and the untold story of Camp Parapet is my obligation to promote.

I had imagined a new project in which I tracked sacred spaces in the advancement of Black citizenship in New Orleans or perhaps the region.  The Camp Parapet research made me pause to consider.  How many ghost stories have arisen from white terrorists’ mocking appropriation of sites that had born witness to Black celebrations?  Who benefits if I persist in my inquiry?

For seventy years until 2021, a taunting white supremacy summary of the events of the Colfax Massacre stood planted in the mass grave of sixty-nine men who died defending the right to vote for the Republican Party.  The Jim Crow marker is now gone. In keeping with the wishes of descendants of the victims, however, the marker has not been replaced. Most of them remain members of the extended Colfax community.  We must find a way to remember the tragedy of 1873 in Colfax and 1893 in Jefferson Parish in ways that promote wholeness in our own contested present.

What shall we commemorate at Camp Parapet?  The present colorblind acknowledgment of the powder magazine as a Civil War site will not suffice.  In its place, I propose to mark the date of a parade of June 11, 1864, launched with music and banners from the fort and destined for Congo Square at the top of the French Quarter.  Tens of thousands showed up, singing and cheering for the new Restoration Louisiana constitution, which had permanently abolished slavery in the state.[8]

Let the tally of the murdered appear elsewhere.


[1] LeeAnna Keith, When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2020), 160-165.  See also Elizabeth Leonard, Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 99, 102.

[2] “Trimonthly Report of Operations, Volume I,” Subordinate Field Offices, Records of the Field Offices for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1872, Smithsonian Museum of African American History, Washington, D.C., https://edan.si.edu/slideshow/viewer/?eadrefid=NMAAHC.FB.M1905_ref381; “Letter from Hon. John Hutchins: Further Vindication of Gen. Banks,” Liberator, March 17, 1865; General Court Martial Orders from the Headquarters of the Department of the Gulf, 1862, American Memory, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://memory.loc.gov/service/lawlib/law0001/2012/201200203998867/201200203998867.pdf; Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 275.

[3] “Zion’s Benevolent Association of Sons and Daughters of Camparapet, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Constitution, By-Laws, and Rules of Order, 1872,” New Orleans Black Benevolent Association Collection, Archives and Special Collections for Black Studies, Xavier University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[4] “Cut Off Colone’s Beard: Now They Go to Jail for Trying to Intimidate Louisiana Voters,” New York Times, May 10, 1910; “The Republican and the Returning Board,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 23, 1876; “Arrest of W. S. Calhoun, Indicted for Forgery,” New Orleans Times, April 19, 1875.

[5] Ida B. Wells-Barnett, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany: Outlook Verlag g.m.b.h, 2018), 31.

[6] [Jefferson Parish News], New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 17, 1894; “Jeff Restoring War Memorial,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 28, 1963.

[7] “Awards Given by UDC Group,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 18, 1963.

[8] William Lloyd Garrison, “Letter to Professor Newman, No. II,” The Liberator, July 22, 1864; Eric Sieferth, “Where Do Second LInes Come From? The Origins Go Back More Than 200 Years,” Historic New Orleans Collection, https://www.hnoc.org/publications/first-draft/symposium-2021/where-do-second-lines-come-origins-go-back-more-200-years.

LeeAnna Keith

LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School. She is the author of When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War.

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