The deadliest Reconstruction-era massacres occurred in Opelousas, Louisiana on September 28, 1868.
For a period after the Civil War, between 1865-1877, known as the Reconstruction era, laws were passed in the Southern states that allowed former slaves to vote, own land and even use public accommodations.
In Louisiana, a delegation of 49 white and 49 Black delegates met in March 1868 during the state’s constitution convention to ratify the state’s constitution that would allow Black men to vote. The constitution was ratified in April 1868, allowing freed men to vote.
The ratification angered Southern white, conservative Democrats in the state including The Knights of the White Camelia, Louisiana’s version of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Italian American organization known as “The Innocents.” According to a 2018 article in Smithsonian Magazine, during the summer of 1868, “armed white men harassed Black families, shot at them outside of Opelousas (the largest city in St. Landry Parish), and killed men, women and children with impunity.”
Emerson Bentley was an 18-year-old white school teacher, who taught Black children for the Freedmen’s Bureau, which, in addition to education, provided “food, shelter and medical services to those displaced after the Civil War.” Bentley also was an editor for a Republican newspaper, the St. Landry Progress, and wrote about the intimidation of Black people by white conservative groups.
On September 28, 1868, Bentley, who the Smithsonian article noted had been repeatedly threatened for his articles, was confronted at his job by three Democrats — John Williams, Sebastian May and James R. Dickson, who reportedly severely beat Bentley. Dickson would later become a judge.
When the Black community heard of Bentley’s beating, Black men took up arms. A white mob, however, responded with violence killing more than two dozen Black men. Over a span of two weeks, the Black community in Opelousas was terrorized by armed white men with the Smithsonian reporting that, Black people were “killed in their homes, shot in public, and chased down by vigilante groups.”
According to an accounting by the Equal Justice Initiative, approximately 200 Black people died during the 1868 Opelousas massacre. The EJI report also noted a quote from W.E.B. DuBois, a co-founder of the NAACP, who wrote of the massacre: “Here occurred one of the bloodiest riots on record, in which the Ku Klux [Klan] killed and wounded over 200 Republicans, hunting and chasing them for two days and nights through fields and swamps . . . [P]rior to the presidential election in November, 1868, half the state was overrun by violence, and midnight raids, secret murders, and open riot kept the people in constant terror.”
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