How the Opelousas Massacre Rolled Back Progress for Black Americans
In 1868 White men killed nearly 250 Black people to stop them from exercising their right to vote. Let’s unpack this.
After the Civil War, a period of Reconstruction brought prosperity to many Black people. In The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones describes this period as a time when “Black Americans pushed an all-white Congress to enshrine equality into the Constitution, powerfully shaping what the country would be like after its second founding.”
Sadly, many White people would not embrace this vision of a multiracial democracy. Doing so would mean giving up the power they gained through the antebellum slave era. After already having lost the Civil War to Northerners, the only thing White aggrieved Southerners had left to fight against was Black progress.
In 1867, “703,000 Black Americans voted, compared with 627,000 White citizens, a political imbalance that spurred reactionary violence.” Instead of accepting a more diverse coalition of citizens, many White people participated in widespread violence against Black people.
When Black people take two steps toward equality, White backlash pushes them three or more steps back into a Whites-minority-rule situation.
While recent attention on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 illuminated the ills of White backlash, the 1868 Louisiana Massacre, also known as the Opelousas Massacre, completely reversed Reconstruction-era gains. This massacre previously referred to as a riot to skate around the one-directional nature of the violence, paints a vivid picture of White mens’ systemic efforts to roll back voting rights for Black citizens.
In St. Landry’s parish, Opelousas is a small city west of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The violence occurred in the run-up to the 1868 presidential election between a conservative Democrat, Horatio Seymour, and a Republican, Ulysses Grant, a former general in the Union Army. As with any election, tensions ran high but more so in a region where so much had recently changed, and White folks feared a Blackening of American political discourse.