The Opelousas Massacre of up to 300 African-American Republicans by Democrats

The Opelousas Massacre occurred on September 28, 1868 in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. The event is also referred to as The Opelousas Riot by some historians. There is debate as to how many people were killed.  Conservative estimates made by contemporary observers indicated about 30 people died from the political violence.  Later historians have placed the total as closer to 150, while others claim as many as 300.

While most Reconstruction-era violence was sparked by conflicts between black Republicans and white Democrats, the initial catalyst for the Massacre was the attempt by some Opelousas blacks to join a Democratic political group in the neighboring town of Washington.  White Democrats in Opelousas, mainly members of the Seymour Knights, the local unit of the white supremacist organization Knights of the White Camellia, visited Washington to drive them out of the Party.  

In response Emerson Bentley, an Ohio-born white school teacher and editor of The Progress, a Republican newspaper in Opelousas, wrote

The event started with three local members of the KKK-like Knights of the White Camelia beating teacher and newspaper editor Emerson Bentley—while he was teaching class—because he had promoted voter registration and education for all, and condemned the violence of the Seymour Knights. Bentley argued that such violence should persuade the blacks to remain loyal to the GOP.

He was severely beaten and whipped although he survived the assault.  In response he fled the town, literally running for his life for nearly three weeks before escaping back to the North.

Meanwhile numerous reports circulated that Bentley had been killed in retaliation for his news article. His mysterious absence was enough to support rumors of his death.  Now black Republicans urged retaliatory violence on the Knights, who in turn viewed this as the beginning of the long anticipated, and inevitable, “Black Revolt” and race war.  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 September 28.  What is clear is that the white Democrats had the overwhelming advantage in numbers and weapons.  By the afternoon of September 28 the battle had become a massacre.  A number of blacks were shot and killed or captured and later executed.  Those 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.  Those executions seemed to encourage a wave of anti-black violence that spread throughout the parish.

In the end, an estimated 150 to 300 Blacks were killed as a result of the race riot and an accurate number has yet to be determined even after years of research. Whites were also killed, with the numbers varying between 30 to 50 in most reports.

Violence was particularly intense in the reconstruction era. Most of the violence was against black participation in the political system and sometimes related to national politics between Republicans and Democrats. Much of the violence was orchestrated by local political leaders determined to eliminate black people’s influence on politics, sometimes involving murder and a few times, massacre. Violence against black people continued well into the 20th century (see here for a Wikipedia list of mass racial violence ).

Among a long list are the 1866 New Orleans riot that killed at least 44; the 1866 Memphis riot that killed 46; the aforementioned 1868 Opelousas massacre that killed somewhere between 150 and 300; the 1873 Colfax massacre that killed 150 or more. The Wilmington riot of 1898 killed somewhere between 15 and 60; the 1920 Ocoee riot in Florida killed 50 or 60; the 1919 Elaine (Arkansas) riots killed between 100 and 237; the 1921 Tulsa riot killed maybe 300. The Wilmington riot was a carefully organized assault designed to overturn city government and eliminate black participation. The Elaine pogrom was instigated by owners against black field workers and sharecroppers protesting conditions. The Tulsa riot seems to have been to destroy economic competition.

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