September 28th, 1868

Racial and Political Tensions Spark Massacre of Black Community in Opelousas, Louisiana

When Louisiana voters took to the polls in April 1868, most voted to accept the new Republican-drafted Reconstruction constitution and supported Republicans in local elections. St. Landry Parish was an anomaly; voters there rejected the constitution and supported Democratic candidates, but the races’ narrow margins showed the community’s white Democrats they now shared the ballot box with a large, politically powerful black electorate.

After half-hearted efforts to sway blacks to the Democratic party failed, many whites in St. Landry resorted to violent intimidation tactics. In response, Republicans like Emerson Bentley, white publisher of the radical St. Landry Progress newspaper, organized and encouraged political activism among local black people. Racial and political tensions continued to escalate as the 1868 presidential election neared. On September 28, 1868, a local judge physically attacked Bentley in Opelousas, the parish seat, while Bentley was teaching at a local school he had helped to establish for black children. The students fled, shouting, and in the confusion many black people in the streets wrongly believed Bentley had been killed.

Fearing they were next, Republicans in Opelousas panicked and summoned black allies from the nearby town of Washington to help mount a defense. Hearing of armed black men gathered nearby, whites assembled and quickly attacked. The black forces were dispelled or arrested but the violence continued. The next night, whites marched 27 of the 29 arrested black men from jail and shot them dead, with the sheriff’s full cooperation. For the next two weeks, murderous violence swept the parish as whites terrorized the black community. The fear was so great that black people stayed off the streets and tied red strings around their arms to signify to patrolling whites that they had surrendered and sought white protection. When the attacks subsided, six whites had been killed, three Republican and three Democrat, while at least 100 black people were dead.

As a means of political and racial intimidation, the Opelousas Massacre was a great success. St. Landry was one of few Louisiana parishes not politically controlled by Republicans by late 1868. Emerson Bentley and other white Radical Republicans fled the area, leaving a solidly Democratic white electorate, while blacks had learned the consequences of opposing whites’ political will. In the November 1868 presidential election, held just weeks after the massacre and just a few months after St. Landry’s black voters had solidly supported Republican candidates in state and local races, Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant did not receive a single vote.