A shameful event occurred in Louisiana on Easter Sunday 1873.
Four years earlier, a new parish (county) had been formed in north central Louisiana. It was named Grant Parish after the U.S. president, and the small town that served as the parish seat was named Colfax, after the sitting vice president.
The majority of the citizens in the new county were Black Americans, and more than half of the voters in the contentious election of 1872 were Black. But the white residents, almost certainly incorrectly, claimed a landslide victory.
Fearful that the whites might try to take over the local parish government, in April 1873, an all-Black militia took control of the local courthouse of Grant Parish in Colfax. Many local Blacks gathered there in support and for protection.
Shortly after noon on Easter Sunday (April 13), a mob of around 300 white men, most former Confederate soldiers and members of the KKK and the similar White League, surrounded the courthouse.
In the subsequent battle, which included the white mob firing a cannon at the courthouse and then setting it afire, three whites and perhaps as many as 150 (or more) Blacks were killed.
In the 1920s, local officials erected a monument honoring the three white men who died in the attack, calling the battle a riot. Then, in 1951, officials marked the site, mistakenly saying that it “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
Historian Eric Foner called this “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era” in his book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
“The Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority,” he wrote.
I can’t recall hearing of the Easter massacre of 1873 until I read the second chapter of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s superlative 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.
That chapter, titled “Immoral Majority,” begins with these words:
“Eight years after the end of the Civil War, on Easter Sunday 1873, the white men of Grant Parish, Louisiana, were conspicuously absent from their families’ dinner tables. It is unclear how many of them had attended church that morning, but by noon some three hundred souls were assembled with rifles in hand outside the Colfax Courthouse.”
I have been unable to find reliable information about the percentage of whites in the 1870s who were members of a Christian church.
That percentage was likely smaller than it is today, but even if it were only 33%, that would mean at least 100 were a part of the Colfax massacre.
And even if only half of the Christian men in Grant Parish attended Easter Sunday worship services in 1873, still that would mean that perhaps 50 were directly involved in the killing of 150 or more Black men that day.
What was the response of the churches to that Easter Sunday massacre?
I could find no information about that. Sadly, most members and maybe even their pastors may have approved of what they did.
A 2018 book about the Colfax massacre is titled Unpunished Murder, and the author writes that those involved in that event “went on to live prosperous lives.” None of the whites who participated in the massacre was ever convicted of any crime.
Now, 148 years later, whites in the South, and especially in Georgia, seem to be doing what they can to suppress Black voting rights.
And, sadly, many of those whites went to church on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who loved and died for all people equally.
I pray that as Christians celebrate the resurrection of our Lord during Eastertide, we will all take to heart Jesus’ challenging words, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:21).
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.