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THE RIOT TREE
|A Historical Sketch of the Colfax Riot of 1873, during Reconstruction Days in
Data taken from writer's own observations, from acquaintances with old
citizens, and from Louisiana Historical Quarterly,
Cole beside the gravel in a quiet street of Colfax, Louisiana, is a slightly sunken area about three feet in diameter. Over this children run as they play in the street, and slow moving cows crop the soft grass as they feed along the street on either side of the gravel driveway. This scarcely noticeable spot is all that remains to mark the place where until a few years ago stood a tall pecan tree of the small nut variety common to the lowland forests of Louisiana. But this old tree, notwithstanding its beautiful, peaceful, widespread limbs, had witnessed scenes of anguish and bloodshed for it had had the fortune to grow not far from the court house during the stormy period of Reconstruction days.
The tree was after that time know as the Riot Tree, and the reason for its name is recorded in the annuls of Louisiana's history.
After the four terrible years of fighting in the Civil War (1861-65), the Legislature of 1864 elected by the Unionists in Louisiana adopted the thirteenth amendment which abolished slavery, and sent representatives to Congress. Lincoln recognized this Louisiana government but Congress refused to receive these representatives. Meanwhile, the Confederates kept up a government at Shreveport under Governor H. W. Allen while the Federals kept up one at New Orleans under B. F. ("Spoon" or "Beast") Butler. Under these conditions riots occurred in a number of places in the state. After the riot in New Orleans, in 1866, the rejection of the fourteenth amendment (making citizens of negroes) by the Louisiana Legislature of 1867, the passage of the Black Codes (rules to prevent negroes from gathering in idle unruly cords), Congress feared that the negroes were not safe under their former masters. Military rule was again established in Louisiana and a new constitution for the state made in 1868. H. C. Warmoth, a carpet bagger, and Oscar Dunn, a negro, were elected governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. Thus by 1869 carpet bag rule was in full power in the state, and as James Ford Rhodes, the historian, says of this period, "it is a sickening tale of extravagant waste, corruption, and fraud."
At that time, as is still the case in the lowlands of Louisiana, the negro population was in excess of the white, and since most white men were debarred from voting because of having fought against the Untied States or having aided those who did so fight, officials were elected by carpet-baggers (northern men who came South to help the negro), scalaways (southern withe men who assisted negro rule), or negroes themselves. This state of affairs could scarcely be tolerated by the proud former masters of slaves, so a reform party was organized to replace the state government by a better one, but under Warmoth's influence the party advocated equal suffrage to black and white.
In the election of 1872 both Democrat (loyal white citizens) and Republicans claimed the victory. While McEnery, for governor, and Penn, for lieutenant governor, were elected by a majority of white votes, Kellogg and Antoine (a negro) received the sanction of the Federal Government. President Grant sent Federal troops to uphold Kellogg and Antoine. Thus bitter antagonism resulted in Louisiana for the real citizens refused to acknowledge Kellogg but proclaimed McEnery governor. There were therefore, two governors in the state.
The first open, forceful opposition to Kellogg from the conservative element was the event which occurred in Colfax in 1873.
In December, 1872, two citizens of Colfax, Cazabat and Nash, were elected by the citizens of Grant Parish judge and sheriff respectively. These were commissioned by Governor McEnery, and took up their duties. In April, 1873, agents were sent to Kellogg at New Orleans to get commissions from him for these officials. The agents were well receive and Kellogg even announced in the New Orleans Republican that he had commissioned Cazabat and Nash, but he really commissioned two Republicans, Register and Shaw, for judge and sheriff.
These men arrived in Colfax March 23, 1873, accompanied by a tax collector, a clerk (of Kellogg's choosing), a negro state representative, and a negro from Pennsylvania. Register and Shaw attempted to take up their duties in the court house, and secretly began to summon armed negroes.
The white people, becoming alarmed, called a mass meeting April 1 to settle the difficulty. A small party arrived, but finding only a crowd of armed negroes present, departed at once.
After four days a small party of whites came within a mile of Colfax where they were fired upon by more than two hundred negroes. The whites returned fire but retreated, pursued by the negroes. Agents both wrote and went to Kellogg for a settlement of this affair, but received no satisfaction. In the first week of April Sheriff Nash summoned a posse of men to settle this terrible condition. A small party, collecting four miles north of Colfax, soon grew into a small army, being joined by men from Winn, Natchitoches, and Rapides Parish, and on April 6 men from Catahoula Lake and Sicily Island came in. On April 12, on the banks of the Darrow, a mile out of town, lines were drawn up under Sheriff Nash. These men pledged to each other to rid the country of "Black Devils." Nash and a companion, under a flag of truce,
forced a negro to bring Allen, the leader of the negroes, before them. Nash demanded that the negroes disperse and leave home rule to the white citizens. Allen refuse to do this.
Negroes had already made many depredations on the property of the whites, continuing to roam the town armed, and openly making threats of destroying the white men, and of taking the white women as wives and servants.
About noon on Easter Sunday, April 12th, the white men crossed the Darrow and advanced upon the negro quarters of the town. Then the skirmish began, the whites pouring volleys into the trenches which the negroes had constructed. The blacks fled in every direction, pursued by the whites. Many negroes were killed, and their leader, Allen, fled. Some took refuge in the court house, where they were surrounded by the whites. After some time the court house caught on fire, by what means is not known, and the negroes within raised a white flag of truce. At once the whites advanced to the house to make terms of peace, but were fired upon by the opened fire, killing many negroes, but few escaping.
Some of those captured were taken by the whites and hanged upon the branches of the nearby spreading oak, others were imprisoned.
By evening all was quiet, and white men again controlled the situation. Silently the white bands dispersed and negroes were allowed to bury their dead, some of which they placed int he trenches about the court house and covered with earth.
Nine of the white leaders were afterwards indicted, brought before Federal Court, and finally had their case referred to the Supreme Court which decided that the states, not the United State, should settle this case, thus proving that the fourteenth amendment had added nothing to the rights of citizenship, under the constitution, but merely prevented the denial of the right of citizenship. Thus this riot served to place the South on the way to home rule by the white citizens.
And the Riot Tree, which had done its part also towards this end, stood long as a reminder that peace and order had been won by courage and determination.
Today, in the Hall of Fame in the Congressional Library, Washington, D. C., there hangs a picture of this famous tree, through the town of Colfax know it no more; for in 1930 the tree which bore on its trunk a metal plate inscribed "The Colfax Riot Tree, April 13, 1873", was struck by lightning. The next year its dead body was cut down to prevent its falling on the street.
It would be but an act of justly appreciative memory of those who fought and of those who died in defense of home and country if the present parish of Grant would mark the site of the old Riot Tree with a column, for thus is history often recorded for future generations.
Writer of this article has lived for the past ten years within two blocks of the Court House herein mentioned; has witnessed the recent exhuming of bones of the slain negroes mentioned; has heard many of given facts rehearsed by old citizens; particularly by the late Judge J. H. Williams; once see the picture of the tree in the Hall of Fame. Some of the data used is from Louisiana Historical Quarterly, v 13 1930, "The Colfax Riot", by Miss White, and v 18, 1935, "The White League in Louisiana", by H. O. Lestage, Jr.