Emily Suzanne Clark: 150 Years After the Mechanics’ Institute Riot

A Luminous Brotherhood, by Emily Suzanne Clark, cover imageIn the midst of a nineteenth-century boom in spiritual experimentation, the Cercle Harmonique, a remarkable group of African-descended men, practiced Spiritualism in heavily Catholic New Orleans from just before the Civil War to the end of Reconstruction. In A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, the first comprehensive history of the Cercle, Emily Suzanne Clark illuminates how highly diverse religious practices wind in significant ways through American life, culture, and history. Clark shows that the beliefs and practices of Spiritualism helped Afro-Creoles mediate the political and social changes in New Orleans, as free blacks suffered increasingly restrictive laws and then met with violent resistance to suffrage and racial equality.

In today’s guest post, Clark discusses white-on-black violence in the South and commemorates one of the Reconstruction period’s most notorious massacres.

***

July 30, 2016, marks the 150-year anniversary of the Mechanics’ Institute Riot in New Orleans, Louisiana—though this event should be officially renamed a massacre. What became one of the bloodiest days in the post–Civil War U.S. began as a political convention to discuss black suffrage. The local Republican Party planned the convention at the Mechanics’ Institute and their intention was to work towards amending the 1864 Louisiana Constitution. The meeting was well attended by black Republicans in the city, along with a few white allies, but many whites in New Orleans were opposed to the idea of black suffrage and angry about the proposed convention. Thus on July 30 as a group of supporters paraded towards the Mechanics’ Institute with drum and fife, they were followed by a white mob. That mob was then joined by local police and members of the fire department who helped storm the Mechanics’ Institute and allowed the mob access to the convention-goers, most of whom were unarmed. By the end of the day over forty black Republicans lay dead, along with three white Republican allies and one white rioter. Many of the slain African American men were Union veterans. The violence spread beyond the Mechanics’ Institute as blacks across the city were attacked and their property vandalized. According to the U.S. House Select Committee on the riot, “Scores of colored citizens bear frightful scars more numerous than many soldiers of a dozen well-fought fields can show.”

Image of the Mechanics' Institute Riot

Image from Harper’s Weekly detailing the violence of the Mechanics’ Institute Riot

This white-on-black Reconstruction violence was common in the South. Less than three months before the Mechanics’ Institute Riot in New Orleans was the Memphis Massacre—three days of terror during which white mobs, aided by the police, attacked black men, women, and children. At the end of the Memphis Massacre, 46 African Americans were dead and another 75 injured. The violence in Louisiana would continue long past 1866. Historian Eric Foner identifies the Colfax Massacre of 1873 as “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era.” That Easter Sunday a white mob overtook and slaughtered much of the Louisiana town’s black militia and residents. The following year in New Orleans a white supremacist group, the White League, forcibly took over the city, disposed the rightful Republican government, and set up their own rogue government. White locals termed this the Battle of Liberty Place, which claimed the lives of members of the White League, the local interracial police force and state militia that fought back, and local blacks targeted by the White League in the aftermath.

Reconstruction was a violent period in American history, and frequently the victims were black. Those who fought for black civil rights in the political arena, on the Civil War battlefield, or on the post–Civil War streets were not safe. The violence on July 30, 1866, in New Orleans was not the end of the story though. In response to white-on-black violence throughout the South Republicans emerged victorious in many 1866 elections, which prompted a new era of Reconstruction. Black male suffrage became law and African American men held political office. In 1872 Louisiana would become the first state with a black governor, P.B.S. Pinchback. But as it too often seems, more violence against black bodies was just on the horizon. Two years after Pinchback took office New Orleans fell under siege during the Battle of Liberty Place.

Though it happened 150 years ago, we should not forget the Mechanics’ Institute Riot nor why the black delegates met. According to the séance records of local Afro-Creole politicians, one of the Mechanics’ Institute Riot martyrs continued “battling [those] against human rights!”[1] He encouraged those on earth to be doing the same.

Emily Suzanne Clark is assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University. Her book A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans will be available September 2016.

  1. [1]Emily Suzanne Clark, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 61.