The following is a guest blog post by William A. Blair, author of The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction. Blair uses the accounts of far-flung Freedmen’s Bureau agents to ask questions about the early days of Reconstruction, which are surprisingly resonant with the present day: How do you prove something happened in a highly partisan atmosphere where the credibility of information is constantly challenged? And what form should that information take to be considered as fact?
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A century after the destruction of the African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ordinary Americans have learned how easily shameful chapters in our history can be forgotten. Historians of the early twentieth-century U.S. knew that racial tension and violence marked the era, with Tulsa a stark example of a larger problem. The horror of that action reemerged in public consciousness through the persistent efforts by scholars and the retelling of this important story in books, articles, documentaries, commemorations, and podcasts.
Americans, however, still have a limited knowledge of the shocking scale of racial violence in the post-Civil War South. Suppression of Black voting fueled the terrorism in 1868. The Ku Klux Klan represented only a portion of the brutality perpetrated by white southerners determined to maintain white supremacy as they faced both defeat and the emancipation of formerly enslaved people.
This history can be reclaimed because of information in federal archives grouped under the provocative title of “The Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.” Military officers and agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau stationed in the South carefully gathered the voluminous evidence of atrocities committed against African Americans. Black witnesses who reported these stories often risked their lives in an attempt to seek justice. The material offers a glimpse into the racial violence occurring in rural, isolated regions that otherwise could have gone unnoticed.
One such massacre came in the fall of 1868 in Bossier and Caddo parishes, both located in an isolated corner of northwest Louisiana. A Union military officer supervising the region speculated that white Southerners had killed perhaps 100 Black people. The report mentioned that nine freedmen “were taken to [the] bank of Red River and told to swim for their lives, at which they plunged in and were shot as they rose to the surface.” Assailants also gunned down three freedmen making a coffin for a murdered friend. The officer believed perhaps another 70 freedpeople had been killed in other parts of Bossier Parrish. Gaining information remained difficult since terrorists threatened to kill investigators.
The slayings had begun around October 1 as a white trader named Gibson stopped for corn at Shady Grove Plantation in Bossier Parish. Gibson saw a Black man sitting nearby and yelled, “You was all damned radicals.” Once he discerned the freedman would vote Republican in the presidential election, he leveled a weapon and fired, but missed. Black men captured and bound him but left him unharmed. News spread, as well as unsubstantiated rumors that two white men had been killed. By the next morning, white people seeking vengeance escalated the violence to unimaginable proportions.
White vigilantes streamed into Shady Grove to fire indiscriminately on freedpeople. They immediately shot down eight men and two women—both killed for pleading for the lives of their husbands. Raiders took seven men to a neighboring place, killing six. When they learned one survived, they went back to finish the job. White assailants came upon a Black man who refused to doff his hat. They put a chain around his neck, cut his throat, and hanged him on a tree where he stayed for three days.
Mass executions were common. Terrorists seized thirty Black people from around Shreveport on October 1, tied them with ropes, and killed them from behind. On October 12, murderers burned down a building in which they had chained seven Black people. In a different instance, five Black men were taken from their work at a brickyard, marched to the Red River with hands tied, and then shot down.
Known primarily to local historians and scholars of the state’s reconstruction—but absent from much of the general scholarship of the period—the violence in Bossier and Caddo parishes in Louisiana constituted perhaps the worst death toll for Black people during early Reconstruction. One historian has documented 185 deaths in these two parishes, with government records estimating perhaps 200 slain.
Newspapers carried some accounts, but nineteenth-century Americans lived in a world of partisan journalism that effectively created news bubbles that allowed the opposition to dismiss what they did not want to believe. A toxic partisan and racial atmosphere contributed to the tendency among whites to overlook the atrocities. Like the Tulsa massacre, this tragic episode might have been lost were it not for the Freedmen’s Bureau officers and the freedpeople who risked their lives to bear witness to these atrocities.
William A. Blair is the Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor Emeritus of Middle American History at Penn State University.