OPELOUSAS, LA (WGNO) —The Reconstruction Period began in 1865 the moment the Civil War ended in the United States. In this post slavery epoch, Louisiana would elect the first black mayor, lieutenant governor and governors in the country as blacks would become part of the decision making process of the country they were once victimized from.
Reconstruction was also the beginning of a regression of freedom. The bloodiest war the country had faced was over, but racial conflict was to endure as former confederates fought to reestablish themselves and radicals from the north rallied to stay in power. Freedom for the many who had been enslaved seemed probationary with the introduction of black code laws.
Black codes would restrict the recently emancipated shortly after they were freed. It would set the stage for different types of citizenship and challenge the concept of freedom and equality.
Every county and parish in the south had their own versions of black code laws.
Wilken Jones is the Curator and Founder of the Rural African American Museum in Opelousas, Louisiana and says, “the black code was a way of keeping former slaves on the plantation and keeping them under control. There was a fear that too much freedom would lead to turmoil and go against a slave based society. To be required to stay on a plantation of which you were once enslaved is unfair and inhuman.”
St Landry’s Parish had black codes that required it’s black citizens to work for someone who was white, restricted free travel without a permit, ordained that no blacks were permitted to rent or keep a house within the parish and outlawed public meetings among other restrictions.
By 1868, tension had mounted with major political elections on the horizon, that would could shift power from progressive republicans back to former confederate democrats. The two opposing political newspapers in the city of Opelousas were writing of the dangers of an all out race war.
Phillip Cunningham is the Head of Research Services at the Amistad Research Center and believes the 1868 Opelousas Massacre was a result of a newspaper article saying, “there was an editorial published by an 18-year-old teacher named Emerson Bently. Bently was originally from the north and had come down to Louisiana to teach in the freedmen’s schools. He published and article accusing the white democrats and former confederates of intimidating blacks so that they couldn’t register to vote or show up in masses at political gatherings.”
The massacre resulted in several days of violence with estimations of 50 to 200 people being killed. Most of the casualties were African Americans. Some residents were arrested and then broken out of jail by the Ku Klux Klan to be lynched.
The 1868 Opelousas Massacre was not an anomaly. Cities all over had similar events, including two years earlier in New Orleans. The Massacre of 1866 broke out at a location that is currently the Roosevelt Hotel. At this time, it was the Mechanics Institute. Ex-confederates unexpectedly showed up at the Mechanic Institute, where the Louisiana Constitutional Convention reconvened.
The purpose of the convention was to examine Black Codes, which denied the rights of African American citizens because of their race. Black Codes used racially specific language and would eventually be overturned in the 1700’s to make way for new laws that did not use racially specific language in their texts but denied the rights of groups of citizens just the same. Outside of the Mechanics Institute, freed blacks were attacked. The mob would soon move into the building to attack delegates. When the insurrection ceased, 150 people were injured and 45 were killed.
“The progressive political party that sought to enfranchise the black vote was completely destroyed a month before the election in Opelousas,” says Cunningham.
Wilken Jones wants to use his Rural African American Museum in Opelousas to reacquaint citizens with their past and empower them with knowledge that could lead to better tomorrow and says, “there’s so much more to the story than that. Black history is American history.”
To help Jones in his mission and fund his museum, you can click here for more information.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866, in short, declared all to be American citizens regardless of race, but it wasn’t until almost a hundred years later when the Civil Rights act of 1964 prohibited discrimination and would begin to dismantle “separate but equal.”
To learn more about the history of America and the story of African Americans, a great place to start is with a visit to Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center.