New Orleans massacre of 1866
|New Orleans massacre of 1866|
|Part of the Reconstruction Era|
|Location||New Orleans, Louisiana|
|Date||July 30, 1866|
|Deaths||34–50 African Americans killed, 150 wounded, and 3 Whites killed|
|Perpetrators||Ex-Confederates, white supremacists, and members of the New Orleans Police Force |
The New Orleans Massacre of 1866 occurred on July 30, when a peaceful demonstration of mostly black Freedmen was set upon by a mob of white rioters, many of whom had been soldiers of the recently defeated Confederacy, to a full-scale massacre.  The violence erupted outside the Mechanics Institute, site of a reconvened Louisiana Constitutional Convention. The Republican Party of Louisiana had called for the Convention, as they were angered by the legislature's enactment of the Black Codes and refusal to extend voting rights to black men. White conservative Democrats considered the reconvened convention to be illegal and were hostile towards Republican attempts to gain increased political power in the state. The massacre "stemmed from deeply rooted political, social, and economic causes," and took place in part because of the battle "between two opposing factions for power and office." According to the official report, a total of 38 were killed and 146 wounded, with 34 of the dead and 119 of the wounded black. Unofficial estimates were higher. Gilles Vandal estimated 40 to 50 blacks dead and more than 150 wounded. In addition, three white convention attendees were killed, as was one white protester.
During much of the American Civil War, New Orleans had been occupied and under martial law imposed by the Union. On May 12, 1866, Mayor John T. Monroe, a Democrat who had ardently supported the Confederacy, was reinstated as acting mayor, the position he held before the war. Judge R. K. Howell was elected as chairman of the convention, with the goal of increasing participation by voters likely to vote for removal of the Black Codes.
The massacre expressed conflicts deeply rooted in the social structure of Louisiana. It was a continuation of the war: more than half of the whites were Confederate veterans and nearly half of the blacks were veterans of the Union army. The national reaction of outrage at the Memphis riots of 1866 and this riot nearly three months later, helped the Radical progressive Republicans win a majority in both houses of Congress in the 1866 midterm elections. The riots catalyzed support for the Fourteenth Amendment, extending suffrage and full citizenship to freedmen, and the Reconstruction Act, to establish military districts for the national government to oversee areas of the South and work to change their social arrangements.
The State Constitutional Convention of 1864 authorized greater civil freedoms to Blacks within Louisiana yet provided no voting rights for any people of color. Free people of color, who were mixed-race, had been an important part of New Orleans for more than a century and were established as a separate class in the colonial period, before United States annexation of the territory in 1803. Many were educated and owned property and were seeking the vote. In addition, progressive Republicans had the goals of extending the suffrage to freedmen and eliminating the Black Codes passed by the legislature. They reconvened the convention and succeeded in incorporating these goals.
White conservative Democrats (modern day progressive Republicans (modern day Democrats)) by and large considered the reconvened convention illegal, as they said that the voters, then limited to whites only, had accepted the constitution. In addition, they argued legal technicalities: the elected chairman Howell had left the original convention before its conclusion and was, therefore, not considered a member, the constitution was accepted by the people, and the radicals, only 25 of whom were present at the convention of 1864, did not make up a majority of the original convention.
On July 27, Black supporters of the convention, including approximately 200 war veterans, met at the steps of the Mechanics Institute. They were stirred by speeches of abolitionist activists, most notably Anthony Paul Dostie and former Governor of Louisiana Michael Hahn. The men proposed a parade to the Mechanics Institute on the day of the convention to show their support.
The convention met at noon on July 30, but a lack of a quorum caused postponement to 1:30. When the convention members left the building, they were met by the black marchers with their marching band. On the corner of Common and Dryades streets, across from the Mechanics Institute, a group of armed whites awaited the black marchers. This group was composed largely of conservative Democrats opposed abolition; most were ex-Confederates who wanted to disrupt the convention and the threat to white supremacy the increasing political and economic power of blacks in the state represented.
It is not known which group fired first, but within minutes, there was a battle in the streets. The black marchers were unprepared and many were unarmed; they rapidly dispersed, with many seeking refuge within the Mechanics Institute. The white mob brutally attacked blacks on the street and some entered the building:
The whites stomped, kicked, and clubbed the black marchers mercilessly. Policemen smashed the institute’s windows and fired into it indiscriminately until the floor grew slick with blood. They emptied their revolvers on the convention delegates, who desperately sought to escape. Some leaped from windows and were shot dead when they landed. Those lying wounded on the ground were stabbed repeatedly, their skulls bashed in with brickbats. The sadism was so wanton that men who kneeled and prayed for mercy were killed instantly, while dead bodies were stabbed and mutilated.— Ron Chernow, "Grant" (2017)
Federal troops responded to suppress the riot and jailed many of the white insurgents. The governor declared the city under martial law until August 3.
Approximately 50 people were killed, including Victor Lacroix.
The national reaction to the New Orleans riot, coupled with the earlier Memphis riots of 1866, was one of heightened concern about the current Reconstruction strategy and desire for a change of leadership. In the 1866 midterm elections, the Republican Party, increased their majority further, ultimately gaining 77% of the seats in Congress, enabling them to overturn any veto by Democratic President Andrew Johnson who was opposed to granting equal rights to freedmen. In both houses of Congress, the faction known as the “Radical progressive Republicans (modern day Democrats),” prevailed and imposed much harsher terms of Reconstruction on the states of the former Confederacy.
Early in 1867, the First Reconstruction Act was passed – over President Johnson’s veto – to provide for more federal control in the South. Military districts were created to govern the region until violence could be suppressed and a more democratic political system established. Under the act, Louisiana was assigned to the Fifth Military District. Ex-Confederate soldiers and leaders, most of whom were white supporters of the Democratic Party, were temporarily disenfranchised, and the right of suffrage was to be enforced for free people of color. Politicians associated with the riot were dismissed from office.
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