Opelousas massacre

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Opelousas massacre
Part of Reconstruction
DateSeptember 28, 1868
Parties to the civil conflict
Knights of the White Camellia and other local Whites
Republicans, both African-American and White
Casualties and losses
200-250 killed[1]

The Opelousas massacre occurred on September 28, 1868 in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, United States. Beginning with the execution of 27 black prisoners, whites conducted widespread attacks of African Americans in the vicinity, and are believed to have killed in total up to 200-250 from September 28 until November 3.[1] At the time, whites referred to events as the Opelousas Riot, as if caused by an outbreak of violence by blacks, and a minority of historians continue to refer to it by this name.


Prior to the elections in the fall of 1868, some African Americans from Opelousas attempted to join a Democratic Party political group organized in the neighboring, larger town of Washington. Whites rejected them, and Democrats in Opelousas, mainly members of the Seymour Knights,[2] the local unit of the white supremacist organization Knights of the White Camellia, visited Washington to violently drive the blacks out of the party.

In response, Emerson Bentley, an 18-year-old Ohio-born white school teacher and editor of The Landry Progress, a Republican newspaper in Opelousas,[3] wrote an article that described the attack by the Seymour Knights against the black Democrats. He suggested that such events should persuade blacks to remain loyal to the Republican Party. Bentley was known as an advocate of education for the children of freedmen and of Creole people of color (who had been free before the war). He also helped adult men of color of both groups to register to vote. Shortly after the article appeared, Bentley was assaulted at his class by three white men and severely beaten. Afterward, Bentley quickly fled town and ran for his life to reach the North.

Due to Bentley's sudden disappearance, reports circulated that the teacher had been killed because of his article. Several local armed African Americans banded together to retaliate and marched toward the county seat of Opelousas. Some left the march when they learned that Bentley had not been murdered. The armed blacks were met by armed whites determined to defend their town, many of whom had been rallied by The Knights of the White Camellia. Due to local laws restricting gun ownership by blacks, the white Democrats had the overwhelming advantage in weapons, as well as in numbers. Shooting broke out on both sides, and the whites captured twenty-nine black prisoners. On September 29, all of the captured prisoners were taken from the prison and executed, with the exception of two men. The dead included twelve Black Republican leaders.

After that, whites continued attacks on blacks in St. Landry Parish for weeks, killing them on the street or country roads. Historians have disputed the total death toll of the massacre, and accounts at the time were a subject of controversy. Three white Republicans and two Democrats were killed in the initial assault in Opelousas. Republicans said that around 200-300 blacks were killed in total by white insurgents, but the Democrats said this claim was fraudulent and approximately 25-30 African Americans were killed.[4] Carolyn E. DeLatte writing in 1976 describes the discrepancy between Republican and Democrat numbers, but points out a report by a "highly partisan" Democrat paper that didn't support their claims, with reported 100 killed blacks and perhaps 100 more wounded.[4] Matthew Christensen pinpoints that paper as Franklin Planter's Banner, edited by Daniel Dennett who had helped form the Knights in Louisiana.[1] It was also reported that 30-50 whites were killed. Many historians of the early 21st century have concluded that the Republicans' estimate was more accurate, given the death toll in similar events. Jesse M. Lee, a lieutenant for United States Army, was sent by Freedmen's Bureau to investigate the turmoil in the state, and estimated 223 total deaths had occurred in St. Landry Parish during the massacre, but he also had to rely on Democratic press as it was impossible to procure full evidence in the state of lawlessness and intimidation.[1] The Board of Registrars for St. Landry Parish estimated over 200 total deaths.[1] Matthew Christensen finds in 2012 that the total number of dead probably fell between 200-250 from September 28 until November 3.[1]

Historical Context[edit]

The postwar period was one of widespread violence in the South,[5] as whites struggled to assert their dominance over the freedmen and to regain their political power. A majority of the newly freed African Americans strongly supported the Republican Party, which had achieved their emancipation; this angered southern Democrats, who did not want to give up any political power, especially to the party that had defeated them at war. The war was considered to continue by insurgents, who worked for white supremacy and killed hundreds if not thousands of blacks and their sympathizers before the end of Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rapidly developed chapters across the South, but such groups as the Knights of the White Camellia, the Red Shirts, and white rifle clubs were also active. Such whites sought to suppress African Americans and those who supported them through various scare tactics, physical violence, and murder.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Christensen, Matthew (1 May 2012). The 1868 St. Landry Massacre: Reconstruction's Deadliest Episode of Violence. University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. pp. 61–62. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  2. ^ "New Orleans Republican. (New Orleans, La), 1867-1878, October 05, 1868, Evening, Image 1". New Orleans Republican. 1868-10-05. ISSN 2377-8237. Archived from the original on November 8, 2017. Retrieved 2017-08-07.
  3. ^ Boissoneault, Lorraine (September 28, 2018). "The Deadliest Massacre in Reconstruction-Era Louisiana Happened 150 Years Ago". Smithsonian. Archived from the original on October 1, 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-01.
  4. ^ a b DeLatte, Carolyn E. (Winter 1976). "The St. Landry Riot: A Forgotten Incident of Reconstruction Violence". Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. 17 (1): 41–49.
  5. ^ Elmaleh, Douglas; Egerton, Lisa (2018). "Terrorized African-Americans Found Their Champion in Civil War Hero Robert Smalls". Smithsonian. Archived from the original on 2018-10-01. Retrieved 2018-10-01.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 30°31′37″N 92°05′10″W / 30.527°N 92.086°W / 30.527; -92.086