THE NEW ORLEANS MASSACRE OF 1866 (JULY 27-30, 1866 – JULY 27-30, 2016): THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY

Just two months after the holocaust of the May 1866 Memphis Massacre, another act of depravity occurred in neighboring Louisiana.

The fights and antagonism in debates over how the period known as Reconstruction was to be handled boiled over into vicious and murderous white atrocities in the summer of August 1866 in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Frustrated  with congressional impotence to protect Black people’s voting rights, angered by Louisiana’s infamous Black Codes and doubly insulted by the recent re-election of New Orleans’s Confederate mayor, local radical Republicans decided to reopen the 1864 Louisiana State Constitutional Convention. They intended to meet and grant black suffrage, though whether or not  such a move would carry any weight was unclear. Nevertheless, when 26 White delegates showed up in New Orleans, met by hundreds of anti-racism/anti-white supremacy Black supporters who were mostly ex-Union soldiers, a White mob attacked. Reports charge that police, largely ex-Confederate soldiers, not only failed to quell the violence but joined in it. The casualties were as follows:  150 total, with 44 Blacks murdered, and 4 Whites killed, and over a hundred people were injured. President Andrew Johnson allowed federal troops to come in to restore peace, and Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan filed the following report.

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. . . .A very large number of colored people marched in procession on Friday night, July 27, and were addressed from the steps of the City Hall by Dr. Dostie, ex- Gov. Hahn, and others.

The speech of Dostie was intemperate in language and sentiment. The speeches of the others, as far as I can learn, were characterized by moderation. I have not given you the words of Dostie’s speech, as the version published was denied; but from what I have learned of the man, I believe they were intemperate. The Convention assembled at 12 p.m. on the 30th, the timid members absenting themselves, because of the tone of the general public was ominous of trouble.

I think there were but about 26 members present. In front of the Mechanics Institute, when the meeting was held, there was assembled some colored men, women, and children, perhaps 18 or 20, and in the Institute a number of colored men, probably 150. Among those outside and inside there might have been a pistol in the possession of every tenth man. About 1 p.m., a procession of say 60 to 130 colored men marched up Burgundy street and across canal Street, toward the Convention, carrying an American flag.

The Mechanic’s Institute. 1974.25.3.272.
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection

These men had but one pistol to every ten men, and canes and clubs in addition. While crossing canal Street a row occurred. There were many spectators on the streets, and their manner and tone toward the procession unfriendly. A shot was fired, by whom I am not able to state, but believe it to have been by a policeman or some colored man in the procession; this led to other shots, and a rush after the procession.

On arrival at the front of the Institute there was some throwing of brick-brats by both sides. The police, who had been held well in hand, were vigorously marched to the scene of disorder. The procession entered the Institute with the flag, about six or eight remaining outside. A row occurred between a policeman and one of the colored men, and a shot was fired by one of the parties, which led to an indiscriminate fire on the building through the windows by the policeman.

This had been going on for a short time, when a white flag was displayed from a window of the Institute; whereupon the firing ceased, and the police rushed into the building. From the testimony of wounded men and others who were outside the building, the policeman opened an indiscriminate fire upon the audience until they had emptied their revolvers, when they retired, and those inside barricaded the doors.

Newspaper clippings from the riot in New Orleans.
Credit Historic New Orleans Collection

The door was broken in and the firing again commenced, when many of the colored and white people either escaped through the door or were passed out by policemen inside, but as they came out, the policemen, who formed the circle nearest the building, fired upon them, and they were again fired upon by the citizens that formed the outer circle.

The Riot in New Orleans... the Struggle for the Flag. 900 block Canal Street.

The Riot in New Orleans… the Struggle for the Flag. 900 block Canal Street.
The Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carre Digital Survey at The Historic New Orleans Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection

Many of those wounded and taken prisoners, and others who were prisoners and not wounded, were fired upon by their captors and by citizens. The wounded men were stabbed while lying on the ground and their heads were beaten with brick-brats. In the yard of the building, whither some of the colored men had escaped and partially secreted themselves, they were fired upon and killed or wounded by policemen; some men were killed and wounded several squares from the scene. Members of the Convention were wounded by the policeman while in their hands as prisoners, some of them mortally.

Four scenes from the riot in New Orleans.
Credit Historic New Orleans Collection

The immediate cause of this terrible affair was the assembling of this Convention. The remote cause was the bitter and antagonistic feeling which has been growing in this community since the advent of the present Mayor, who, in the organization of his police force, selected many desperate men, and some of them know murderers.

People of clear views were over-awed by want of confidence in the Mayor and fear of the Thugs, many of whom he had selected for his police force. I have frequently been applied to by prominent citizens on this subject, and have heard them express fear and want of confidence in Mayor Monroe ever since the intimation of the last Convention. I must condemn the course of several of the city papers for supporting, by their articles, the bitter feeling of a bad man. As to the merciless manner in which the Convention was broken up, I feel obliged to confess a strong repugnance.

IT IS USELESS TO ATTEMPT TO DISGUISE THE HOSTILITY THAT EXISTS ON THE PART OF A GREAT MANY HERE TOWARD NORTHERN MEN; AND THIS UNFORTUNATE AFFAIR HAS SO PRECIPITATED MATTERS THAT THERE IS NOW A TEST OF WHAT SHALL BE THE STATUS OF NORTHERN MEN—-WHETHER THEY CAN LIVE HERE WITHOUT BEING IN CONSTANT DREAD OR NOT; WHETHER THEY CAN BE PROTECTED IN LIFE AND LIBERTY AND PROPERTY, AND HAVE JUSTICE IN THE COURTS.

If the matter is permitted to pass over without a thorough and determined prosecution of those engaged in it, we may look for frequent scenes of the same kind, not only here but in other places.

No steps have, as yet, have been taken by the civil authorities to arrest citizens who were engaged in this massacre, or policemen who perpetrated such cruelties. The members of the Convention have been indicted by the Grand Jury, and many of them arrested and held to bail. As to whether the civil authorities can mete out ample justice to the guilty parties on both sides, I must say it is my opinion, unequivocally, that they cannot. . . . .,”[1]

New Orleans was put under martial law until August 3, 1866.

The Republicans in the 1866 House of Representatives and Senate elections, won in a landslide victories obtaining 77% of the seats in Congress. They pushed through the Reconstruction Bill in 1867 over the vetoes of President Andrew Johnson, which provided for more federal control in the South. The creation of military districts were put in place to govern until violence could be suppressed and a more democratic political system established. Under the Bill, the state of Louisiana was put under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Military District. All ex-Confederates, many of whom were White Democrats, were temporarily disfranchised, and the right of suffrage was to be enforced for free people of color. Racist politicians who commandeered the riot were dismissed from office.

But, as Gen. Sheridan himself stated, these atrocities were to occur again, and again, and again, with the miniscule rights that ex-enslaved Black women, men and children had so hard-won, being torn to shreds by the oncoming juggernaut of racist white supremacy.

  1. The African American Archive: The History of the Black Experience in Documents, Edited by Kai Wright, Black Dog & Levanthal Publishers, Inc., pgs. 387-389, 2001.

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