The little-known Opelousas Massacre of 1868 represented a pivotal turning point in the Reconstruction-era South. A white supremacist group in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish killed an estimated 150 Black Americans, though the exact number is unknown.
18-year-old Emerson Bentley, a white man, worked for Republican news outlet “The St. Landry Progress” and taught Black students as a teacher.
Some Black citizens of Opelousas traveled to Washington, also in St. Landry Parish, to enter a Democratic political organization. The Opelousas branch of the white supremacist terrorist group Knights of the White Camellia, comprised of Democrats, violently exiled the Black Democrats from Washington.
Bentley wrote a piece for the paper detailing the violent methods the Knights employed against the Black Democrats. He also suggested the Black Democrats switch back to the Republican Party, since the GOP took a pro-Black civil rights stance at the time.
In response, the white supremacists brutally attacked Bentley. He escaped, running on foot towards the North.
Believing the Knights had killed Bentley, a small group of armed Black Republicans gathered to confront the white supremacists about the school teacher’s disappearance. The armed Knights, who far outnumbered the group of Black citizens, sought to extinguish what they interpreted as “the beginning of the long anticipated, and inevitable, ‘Black Revolt’ and race war,” according to BlackPast.
There is no definite account of which side instigated the beginning of the bloody conflict. Certainly, however, the Black citizens were overpowered. The white supremacists gathered in the thousands with far more weaponry than their opponents.
The confrontation soon turned into a massacre.
The Knights devastated the Black community in Opelousas. After the white supremacists killed or imprisoned and then executed the initial group of Black citizens, they began terrorizing the Black residents of Opelousas mercilessly “with African-American families killed in their homes, shot in public, and chased down by vigilante groups,” according to a 2018 Smithsonian Magazine article.
Following the massacre, the white Democrats had achieved their goal—Republican news outlets no longer existed in the area, no one voted for Republican Ulysses Grant in the Presidential election for fear of their safety and the Republican presence in St. Landry was virtually wiped out for years to come.
The violent display of voter suppression that took place that September in Opelousas set the precedent for the rise of lynching in the state throughout the following decades, according to “Rough Justice” author Michael Pfeifer in an interview for Smithsonian Magazine.