In the modern South, heated discussions occur over the meaning of history, over narratives about history, and over the beliefs that result from those narratives. Here, one locale’s struggles with the meaning of its Confederate past branch out into larger, more significant issues surrounding efforts to memorialize the Southern past.
Blood in the Pool: The 1868 Bossier Massacre
by Matthew Teutsch
As a kid in the 1980s, I remember going to Mike Woods Pool in the Shady Grove neighborhood of Bossier City to swim. I’d climb the huge diving board, stare down into the water, hold my breath, and jump in, sinking towards the bottom before rising back up to the top for air. What I didn’t realize then, and what took me years to realize, was that the pool might as well be filled with blood. The blood from a past I knew nothing about. The blood from a past that had been paved over to make room for the parking lot, the tennis courts, and the houses in the Shady Grove subdivision. The blood from a past that people hoped to scrub clean from the collective memory. They all but succeeded in scouring the blood away into nothingness, but it lingered, detectable underneath the supposedly cleansed earth.
Violent, racist attacks didn’t just occur in Bossier. They occurred across the Red River in Caddo Parish and all throughout the Red River Valley. Gilles Vandal notes that during Reconstruction 45% of the murders in Louisiana were concentrated in the northwestern part of the state. Caddo accounted for 16% of the homicides even though it only accounted for 3% of the state’s population. People may have tried to cleanse the soil of the blood, but the blood remains deep within the earth.
The lingering blood rests just beneath the surface, and it arises through the cracks in the concrete and asphalt. On Saturday, June 27, 2020, protesters marched in Bossier and ended at the courthouse in Caddo Parish where a United Daughters of the Confederacy “monument” has stood since 1905. It was, as the “monument” says, “Love’s Tribute to Our Gallant Dead.” The following day, a counter-protest occurred at the “monument” calling for its removal, which has been on the books for a while, and individuals dressed in the Confederate flag appeared and taunted the protesters, yelling at them and hurling racial slurs. One man even told a protester to perform fellatio on him.
The local media didn’t really cover this, but there are videos on Facebook and elsewhere showing the incident. Nicki Daniels, Jr., organizer of the Sleep is for The Rich Gun Club, heard about the incidents and came with others to the scene to protect the protesters calling for the removal of the “monument .” Again, no news coverage . On Tuesday, June 30, another protest happened. This time, there were no counter-protesters. Daniels and others stood across the street from the courthouse with guns, there to protect those at the courthouse who were protesting. The local news covered the events; however, when they spoke about Daniels and Sleep is for the Rich, they only showed his face as he held a gun upside down. They played into the stereotypical menacing image of a Black man with a gun.
What the news crew did not show was Daniels’ complete interview where he talked about the events and why he and others were there. They did not provide the full context. What followed were people spreading memes and hate, asking why Daniels and the other Black men with him weren’t arrested. Louisiana is an open carry state. So, how is what Daniels was doing different than the counter-protesters who were intimidating those calling for the “monument’s” removal as the openly carried their firearms on June 28 and 29? The key is that the blood of the past still resides underneath our feet. It may not seep up to the surface all of the time, but it is there.
I learned about the blood in Northwest Louisiana not from a history book. Not from an official website. Not from an historical marker. I learned about the blood from a novel, Frank Yerby’s The Vixens, published in 1947. Yerby’s second novel focuses on Reconstruction. It picks up where his debut novel, 1946’s The Foxes of Harrow, ends. In the opening section, Yerby lays out the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the fighting that continued long after Appomattox. It was here that I learned about the blood staining the ground in Bossier Parish: “So there were Bossier Parish and St. Landry and St. Bernard and Mechanics Institute in New Orleans and Colfax and Clay’s Stature. There was the sky reddened with the flame of burning schoolhouses of the black children, and the earth splattered with their blood and brains.”
Within the scope of The Vixens, Frank Yerby does not spend a large amount of time on the Bossier Massacre, but it does play a role in the novel. Hugh Duncan tells former enslaver Etienne Fox about the recently freed Black man Nimrod Robinson’s political activities in the parish and how Nimrod worked to organize voters, prepare Blacks to retaliate if attacked, and “preaching land division.” Later, when the Klan murders Nimrod’s wife and son, he returns to Bossier Parish. Etienne goes to Bossier Parish as well; and in October 1868, he “sits on the edge of the swamps” awaiting to attack. He leads “forty white-robed and hooded men” into the swamps, where they killed “one hundred and twenty black men,” but Nimrod was not among them.
This is what I knew about the Bossier Massacre. I wanted to know more, so I started digging.
Bossier City’s official history page contains two pieces. One is by Clifton D. Cardin, Official Bossier Parish Historian, and it provides a brief overview of the city from Elysian Groves Plantation to the present. The second is what appears to be a speech delivered by Louise Stinson forty-four years ago in 1976, America’s bicentennial. In her speech, Stinson spends three paragraphs on the Reconstruction period, which is labeled “Post Civil War.” Here, she engages in Lost Cause rhetoric from the outset.
Stinson begins by valorizing the Confederate soldiers, saying, “War haggard and weary, the virile youth of Cane City wanted only to farm their land and make a new start in peace.” Within this framing, the soldiers should be praised. They were “virile.” The soldiers just wanted to be left alone, to mind their own business. They wanted to “make a new start in peace.” The soldiers couldn’t do these things, though, because, as Stinson puts it, “[T]hey found the state and local governments in the hands of carpetbaggers, scalawags and illiterate former slaves — more interested in their own economic gain than in rebuilding the war torn South.” What Stinson fails to mention, though, is that the government in Louisiana was working on a more equitable state constitution. Alongside her derogatory language of “illiterate former slaves,” she valorizes the Confederates while disparaging groups working to adhere to the forthcoming passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The 1868 constitution was the first Louisiana State Constitution to contain a Bill of Rights. It begins by echoing the Declaration of Independence, stating that “all men are created equal.” However, while the Declaration of Independence limited “all men” to white landowning men, the 1868 Louisiana State Constitution makes it distinctly clear that they mean “all men.” Article 2 reads, “All persons without regard to race, color, or previous condition, born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, and residents of this State for one year, are citizens.” With this statement, freed enslaved individuals became citizens and included with the phrase “all men.” Article 98 granted all men, “twenty-one years or upwards,” who were citizens of the state the right to vote. This meant that Black men had the right to vote.
“Those who held office,” as Article 99 stated, “civil or military, for one year or more, under the organization styled ‘the Confederate States of America;’ those who registered themselves as enemies of the United States; . . . those who, in the advocacy of treason, wrote or published newspaper articles or preached sermons during the late rebellion; and those who voted for and signed an ordinance of secession in any State” could not vote.
Along with these articles, public officials, according to Article 100, would be required to swear the following oath upon taking office:
I, (A. B.), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I accept the civil and political equality of all men, and agree not to attempt to deprive any person or persons, on account of race, color, or previous condition, of any political or civil right, privilege, or immunity enjoyed by any other class of men; that I will support the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the Constitution and laws of this State, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent on me as _______ according to the best of my ability and understanding. So help me God.
Throughout the 1868 state constitution, the delegates worked to rectify the wounds enacted upon the land by slavery and the Civil War. They laid out, in plain language, that racial discrimination would have no part under the law of Louisiana.
This call for the removal of segregation continued in other sections of the constitution. Article 14 stated that businesses “shall be opened to the accommodation and patronage of all persons, without distinction or discrimination on account of race or color.” This was the most significant article, and Louisiana’s 1868 constitution was the first in the nation with such a provision. Title VII focused on public education, and the first article stated:
The General Assembly shall establish at least one free public school in every parish throughout the State, and shall provide for its support by taxation or otherwise. All children of this State between the ages of six (6) and twenty-one (21) shall be admitted to the public schools or other institutions of learning sustained or established by the State in common without distinction of race, color, or previous condition. There shall be no separate schools or institutions of learning established exclusively for any race by the State of Louisiana.
Adopted by the convention on March 7, 1868, the constitution faced stiff opposition throughout Louisiana, and notably in the Red River Valley and Bossier Parish. On March 28, three weeks after the legislature’s adoption of the constitution, the Bossier Banner published an article entitled “White Men to the Rescue!” The vote to ratify the constitution would occur in April, and the Bossier Banner told its readers, “If you don’t want negro equality forced upon you, go to the polls and vote against the proposed Constitution, framed by the social banditi, domestic bastards, catamites, scalawags, slubberdegullions, cow thieves and jay-hawkers of Louisiana.” Democrats believed they would not win in defeating the constitution, so they boycotted the vote in hopes of denying the constitution legitimacy. Voters ratified the constitution by a count of 66,152 to 48,739.
The article continued in this manner, telling readers that if you did not want Blacks and “white vagabonds” in political positions, vote against the constitution; if you did not want your taxes to go towards educating all, vote against the constitution; if you wanted to protect white womanhood, vote against the constitution; if you did not “want negroes and Yankee thieves to be your new masters and rulers,” vote against the constitution. Filled with racist language and stereotypical tropes, the article denounced everything that the constitution strove to enact. Is this the “virile youth” that wished to be left alone in peace after the war that Stinson mentions in her comments? Is this the “war haggard and weary” men of Cane City that felt oppressed by the proposed new laws?
Continuing, Louise Stinson argues that war-weary residents of Bossier Parish didn’t agree with the new constitution and its position. She states, “The residents fought the oppression of political reconstruction with hard work and self-discipline;” they used their minds to restore “the economy back to near normalcy.” By “residents,” Stinson means “white residents” who opposed progress and change and who supported the Confederacy. She points to this when she writes, “Since former confederates were disenfranchised, it was difficult to rectify the wanton disregard for law court decisions and principles by those in positions of power.” Here, Stinson essentially argues that the constitution and the progressive measures held within it went against the desires of “residents” to maintain power through oppression.
What Stinson fails to divulge, though, is that the whites who sought to maintain the racial and class hierarchies were the perpetrators of violence against Blacks and those who sought a more progressive state. As historian Richard White notes in his 2017 book For Which It Stands, during Reconstruction “[t]error quickly jumped from white attempts to suppress back economic independence to efforts to thwart black suffrage and destroy the Union Leagues.”
Allen W. Trelease, in White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, notes that it appears that the Ku Klux Klan “made its first appearances in Louisiana . . . in March and April 1868.” Their appearance coincided with the April elections across the state, and their terror largely occurred in the northern part of the state where they murdered a Black candidate in Ouachita Parish, rode through Claiborne Parish terrorizing Blacks, and threatened death to those voting for the constitution or the Republican tickets.
The results of the April election brought increased violence and terror. In Union Parish, employers fired Blacks who voted for the Constitution and promised “protection papers” to those who joined Democratic clubs. The Klan terrorized most of the northern parishes from May into the fall. They went about, as Trelease puts it, “committing systemic outrages, including many murders, on Negroes in Jackson, Morehouse Richland, Bossier, Caddo, Franklin, and St. Landry Parishes.” In Bienville Parish, they pulled a Black Republican from his home, shot him to death, and beheaded him. In Claiborne Parish, they murdered William R. Meadows, a Black member of the constitutional convention.
Leading up to 1868 presidential election, the Klan and others increased their systemic violence and terrorism against Blacks and white Republicans. Of this period, Trelease writes,
It was reported that in the course of a month at least twenty-five or thirty Negro bodies floated down the Red River past Shreveport. The number killed in Caddo Parish in October alone probably exceeded forty-two, according to a legislative committee. Whites in Bossier, including some leading planters, systematically hunted down and slew impersonally and indiscriminately 162 blacks, ignoring the plea of a United States marshal to be permitted to go out with a few troops to arrest any suspected Negro criminals.
A joint committee of the Louisiana general assembly issued a report in 1869 on the “Conduct of the Late Elections and the Condition of Peace and Order.” Within their report, the committee detailed the Bossier Massacre which began at Shady Grove Plantation, the land where Mike Woods Pool sits today. Entitled “The Massacre in Bossier Parish, September 21, 1868,” the section details the events that led to the murder of at least one hundred and sixty-two individuals. It is worth quoting this section at length. The committee wrote,
This wholesale murder originated by the act of a strange white man at Shady Grove firing, without provocation, at an old colored man who was sitting peaceably in his house. The colored men arrested the criminal and were proceeding to deliver him over for trial to the civil authorities, when he was recused by a band of white men.
This man went off and brought back with him an armed crowd of one hundred white men, who commenced an indiscriminate slaughter of the colored people, women were killed while pleading for their husbands, men were butchered in their houses; and while quietly at work in the fields a man was hung to a tree and left there for three days; ministers of the gospel were dragged out and beaten, and forced to promise not to preach again. A colored man was butchered in cold blood for the crime of being “too much of a radical” for his butchers; a bowie knife was plunged through his shoulder to his heart, till the blood spurted about his head, and he fell dead on his back. The colored men were then forced to kneel and look into his eyes, and he was left on the side of the road as a prey for buzzards. Two women were hung by the roadside with lariat ropes.
As the rage for blood grew more intense, hundreds of white men, inflamed with liquor, assembled to prosecute the foul work still further. A United States Marshal came with some troops from Shreveport, and begged them to desist, offering to arrest all colored men against who there might be charges, and turn them over to the parish authorities; but in the words of this officer, ‘the white citizens of Bossier seemed determined to hunt the colored people in the swamps themselves,’ and as the officer ‘well knew that they would shoot every colored man they found with arms,’ he withdrew and left them to prosecute their ‘negro hunt,’ at will. This massacre lasted three or four days. The total killed was one hundred and sixty-two (162). Total otherwise outraged, seven (7). At the ensuing election the parish of Bossier gave one vote for ‘Grant and Colfax,’ out of nearly two thousand (2000) registered Republican voters. Their work was well done.
In his 1935 book Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois quotes Ellis Parson Oberholtzer who stated, “One hundred and twenty corpses were found in the woods or were taken out of the Red River after a ‘Negro hunt’ in Bossier Parish.” The number of Blacks who died at the hands of white terrorism is not completely known. In her dissertation, “Unreconstructed: Slavery and Emancipation on Louisiana’s Red River, 1820–1880,” Carin Peller-Semmens points out the “the estimated death toll . . . was between 100 and 300 freedpeople.”
The racial terrorism served its purpose, suppressing the Republican vote and striking fear in the Black community. Peller-Semmens points out that terror gripped the region in the aftermath of the massacre. On his way to church, Henry Boswell found the bodies of four individuals who were “bound at hands and feet [with] their throats cut from ear to ear.” Three Black men hid for three weeks in holes they dug in the ground. Others even recalled scenes that bring to mind Nazi concentration camps: “Other refugees recalled that laborers were gathered up on plantations, made to stand in rows, and their names called off from a death list. Once a satisfactory number of names were called, they were marched to Gum Springs and shot.” Henry Ellison, who hid near Mooringsport, found two Black victims in the road, beheaded. He also came across “two black men burying a family of six in a bagging sack after their bodies floated down the Red [River].”
No prosecutions arose from the massacre or its aftermath even though the authorities, including the Freedmen’s Bureau, knew the killers.
The killers are the “war haggard and weary, the virile youth of Cane City” who wanted nothing more than to live in “peace.” These are the ones who used their minds to “replace buildings which had been destroyed in the last days of the war” and rebuild the community. These are the ones who “fought the oppression of political reconstruction.” These are the ones that sought “to rectify the wanton disregard for law, court decisions and principles by those in positions of power.”
These are the ones whose blood-stained hands soaked the ground with the blood of others. These are the ones who filled the ground underneath my feet, as I walked to the pool, with the blood of those that they felt usurped their position. These are the ones who filled the pool with the blood of Black men, women, and children simply because they were Black. These are the ones who Stinson glorifies. These are the ones who get remembered.
However, no marker stands in remembrance of the hundreds of Black individuals murdered in the fall of 1868. No recognition of their life exists on Bossier City’s official history page. Instead, we see the “virile youth” who returned home and sought to put things back to the way they were before the Civil War.
Yet, it continued. As of 2015, Louisiana’s incarceration rate—1,052 per 100,000 people—was almost double the rate of the rest of the United States and far outpaced other nations. Along with the raw numbers, the racial disparities amongst the incarcerated highlights the continued impact of the past and events such as the Bossier Massacre on the present. Even though Blacks made up 32% of Louisiana’s population and whites 60% in 2015, 66% percent of incarcerated individuals were Black while 30% were white.
Some do not even make it to prison in Louisiana. On August 8, 2020, Bossier City police officers responded to a domestic disturbance call. When they arrived, they encountered 34-year-old Jonathan Jefferson, a Black man who, since the age of 21, struggled with being bipolar and having schizophrenia. Jonathan’s relatives say he had a knife in his hands before police arrived, but they were not sure if he still possessed it when he met the officers. When police exited their vehicles, guns drawn, they ordered Jonathan to drop the knife, or knives, and when he kept walking towards them, and they shot at him, continuing even after he fell to the pavement. He was pronounced dead in front of his home.
This was not the first time officers had responded to a call involving Jefferson during a manic episode. The previous times they took him to the hospital for treatment. As he consoled their mother, Jefferson’s brother Eric told KLFY, “They don’t understand that it was a life that they took. It was just not no random, you know, person like he was trying to rob or kill somebody. You pulled up on a mental health patient that was going through a crisis and you took his life because you came up ready to shoot your gun.”
On December 18, 2020, in a letter to the Bossier City Chief of Police Shane McWilliams and Sgt. Edwin Knowles of the Louisiana State Police Bossier Parish, District Attorney J. Schuyler Marvin stated, “Based on all evidence reviewed it is my firm opinion that no crime was committed by either officer.” Marvin did not include a description of the incident or the evidence with his exoneration of the officers. The family did not hear about the officers’ exoneration until it hit the media on January 7, 2021, two days after Bossier Now inquired about the case.
Jefferson’s shooting occurred a few doors down from the house where I grew up, on the same street where I’d ride my bike. His blood, like the blood of the 160 Black men, women, and children murdered in 1868 that fills Mike Woods Pool, feeds the soil where I used to tread, serving as a constant reminder of the history that remains within our midst. Jefferson, like those killed in 1868, was “not no random . . . person.” He was a son, a brother, and a man. They were all loved, and we must never forget them.
* * *
Yet, here we are again in January 2021.
On a day when we in Georgia should have been celebrating the election of Georgia’s new senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the first Black and Jewish senators from the state, and watching as the legislative body of our nation performed their pro forma duty of certifying that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the next President and Vice-President of the United States, history reared up on its hind legs again. When the seditious “rioters,” white supremacists among them, Southerners among them, in a group who some labeled “patriots,” attacked the US Capitol, leaving at least five people dead.
If Nicki Daniels, Jr. and the Sleep for the Rich Gun Club had attempted to do this, they would have been shot before they even reached the steps of the Capitol building. They would not have made it into the halls, the chambers, the offices. Unlike the white woman named Elizabeth from Knoxville who was maced after stepping foot into the Capitol on January 6, who through tears told the person filming, “We’re storming the capitol. It’s a revolution,” a man like Daniels would have received much worse than mace.
Looking outward from the South, one need only look at the differences between January 6, 2021, and June 1, 2020, when officers attacked and removed Black Lives Matter protestors so President Trump could take a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The Bossier Massacre and the violence of Reconstruction and beyond still echo through the years to today, speaking to us from dirt beneath our very feet, telling us to remember. If we fail to heed their exhortations, these violent episodes will continue and repeat themselves, over and over and over again until this experiment of democracy goes up in flames and crumbles around our feet.
Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog on literature, culture, and pedagogy, and has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter at @SilasLapham.
*”Blood in the Pool” originally appeared in Interminable Rambling on Medium.