Apr 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Memorials to racial violence face resistance in U.S.

A new memorial of the Colfax Massacre sits in Colfax, Louisiana.

A new memorial of the Colfax Massacre in Colfax, Louisiana. Photo: Courtesy of Dean Woods

A memorial honoring dozens of Black Americans who were massacred in an incident that fueled Jim Crow policies has been erected in Louisiana — a rarity, as many cities resist acknowledging their history of racial violence.

Why it matters: More than 100 Confederate monuments have been removed nationwide since the racial reckoning protests in 2020, but thousands of sites linked to massacres of Black Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans are unmarked or forgotten across the U.S.

State of play: City councils and conservative local historic commissions often fight efforts to erect historical markers at civil rights sites, said John Moran Gonzalez, a University of Texas English professor.

  • Advocates' push for such memorials has been made more difficult by conservatives' restrictions on teachings of Black and Latino history — linking them to Critical Race Theory and allegations that the lessons cast white Americans' history too harshly.

As a result, Gonzalez told Axios, it's often difficult to bring attention to racial atrocities that have been forgotten or ignored.

  • The Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.-based legal advocacy group, has mapped thousands of sites linked to lynchings of African Americans.
  • The nonprofit Refusing to Forget has located dozens of sites connected to the lynchings and massacres of Mexican Americans in Texas. Scholars estimate several hundred to 5,000 Latinos were killed in the early 1900s.

Zoom in: The new memorial, unveiled last week in Colfax, La., honors victims of the 1873 Colfax Massacre, a snapshot of the terror many newly freed African Americans faced at the hands of white mobs during the post-Civil War Reconstruction.

  • The victims — estimates range from 60 to 150 — were Black militiamen and just-elected Republican officeholders who faced an armed rebellion of white Democrats, many of them former Confederate soldiers.
  • Ninety-seven members of the white mob were indicted, but only nine were charged. They were convicted by lower courts but the convictions were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court — a decision widely seen as opening the door to racial violence for decades.
  • Avery Hamilton, a Black descendant of a victim, and Dean Woods, a white descendant of one of the rioters, teamed up to push for the removal of a marker that glossed over the massacre for a new memorial that includes dozens of names of those killed or wounded.
A marker acknowledging the 1921 Tulsa Massacre sits in front of what used to be "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A marker acknowledging the 1921 Tulsa Massacre is in the Greenwood neighborhood, an area that used to be known as "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Okla., before white rioters destroyed much of it. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

What they're saying: "I wanted to do something that could make a difference in the lives of the people (who) care about this," Woods tells Axios.

  • Woods said his great-grandfather, Bedford E. Woods, never repented for his role in the massacre. "There was no way I could make up for what he did."
  • But Hamilton tells Axios the Colfax Memorial could be a model for other communities because descendants on both sides came together to confront the past.
  • "Unless you are willing to talk honestly and have an honest dialogue, there will be no healing, there will be no progress."

Woods and Hamilton said they initially faced "subtle" resistance to their idea for a memorial, but persuaded officials it was needed.

  • The owner of the land where the massacre occurred declined to sell an area for the memorial, so Hamilton and Woods chose a public space alongside the railroad tracks several blocks from the courthouse.

Zoom out: In Congress, Illinois Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have re-introduced a bill to designate the site of the 1908 Springfield Race Riot as a national monument.

  • Dozens of Black-owned homes were destroyed, and 16 people died after an angry white mob attacked Black residents over rumors white women had been raped.
  • The attack helped spark the creation of the NAACP.

Criminal justice expert Walter Katz, whose great-great-great-uncle William Donnegan was killed in the Springfield riot, tells Axios it's important to recognize that racial violence occurred in the North, too.

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