Teaching Massacres and Black History

This post is part of our online roundtable on “Black Buffalo”

Buffalo, New York, USA- June 11, 2022: ‘March for our Lives’ event. Preacher thanks the marchers at the memorial for the African American victims of the shooting in Buffalo NY at a Tops supermarket (Val Dunne Photography/ Shutterstock)

As a professor of history at Buffalo State College, the Tops Massacre resonates with me as another example of the tepid response of US political and legal institutions to pursue justice for Black American victims at the hands of white American terrorism. Four months ago, an eighteen-year-old white American from Conklin, New York—Payton S. Gendron—shot thirteen people in a terrorist attack at Tops Supermarket, located on Buffalo’s East Side at 1275 Jefferson Avenue. Eleven of the thirteen shooting victims were Black Americans, and ten of the eleven Black Americans shot have since died. Police subdued and arrested the terrorist gunman, who now faces a twenty-seven-count indictment, including ten counts of hate crimes. Indeed, in the investigation following the Tops Massacre, police found writings and other media in which Gendron professed his white supremacist views. When Gendron traveled to the Jefferson Tops to kill local Black residents, his intention was to preserve the perceived social, political, and cultural power of white Americans over non-white citizens.

As the Tops mass shooting demonstrated, racial massacres are not something of the past, and in my classes, we’ll be confronting some of the continuities of racial terror by comparing the 2022 Buffalo massacre to the 1873 Colfax Massacre in Louisiana. These two racially motivated incidents remind students today of the role state negligence and white violence play in harming Black communities throughout the nation. When I talk about the 1873 massacre in my African American history class, I ask students to imagine how brazenly white American terrorists attacked citizens they perceived as antithetical to their racial and political supremacy. I also ask them to assess the state and federal responses to extrajudicial violence against US citizens in the emergent Jim Crow South of the 1870s. These questions have added significance in light of the Tops Massacre.

As next year marks the 150th anniversary of the Colfax Massacre, it would be useful to remember the context surrounding the event. In the 1872 gubernatorial election in the state of Louisiana, the Republican and Democratic candidates split the vote. Republican President Ulysses S. Grant supported the Republican candidate by sending federal troops into Louisiana to fortify his win. In response, white American Southerners, many of whom were in the Democratic Party, mobilized a White League, or paramilitary group, to terrorize Black American and Republican voters in the state.

In Grant Parish, Louisiana, where Colfax is located, voters were evenly split between white and Black Americans. There, residents formed an all-Black militia that took control of the local courthouse, intending to preserve fair elections against terrorist groups like the White League. On April 13, 1873, a mob of white American terrorists, reportedly former Confederate soldiers and members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League, stormed the local courthouse. In the ensuing battle, the Black militia fired on the white mob, but they were overcome by a bigger force firing more weapons, including a cannon in the courthouse. The Black militia surrendered the courthouse and themselves to the white American insurgents.

The Black militiamen were given no mercy. The white American captors executed their prisoners, shooting and hanging the Black American men they had captured. The terrorists killed an estimated 150 Black Americans to restore the “home rule” of Southern Democrats in Louisiana’s gubernatorial election.

In Reconstruction Era politics, the Colfax Massacre catalyzed the national conversation on racial terrorism and Republican commitment to the Civil War Amendments. The White League who slaughtered the Black militiamen were killing freedmen who recently won emancipation, citizenship, and male suffrage in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments following the Civil War. The massacre received national attention, not just because it was a contested state gubernatorial election that resulted in political violence, but also because, in part, it was a bellwether of how staunchly the federal government would support its recent political wins and the former slaves who became citizens.

The federal government, in fact, passed policies like the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 to investigate and prosecute domestic terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White League for sabotaging local elections and physically threatening and harming Black American voters. Ninety-seven members of the white American mob at Colfax were indicted by a federal grand jury. Here was the opportunity for the federal government to solidify civil rights long-term by protecting citizens who sacrificed their lives to preserve free and fair elections from insurgents. Of the ninety-seven indictments, only nine faced trial, and of the nine, none were convicted. In three trials between 1873 and 1874, the prosecution failed to convince the US Supreme Court to establish the state action requirement, meaning it could not convict the white American assailants at Colfax because the law was intended to prosecute domestic terrorists acting on behalf of the state of Louisiana. They also couldn’t get the justices to agree that there was even a racial rationale behind the massacre because the law required indisputable evidence of racism fueling the attacks. Instead, the Supreme Court saw the Colfax Massacre as political strife committed by private individuals. The Black American victims of the Colfax Massacre received no redress from the federal government as a result.

How I talk about the Colfax Massacre will change this semester and from here on. I used to talk about Colfax as a sign that the US government had grown weary of Reconstruction. It costed too much in taxpayer dollars, military personnel, and political cache to continue federal occupation of the South following the Civil War. By 1877, the federal government would withdraw from the South, which led to the interregional institutionalization of Jim Crow segregation, disfranchisement, and racial terrorism in the US South and parts of the Midwest. In this way, one might say that the Colfax Massacre—an act of racial terrorism without redress—“set the stage” for the Jim Crow South.

But, today, we’re in the nadir of a new Jim Crow era. Race relations have sunken to a new low point. As I have argued in More Than Our Pain: Affect and Emotion in the Black Lives Matter Era, the tumultuous state of twenty-first-century race relations in the United States is characterized by colorblind laws, a crisis in Black leadership, and, as I have been arguing here, extrajudicial killings of Black Americans. That’s how I would describe what happened on May 14, 2022, at the Jefferson Avenue Tops Supermarket—an extrajudicial killing of ten Black Americans committed by a white American terrorist who decided it was “open season” in this historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. He seemed to be indiscriminately executing Black Americans for violating the unspoken law that the United States belonged to white Americans and would be defended as such in Buffalo 2022, just like Colfax 1873.

I could have been at the Jefferson Tops on May 14h—what I think all the time. I visit that neighborhood regularly. I used to go to the doctor in the neighborhood. I research post-1945 Black protest in the Merriweather Library archives up the block from Tops. I drink coffee at Golden Cup Coffee on Jefferson and Utica. I’ve even recorded podcast episodes at the Apollo Media Center a little up the road. I wouldn’t have thought anything unusual had I been at Merriweather for research or a cultural event and strolled to Tops to buy a carriable lunch and pop. Had it been May 14th that I went to Tops on Jefferson, for just another late lunch, it might have been my last meal. Indeed, that Saturday afternoon stroll into Tops was the last moment in the lives of ten Buffalonians.

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Steve Peraza

Steve Peraza is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Social Studies Education at SUNY-Buffalo State College. He earned his Ph.D. in U.S. history from SUNY-Buffalo, specializing in African slavery in global perspective. His research examines slaves’ conceptions of law and legal procedure in eighteenth-century Louisiana freedom suits. Other research interests include race and racism in America, the Harlem Renaissance, and the long civil rights movement. He teaches courses on U.S. history, African American history, the African Diaspora, slavery in the Atlantic World, and Hip Hop.

Comments on “Teaching Massacres and Black History

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    This is such an important reminder of the current links to the long history of racial massacres against people of African descent in this nation. As this piece for the Smithsonian, co-written with Dr. Clark-Pujara, points out, the history of these racial massacres are deeply rooted in the North, the Midwest and New York, long before the Civil War.

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