On April 13, 1873, about 165 armed White men overran the courthouse in Colfax, then as now the seat of Grant Parish. They were bent on routing roughly 150 Black men, also armed, but much more lightly, who had occupied the site in defense of local officials whom their votes had helped elect in 1872.
In the ensuing day of slaughter, the mob killed somewhere between 62 and 81 Black men, most after they had surrendered. Three White men lost their lives — two of whom were probably shot by their own comrades in the chaos.
The bloodiest incident of Reconstruction, the Colfax Massacre shook the nation. The Grant administration tried to prosecute, but the Supreme Court overturned what few convictions the government obtained. That precedent weakened civil rights enforcement for decades, during which Louisiana disenfranchised Black people and falsified the Colfax events as a “Negro Riot.”
Growing up in Shreveport, La., Dean Woods heard little of this atrocity. When he did learn the facts in recent years, the 69-year-old business executive, now retired and living near Houston, was appalled.
And then genealogical research revealed that his own great-grandfather, Bedford E. Woods, had been one of the Colfax Massacre’s perpetrators — and had even boasted of his role. “It hurt my heart that I was descended from someone like that,” Woods told me recently.
It also dismayed Woods that the only public memorial on the site was racist and factually inaccurate: a historical marker the state of Louisiana erected in 1951.
“On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain,” the sign read. “This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
In January, Woods wrote to Louisiana Economic Development (LED), the state agency responsible for historical markers, telling them of his family connection to the massacre and urging the sign’s removal.
He was hardly the first to suggest this. Black people in Colfax and elsewhere had long viewed the marker as an affront, and had demanded its removal, sometimes with public demonstrations.
Some White Louisiana residents had made similar requests, most recently in 2019, when a state economist, Jack Isaacs of Baton Rouge, lobbied the department — in vain.
The difference this time was that Woods’s appeal reached Mandi Mitchell, the assistant secretary of economic development, who immediately recognized its importance and got approval from Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) to act on it.
A Black Louisianian (and new mother), Mitchell, 44, determined that LED was the sole legal owner of the marker. Therefore, the LED could uproot it without prior approval from Grant Parish authorities, even though the parish owns the small patch of ground on which it stood.
Invited by Cephas Bowie Jr., 67, the only Black member of the parish’s eight-member local council, Mitchell went to Colfax on March 11 to lay out LED’s plans to remove the sign, calling it a blot on the state’s image that “we could not have on our conscience.” (Mitchell provided me audio of the meeting.)
Mitchell struck a cooperative tone, but two White members of the council objected, insisting that the sign was not necessarily offensive or inaccurate; one threatened to take LED to court.
The situation could have turned contentious, but the council’s president, Don Arnold, a conservative 65-year-old White man, grasped that Mitchell held the high ground — and opted for conciliation. He persuaded the council to agree on a statement accepting the sign’s removal and assuring a welcome to “all citizens” in the parish. Opponents of removal got one concession: an official parish request that LED not put a new marker on parish-owned land.
On May 15, workers from a local Black-owned construction company dug up the sign and deposited it in a pickup truck, for eventual placement in a museum. Dean Woods himself paid for the $600 operation.
Just like that, the marker was gone — a month shy of what would have been the 70th anniversary of its dedication ceremony on June 14, 1951. The removal, by contrast, was kept deliberately low-key, with just a small group of witnesses, including Woods, Mitchell and Bowie.
Nevertheless, in the context of Grant Parish, and its history, it was a breathtaking moment.
Woods is working with Grant Parish’s Black community on the next piece of unfinished business: creating a new monument to those who fell in 1873. His son’s 5-year-old daughter is Black, he told me, and he wants her to be “proud of me when she is old enough to understand what happened."
“You cannot legislate where we need to be as a people,” Bowie told me, summarizing the lessons of this experience. “It’s got to change in our hearts.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified a state economist in Louisiana. He is Jack Isaacs. This version has been updated.