Sept. 28, 1868

The attached etching originally ran in the New York Tribune. Credit: Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution

A massacre took place in Opelousas, Louisiana, one of the worst outbreaks of violence during Reconstruction. When some Black Americans attempted to join the Democratic Party, the Knights of the White Camelia (a white supremacist organization) rushed in to drive them out. 

School teacher Emerson Bentley was one of the few white Republicans in the region. He had come to Louisiana to help Black Americans vote and find jobs. The 18-year-old was also an editor for the Republican newspaper, The St. Landry Progress. 

Displeased by their depiction, a mob severely beat Bentley. A group of Black Americans moved to rescue him, not knowing that he had already escaped. Of the 29 black men captured by the mob, 27 of them were killed, and the bloodshed continued for weeks. The death toll reached 250, the vast majority of them Black Americans. 

Through the Opelousas Massacre and similar acts of violence, “lynching became routinized in Louisiana, a systematic way by which whites sought to assert white supremacy in response to African-American resistance,” historian Michael Pfeifer told Smithsonian magazine. The years following Reconstruction led to a vicious wave of lynchings, not only in the South, but across the U.S.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.