On April 13, 1873, over 100 black men were killed in Colfax Louisiana following disputes over the results of a local election the previous fall. The election had been very close and the departing Democratic governor of Louisiana had appointed winners from his own party, but when the administration changed with a new governor in the spring, the Republican contenders were appointed instead, a white man named Shaw and a black man named Register. The two men tried to take their offices at the Colfax courthouse, and the white population of the area responded with rumors of racial rioting and uprisings; when Register, Shaw, and their adherents refused to leave the courthouse, a small army of white men surrounded the building and eventually forced the occupants out and massacred them. Others who fled the courthouse were captured later that day and also killed.
Lalita Tademy uses her own family history to create a compelling fictionalized account of this incident. Her ancestors were among those who lived in Colfax. ("Our people were there," an aunt is quoted in the author's notes at the end of the book. "Some got out, and some didn't.") We see the events building toward the massacre at the courthouse through the eyes of these people--Sam Tademy and his wife Polly, Isaac "McCully" McCullen, Lucy and Israel Smith and their son Noby, who was a boy of nine at the time--as well as the terrible day itself and its aftermath. The events are real, if the conversations and innermost thoughts of those who were witnesses are creations of the author's imagination.
The narrative is interspersed with family photos, reproductions of newspaper articles, maps, and other documents of the era to help recreate a picture of the time and place, the people, and a moment in America's history that should not be forgotten.