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Unflinching honesty about our ancestors’ involvement in slavery, lynchings, and other forms of white supremacist violence is necessary to interrupt today’s resurgence of racist killings in the U.S.
I never met my great grandfather, Franklin Oliver Adams. He died long before I was born. In fact, the only physical connection I have ever felt with him has been via an object that belonged to him and that I held in my hands last spring for a few moments. That object was a gun. I learned about the gun early in my family history research.
I knew Locust Ridge, a plantation owned and run by members of my family from 1844 to the mid-2000s, was located there. So I searched “Tensas Parish, Louisiana” online and came across an article by Louisiana State University archivist John Miles.
In “James Harrison and the Tensas Troubles of 1878,” I read that my great grandfather’s gun had been used to commit an act of domestic terrorism designed to suppress Black participation in the political system.
Months later, when I reached out to the current owner of Locust Ridge, he told me that he had found the gun, a rare Colt Third Model Dragoon, in one of the many antique leather chests beneath the old plantation house. We arranged to meet in the police jury building in St. Joseph, Louisiana, so that I could see my great grandfather’s revolver for myself.
When I held the gleaming steel and walnut weapon in my hands, it felt unnaturally heavy. It both fascinated and repelled me.
The .44 caliber revolver was designed by Samuel Colt for the U.S. Army’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles in 1848 and used during the Mexican-American and Civil Wars. Since my great grandfather served in the Confederate Cavalry between 1863 and 1865, it is likely he carried the revolver with him in a pommel holster on his saddle.
After the Civil War, my great grandfather’s gun was used in an attack on the home of minister and congressional candidate Alfred Fairfax, an incident that sparked an orgy of lynchings and white supremacist violence in Tensas Parish. It was an act that violated the same statute under which former president Donald Trump was recently indicted.
It was intended to protect rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th , and 15th Amendments and make it a crime to “conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person” exercising a right protected by the Constitution or federal law. In Trump’s case the indictment argues that the former president “pursued unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results.”
Like Trump, my great grandfather attempted to influence the outcome of an election through violent means. According to the first-hand account of James Harrison, on the night of October 12, 1878, my great grandfather loaned his revolver to a man named James Harrison, who used it in a bald attempt to intimidate Alfred Fairfax and any other Black residents of Tensas Parish who had the audacity to participate in the political system.
Like many other efforts by groups of White vigilantes to keep Black Americans “in their place,” it resulted in mayhem and death. “Young men thought it the only chance to get out from under negro rule, anything was better than that,” Harrison wrote of the events of that night.
“I rode all night and enlisted four men; Jeff B. Snider (then a boy 16 to 18 years old), James Vickers, Ed Baker and Mr. Lenore. Jeff had a ‘stove pistol,’ Lenore an old loud double barrel muzzle loader,” Harrison wrote, “and I the borrowed revolver from Frank Adams [my great grandfather]. Baker borrowed an old Henry rifle from John Smythe as we passed Wavertree.”
I have not found evidence that my great grandfather participated in what The New York Times called “The Tensas Parish Outrages” in ways more direct than loaning his gun to the cause. However, it’s very possible that he not only lent his gun but also joined the nightriders. At the very least, the fact that he loaned Harrison the revolver suggests that my ancestor was involved in the plot. It was not an isolated incident.
After the Civil War, Black men across the former Confederacy voted in large numbers, ran for office, and won. Black voters supported the party of Lincoln, and Republicans gained control of state legislatures and held state and local offices. In Tensas Parish, White Democrats decided they would seize back the reins of power by any means necessary and launched a campaign of intimidation, violence, and voter fraud during the 1878 election season.
The campaign of terror began with threats that if anyone dared to run for office on the Republican ticket “a hundred bullet holes would be put through his body.”
Then on October 12, the group of around a dozen White men rode down on Fairfax’s home where a small group of Black citizens had met to organize ahead of the election. The group of “bulldozers” as the vigilantes were called then, was led by a man named Captain John Peck, a Confederate veteran from neighboring Catahoula Parish. The group also included James Harrison, who carried my great grandfather’s revolver. The nightriders stormed Fairfax’s home, demanding to see the Black candidate.
“Yonder is the son of a bitch now,” Peck shouted, and the mob began firing.
Remarkably, Fairfax managed to escape. But two men were killed and two others severely injured. One of those killed by the gunfire was Captain Peck. Another was Willie Singleton, a Black man shot multiple times at point blank range. The two other Black men present, Daniel Kennedy and Fleming Branch, were also shot but survived. Mr. Branch, who later gave testimony to the senate committee investigating the matter, recognized Mr. Peck because his enslaved mother had been Peck’s wet nurse.
Once the news circulated that Peck, a White man, had been killed, it was open season on the Black residents of Tensas Parish. And they knew it. Many fled to the woods for weeks, some dying of exposure as a result. This was not an overreaction.
According to testimony given during the hearings, groups of White vigilantes went on a rampage that lasted several weeks. Here is an excerpt from one witness who had been shot during the attack on Fairfax’s home:
… [Th]e next morning early—I had to flee early for fear they might come there; and from that time I had to stay in the woods, with my wounds. Q. How long were you in the woods? A. About seven or eight days. Q. Were there any others in the woods? A. Yes, sir; you could always run across them. One of them was with me at the time. Q. Why were they in the woods? A. There was men from other parishes about there, and they said they were hunting for them. Q. How many colored men were killed in that parish? A. I think from what I could learn there was about seventy or eighty men killed. — From Daniel Kennedy’s testimony to the United States Senate
In the days that followed the attack, White vigilantes whipped, hung, shot, and beheaded between 50 and 80 Black men. While the number of Black people killed in Tensas in 1878 remains unknown, the effect of the violent voter intimidation tactics is clear. Most Black citizens were so terrified that they did not attempt to vote that year. According to congressional testimony, many of those who did were strong-armed at the polls into voting for the Democratic ticket.
White Democrats had succeeded in ending Republican rule, completely disenfranchising Black voters in Tensas Parish for almost a century. And while the U.S. Senate held hearings to investigate alleged voter fraud and violence in the elections of 1878 in Tensas and other Louisiana parishes, and while 10 White men were eventually indicted, none was ever prosecuted.
I predict that Trump’s indictment for violating the Klu Klux Klan Acts will end in a similar fashion, just as so many efforts to hold perpetrators of white supremacist violence throughout American history have failed.
Why is this? I believe that it’s not only because white supremacy is enshrined in our founding documents, but also because so many people’s ancestors, like mine, participated in this violence. Some give it a pass. This is just the way it was back then, they say. They were men and women of their time, they say. Others, like me for most of my life, don’t buy that argument but nonetheless don’t make the effort to learn more about an ancestors’ participation.
It’s painful to think about our country’s and our ancestors’ involvement in slavery, lynchings, and other forms of white supremacist violence. Yet ignoring the truth won’t make it go away. As James Baldwin famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The fact is that between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched almost 5,000 people, most of whom were Black, Native American, or Chinese. And many Americans—North and South—likely have ancestors that participated either directly or indirectly in this violence.
We must come to terms with this part of our shared history—and teach our children about it—if we wish to avoid returning to open season on human beings. After all, there is abundant precedent in the U.S. for hunting and killing marginalized people. And vigilantism and domestic terrorism are on the rise. Consider the armed vigilante groups that roam the U.S.-Mexico border in search of asylum seekers or the way the McMichaels chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery.
I worry that domestic terrorism, aimed at intimidating marginalized voters, will only escalate ahead of the 2024 election—especially if we fail to hold Trump accountable for his past actions.
Unlike Trump, our ancestors cannot be prosecuted. But they can be viewed with clear eyes. And we can hold ourselves accountable for learning and being honest about their—and our—participation in, or complicity with, white supremacist systems and violence. We can reflect on how our ancestors’ attitudes may have been passed down to us in subtle ways that we may not be aware of yet. We can share what we learn and encourage others to face their own stories.
We can confront and address the racial inequities that persist today. We can begin to heal.
As Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are.”
Read more about Annie Hartnett’s work uncovering the stories of her enslaver ancestors and the people they enslaved by following her blog, RELATIONS, and subscribing to her podcast, RELATIONS: Facing Slavery’s Legacy.
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