(Re)Reading Mass Incarceration: New Orleans Monuments and Reconstruction Violence

Many of you read William Horne’s New Orleans restaurant recommendations as you prepared for your trip to the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Today Horne is back with a report on an OAH session on the recent New Orleans monument controversy.  Learn more about Horne and his work from his previous post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  –JF

I circled the “What was Radical about Reconstruction?” round table the moment I saw it on the OAH program, and having survived the hostilities and debates expressed therein, can now say that it more than lived up to expectations. The big-name scholars like Downs, Dudden (via email), Hogue, Sinha, and Taylor didn’t disappoint and raised a number of interesting issues on the juridical and socio-cultural implications of citizenship with which scholars of Reconstruction and Americans alike continue to struggle. Perhaps the most important of these disputes concerned whether Reconstruction reforms were intentional or accidental and, by extension, whether or not the Civil War was fought over slavery or more general regional economic interests. Needless to say, the exchange was lively.

Given the robust conversation, I was surprised that a key inspiration for Radical Reconstruction, the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre, was only mentioned in passing. In our present moment marked by protests against over-policing, police brutality, and mass incarceration, coupled with President Trump’s racialized promise to inaugurate a campaign of “law and order” in America’s “inner cities,” the value of thinking critically about the relationship between state violence and citizenship seems significant. This is why, when Prof. Hogue mentioned the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre (though he prefers the term “battle”), I probably breathed an audible sigh of relief.

The massacre illustrated the intent of ex-Confederates to challenge even the discussion of African American rights and helped inspire Congress to pass the Reconstruction Acts. If we understand the limits of Radical Reconstruction as being expressed materially in subsequent acts of white terror like the White League coup in 1874 commemorated at the foot of Canal Street in the “Liberty Monument,” we should also acknowledge their root in the white supremacist violence of the 1866 massacre. And in this sense, for those familiar with the landscape of New Orleans, Hogue’s description of the site as “unmarked” revealed the overwhelming disparity between the monuments the city has and those it needs.[1]

New Orleans has a monument to those who overthrew the state’s democratically elected government to institute a regime based on white supremacy. The inscription is quite clear on this point.

“United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.”

Monument 1

To clarify, the “state government” that the United States troops overthrew was the one created from the White League coup. The “usurpers” who were “reinstated” were the democratically elected officials the coup had overthrown.

New Orleans does not, however, have any monument or marker to the proponents of black suffrage murdered at the Mechanics’ Institute. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this TriPod episode was the only local remembrance on the 150th anniversary of the event.

Here’s a brief overview for those unfamiliar, though you really should read Hogue’s Uncivil War or Justin Nystrom’s New Orleans After the Civil War for a fuller analysis.

On the morning of July 30, 1866, a convention of several dozen white Republicans, supported by a few hundred black New Orleanians and veterans, gathered at the Mechanics’ Institute near Canal Street to demand black suffrage. Outside, hundreds of New Orleans police and firemen lined the streets along with more than a thousand white protesters who threw bricks and yelled epithets at the convention. After the shouting and scuffles escalated in front of the building, police and firemen stormed the hall, beating, shooting, and stabbing many advocates of black voting rights.


Rev. Horton, a white minister attending the convention, was shot by police while waving a white flag in surrender. They shot Dr. Dostie, an outspoken white proponent of black suffrage, and ran him through with a sword. Officers pulled the former governor of the state, Michael Hahn, from the convention and into a white mob, who shot and beat him so severely that many early reports of the massacre included him among the dead, though he miraculously survived. Black bystanders were shot in the back as they fled the carnage. Black passengers were pulled off of streetcars and shot. Onlookers reported that the police and white vigilantes continued shooting unarmed suspected supporters of black suffrage for several hours. None of them was ever charged with a crime.[1]

The neglect in New Orleans’ public memory of those who struggled for equality makes it appear as if the city confuses its history with its white history; its heritage with its white heritage. Even still, we in New Orleans seem all too able to forget that white heritage when it means remembering the massacre of those who sought liberty.

While violence-oriented narratives of Reconstruction have their shortcomings, I believe that it remains worthwhile to observe that Radical Reconstruction ended much as it began: in a wave of violence. That states and localities commemorated this second wave of violence in public spaces underscores the strategies of statist violence and racial repression adopted by the “Redeemers.” The “law and order” tactics beneath mass incarceration and the state-level voter ID efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, which echo those of this earlier generation, indicate that our work explaining and altering the longstanding relationship of race to systems of state power remains incomplete.

[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1988), 261-264, 274-275, 565-574.

[2] Justin Nystrom, New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 66-69. James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 40-44. The Report of the House Select Committee investigating the incident is another excellent resource and may be found here.