How Public Schools Failed Black and White Students in the South By Hiding the Truth

Ever since I heard about the Opelousas massacre of 1868, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Also called the St. Landry or St. Landry Parish massacre, I asked friends of mine who, like me, grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana and were educated by public schools there. None of them had heard of it, including one who is a historian, although not of that particular subject. And that ignorance disturbs me on a very deep and personal level.

The first time I became aware of it was when I clicked on a tweet from the Equal Justice Initiative, an amazing civil rights organization based in Alabama. It featured a film by Jim Batt and Kim Boekbinder on the history of Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, when Blacks, mostly freed slaves, were terrorized in the South even as the U.S. government attempted to secure their rights and safety before abandoning them in 1877. The short film, narrated by Tera DuVernay (Ava's sister) and with illustrations by Molly Crabapple, was focusing on the rampant violence against Blacks when it brought up how, in Opelousas, Louisiana, in September 1868, an estimated 200 Black people were killed by white mobs over the course of a couple of weeks. 

I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. What the hell did she say? Opelousas massacre? That's a town about 17 miles from my family's house. Why had I never heard of this? After watching the rest of the film (which you should), I went to the "Reconstruction in America" report put out by EJI, which is all about how rampaging whites lynched thousands of Black people during Reconstruction. And on page 60, there it was, a story about how whites, enraged at the thought of Blacks voting, beat a white abolitionist writer and ran him out of town and then, to stop them from voting, mobs of white people, including the Knights of the White Camellia (basically the KKK), went on the days-long killing spree. The stark result of the violence was that in the 1868 election, in St. Landry Parish, which had a population of 14,000, 3000 of whom belonged to the Knights, not a single vote was cast for Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Louisiana had the worst violence in the South during Reconstruction, and the Opelousas or St. Landry massacre was "Reconstruction's deadliest episode of violence."

There's a story I've told a bunch of times: In eighth-grade, in my middle school in south Louisiana, the social studies subject was the history of the state. Our teacher was Mrs. Broussard, a middle-aged white woman with a Cajun accent who always wore floral print dresses to class. She carried herself like she was going to a cotillion after school. The class was about a third Black students, two-thirds white. Now, that was a long, long time ago, and I think the subject of the day was immigration to Louisiana from Ireland and Italy. I may be foggy about that, but I distinctly remember one lesson from Mrs. Broussard. She told us, "I'd have rather been a slave than an immigrant back then because if you were a slave, all you had to do was obey Massa and you got meals and a place to sleep." And most of the class, Black and white, agreed. Unfortunately, I couldn't join them because, see, I had watched Roots a year or two before. I saw what they did to Kunta Kinte and Kizzy, and it had blown my mind wide open about the savagery of slavery. It had filled in huge gaps that we simply weren't taught in any of our history classes and wouldn't be taught to me until I went to college.

And now, I was furious that we hadn't been taught about the Opelousas massacre in my Louisiana history class. It wasn't like it was hidden in its time: The violence was the subject of congressional hearings, and it was reported around the country. The entirety of Louisiana's racist history is breathtakingly awful. But this was just up the road. It wasn't 100 miles away like the Colfax massacre, where up to 150 Black people were killed in 1873, or the St. Bernard Parish massacre, where up to 100 were killed in October 1868, or others, and all of which we should have been taught, too. This wasn't abstract, either. Families around me were descended from the whites of St. Landry Parish

I'm thinking about this for a couple of reasons. Obviously, the first one is the bizarre way in which conservative politicians and media figures are attacking "critical race theory," which nearly every one of them gets wrong, and the 1619 Project, the incredible act of journalism and research edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones that reconfigures American history around the original sin of slavery in this land and its legacy. The Project's impact has been astonishing, with some public schools creating new curricula around it, and that has scared the hell out of white conservatives. So now we have states and localities making laws saying things like the one in Texas that states that teachers can't teach that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” And, of course, that's all up for interpretation, which means that if someone makes white people feel bad by talking about all the massacres and oppression of non-white people, it would violate the law. Why would you bother courting that kind of trouble? 

The other reason I'm thinking about all of this is an article from Michael Harriot in The Root where he excavates the history textbooks taught to various Republican senators who are screeching about critical race theory (or their perversion and hypersimplification of it) and the 1619 Project. Interestingly, many of the textbooks are state history ones, and, unsurprisingly, they whitewash the reality of slavery. As Lindsey Graham would have read in the 1958 edition of The History of South Carolina, for instance, "Most masters treated their slaves kindly. Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country." Harriot also finds a Louisiana history textbook from a few years before I would have taken my eighth-grade class, and it says the state's slaves were "among the happiest and most content" and, regarding the massacres during Reconstruction, "Because of frequent clashes between freedmen and whites, the War Department dispatched Union soldiers to Louisiana while groups of former Confederates like the White League formed to protect whites." It wasn't that whites were mass-murdering Blacks. It was "clashes."

I'm constantly enraged about the history of this nation and I'm constantly appalled by the treatment of non-whites and I'm constantly disappointed by our refusal to fully confront that past. Even the details around the Opelousas massacre will make your blood boil, like how, under duress, some Blacks declared allegiance to the Democratic Party and they were given red ribbons to wear, indicating to the rampaging whites not to kill them. I've always been furious that we were taught a false version of history, one that elided over the brutality whites committed against Blacks. And I feel that fury anew now that I know that history included an event that should have been, at the very least, given a lesson or two, if not a full damn unit. That fury includes anger for the victims of the massacre, who should not be forgotten by the Black and white people in the state.

Why weren't we taught about the goddamn Opelousas massacre? Someone had a stake in not telling us about it. They had a stake in keeping us ignorant of our sins. They had a stake in lying to us, and in doing so, the schools failed us students. I don't know if the other white kids would have come away from a lesson on the Opelousas massacre with a different perspective on race in our state. But it would have given them a fuller picture of the reality. And that might have changed a few ignorant minds. It might have even made a few of the kids, white and black, angry about their history. That was the threat.

This isn't about an interpretation of history. It's about the factual events of history. Add your interpretation after you tell the truth about the deadliest massacre of the Reconstruction era. Our schools have a responsibility to give us the good and the bad and the outright evil in our history. What's happening today in many of our schools is that they are correcting a generations-old, intentional, harmful deception that has done untold damage to our country. I can't imagine the betrayal that Black Americans feel about that deception, but I fully grasp the betrayal that white Americans should feel about it.

You wanna know why so many people are ready to believe whatever lies the powerful tell them, despite all facts showing the truth? It's because they've been conditioned from an early age to believe a fantasy, one that is affirmed every day by the media they choose and the leaders who benefit from the lies.

So now that works like the 1619 Project and other reexaminations of American history have come out,  now that some schools that used to lie want to tell the truth, today's Republicans need to shut that down. Or else where will they get their future voters?