So read the note found on the schoolhouse door by its intended recipient: Emerson Bentley, a white school teacher. He found the message in early September 1868, illustrated with a coffin, a skull and bones, and a dagger dripping with blood. The straightforward message represented a menacing threat to Bentley, who was teaching African-American children in Louisiana at the time. Little could the Ohio-born Republican have predicted just how soon that violence would come about.
Bentley, an 18-year-old who also worked as one of the editors of the Republican paper The St. Landry Progress, was one of the few white Republicans in the Louisiana parish of St. Landry. He and others came to the region to assist recently emancipated African-Americans find jobs, access education and become politically active. With Louisiana passing a new state constitution in April 1868 that included male enfranchisement and access to state schools regardless of color, Bentley had reason to feel optimistic about the state’s future.
But southern, white Democrats were nowhere near willing to concede the power they’d held for decades before the Civil War. And in St. Landry, one of the largest and most populous parishes in the state, thousands of white men were eager to take up arms to defend their political power.
The summer of 1868 was a tumultuous one. With the help of tens of thousands of black citizens who finally had the right to vote, Republicans handily won local and state elections that spring. Henry Clay Warmoth, a Republican, won the race for state governor, but the votes African-Americans cast for those elections cost them. Over the summer, armed white men harassed black families, shot at them outside of Opelousas (the largest city in St. Landry Parish), and killed men, women and children with impunity. Editors of Democratic newspapers repeatedly warned of dire consequences if the Republican party continued winning victories at the polls.
Those editorials spurred Democrats to action and instigated violence everywhere, wrote Warmoth in his book War, Politics, and Reconstruction: Stormy Days in Louisiana. “Secret Democratic organizations were formed, and all armed. We had ‘The Knights of the White Camellia,’ ‘The Ku-Klux Klan,’ and an Italian organization called ‘The Innocents,’ who nightly paraded the streets of New Orleans and the roads in the country parishes, producing terror among the Republicans.”