Rabalais’ Political History: When a constitutional convention became a full-scale riot

By 1866, Louisiana had been devastated by the ravages of the Civil War. Almost 3,000 of the state’s citizens had been killed in the conflict, with bloody battles waged in Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville and the Red River region.

Because occupation by Union troops had suspended the functions of state government, new elections had been held at the conclusion of the war in 1865. Pro-Union “Radical Republicans” split control of the Legislature with conservative Democrats, who were in favor of returning the state to the antebellum status quo.

Lawmakers then became engulfed in a debate over voting rights for both newly freed slaves and former Confederates. Republicans pushed for the enfranchisement of African-Americans while Democrats advocated for the restoration of voting rights for former Confederates. Both sides knew that their particular group was key to them holding political power in the state.

Unable to resolve the matter, then-Gov. James Madison Wells and the Legislature called for a constitutional convention to be held in July of 1866. Because the State Capitol in Baton Rouge had burned during the course of the war, the convention was slated to be held at the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans.

Delegates received numerous death threats in the days leading up to the convention, according to historian Donald Reynolds’ account of the events. Both African-Americans and former Confederates held huge rallies in New Orleans, as rumors of an armed uprising gripped the city.

When the convention was gaveled in on July 30, only 25 delegates were in attendance. Unable to gather a quorum, the convention stood at ease while sergeants-at-arms were dispatched to find the remaining delegates.

Meanwhile, a group of nearly 250 African-Americans were marching up Canal Street, protesting for voting rights and showing their support for the Republicans. A large number of former Confederates were already outside the Mechanics Institute, having spent most of the morning heckling the delegates.

When the two sides met on a corner, a full altercation ensued, with the mob of former Confederates attacking the unarmed African-American protesters. Police soon joined the scrum and shots rang out across Canal Street.

When the smoke cleared, 40 people, including three delegates, were killed. The constitutional convention disbanded, while an outraged Congress used the event to push for the passage of the 14th Amendment. But it would take nearly another 100 years to fully resolve the voting rights issue in Louisiana.

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