'Red River' Examines Reconstruction-Era Massacre

Novelist Lalita Tademy explores her family tree in her latest book, Red River. It's the story of the role her ancestors played in a massacre that occurred in Louisiana during the days of Reconstruction.

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Colfax, Louisiana, March 22, 1873. A time of Reconstruction.

The freed slaves of Colfax have just voted out the white segregationists of the Democratic Party and replace them with Republicans, the party of Lincoln. To ensure a smooth transition, the black men of Colfax gather at a courthouse. What ensues is one of the great massacres of American history.

Ms. LALITA TADEMY (Author, "Red River"): My aunt Ellen had told me at one point that our people were mixed up in the courthouse incident, and some got out and some didn't.

COX: That is novelist Lalita Tademy. Her book, "Red River," focuses on the patriarchs of her family tree, the men who gathered at the courthouse that day. She talked about it with NPR's Farai Chideya.

Ms. TADEMY: Coming to the courthouse to try to protect the new office holders was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. It meant that you were not only putting yourself in physical danger but you were at risk of losing everything that you had worked so hard to build up.

It meant that you might never work again. You might never be given any work by any white person in the town. It meant that your family might go without. So Sam Tademy comes to the courthouse. He is a leader, he is a reluctant leader, but he is a leader. And he considers himself and is considered what they called a race man.

He very much believed in pulling as many people forward with him as he could and to making the plight of African-Americans better than it was for everyone. My other great-great grandfather was Israel Smith. And Israel was a different personality. He was a man who was pretty much afraid.

He was afraid of white people, he was not confrontational, but he felt the great need to come and to stand up at this moment in history and to do what he felt was best so that his children could get an education, so his children would have access to all the things that he, as a fairly newly freed slave, did not have. So one was stronger than the other, but they both came and they both stood up.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Why was this history lost, do you think? I mean, I guess you could say it's obvious that people didn't want to hear about this pain. But why was this history lost and why did you have to go find it?

Ms. TADEMY: I actually think it wasn't lost in the sense that it just drifted away. I think it was suppressed. It wasn't only fear by the black people at the time. But I think that there was some degree of shame around this incident on the white side as well. It was so one-sided and it really was a massacre.

And I know that even going back to Colfax - I was just there a few days ago - even going back to Colfax today, no one really wants to talk about this incident. And it's very, very surprising since this case ended up being one of the legal landmarks that brought an end to Reconstruction.

They try to bring nine of the men who initiated the massacre to justice, and they fought the case from one court to the next higher court to the next highest court until finally they ended up in the Supreme Court of the U.S. Not the Supreme Court of Louisiana, the Supreme Court of the U.S. in the 1800s.

And at the end, the judgment by the Supreme Court was that they would not interfere in the aftermath of this incident because this was about state's rights and so the federal government was not going to intervene.

And that set off a wave of real violence as the controlling mechanism in the South. So this is an incident that should be understood. It is considered by historians as the bloodiest incident during Reconstruction.

CHIDEYA: So what I'm hearing you say is that what happened with your family members was a massacre that set off a legal precedent which allowed the U.S. to, in some ways, roll back the rights of African-Americans after the Civil War.

Ms. TADEMY: Absolutely. There is no question about that. A state can do whatever a state thinks that they need to do, and it was hands-off by any federal supervisory force.

CHIDEYA: If I can leap ahead a few generations, we get to you, a woman who worked in Silicon Valley who made great strides and then decided to write her family's history as fiction. How do you tie in to this legacy?

Ms. TADEMY: Well, I just think that I'm part of a continual chain and I owe just an enormous debt to these men. And actually it's the women of Cane River and the men of Red River, these are the people that I have come from. If not for them, obviously I wouldn't be here. But if not for their strength of character, I wouldn't be here in the same way.

I wanted to make sure that this was a time in history that was told from their point of view. And if not from me, who was going to do it?

CHIDEYA: Thank you so much.

Ms. TADEMY: Thank you, Farai.

COX: That was Lalita Tademy, author of "Red River," with NPR's Farai Chideya. And now, here's Tademy reading from her new novel.

Ms. TADEMY: (Reading) Come Closer. This is not a story to go down easy and the backwash still got hold of us today. The history of a family. The history of a country. From bondage to the joy of freedom and almost 10 hopeful years drinking up the promise of Reconstruction. And then back into the darkness, so fearsome don't nobody want to talk about the scary time.

Don't nobody want to remember even now decades removed. Now things better some. Why stir up all that old mess from way back in 1873? I don't hold with that point of view. I was there watching like all the women done. Up close some of the time but most ways from a distance. Women is the long livers at the base of the Tademy family tree.

COX: Again, that was Lalita Tademy reading from her new novel, "Red River."

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson.

I'm Tony Cox. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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