Opelousas Massacre tribute yields ribbons, new research
By HERMAN FUSELIER | The Advertiser | Associated Press | Published: October 6, 2018
OPELOUSAS, La. (Tribune News Service) — St. Landry Parish now has its first symbols of the Opelousas Massacre, a little-known racial clash in 1868 that claimed dozens of African-American lives. On the conflict's 150th anniversary, archivist and genealogist Marie Marcel gave certificates to current member of families who survived the event.
Red ribbons adorned the certificates, symbolic of the ribbons their ancestors used to survive.
"After the Massacre, they wanted to save their lives," said Marcel. "They decided to go away.
"They wore red ribbons on their arms to let the Democrats know they were no longer Republican.
"I'm not saying there was no killing. But this event ended very peacefully."
Certificates were given to descendants of the Mayfield, Clementine, Barnebé, Auzenne and other families at "Commemorating the 150th Year of the 1868 Massacre," a panel discussion held at the South Park Civic Center in Opelousas. About 50 people listened to speakers that included St. Landry Parish Clerk of Court Charlie Jagneaux, who highlighted voting history in the United States. James Guidry, who's written articles about his youth in Opelousas, shared Massacre history he discovered during his research.
But Marcel's presentation was the main event, an effort to clear often-conflicting information that's been published. The Sept. 28, 1868 event was a voting rights clash between black Republicans and white Democrats, which included the Seymour Knights, a white supremacist group.
Emerson Bentley, who was white and editor of the St. Landry Progress newspaper, reported the clash and urged blacks to remain Republican. Members of the Knights whipped Bentley, but rumors circulated that he had been killed.
Historical accounts say blacks who took up arms, a violation of the local law, were arrested and many were executed. White attacks on blacks continued in the weeks that followed, with reports that as many as 300 were killed.
But during her 12 years of research, Marcel obtained a copy of Bentley's journal in the Edith Garland Dupré Library archives on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus. One entry states that less than 50 people lost their lives.
"It was bad, but not as bad as many have said," said Marcel. "People managed to get away. The majority of them went to New Orleans.
"The other side went to Prairie Basse (near Grand Coteau). They did interviews and talked about people that survived."
Marcel also traced photos of a hanging attributed to the Massacre to an execution in Paris, Texas. She challenged audience members to do more local research and suggested "Creoles of Color in Bayou Country," a 1996 book by retired UL professor Carl Brasseaux, Keith Fontenot and Claude Oubre.
Genealogist Etha Simien Amling also suggested Matthew Christensen's "The 1868 St. Landry Massacre: Reconstruction's Deadliest Episode of Violence," a University of Wisconsin dissertation that can be downloaded online.
Don D'Avy, a local architect, told audience members that genealogy research shows his great-great-grandfather, Yves D'Avy, was involved in the Massacre. Yves D'Avy's son, Francois D'Avy, who was associated with the Republican-leaning newspaper and supported black voter registration, was shot by white supremacists on the day of the Massacre.
He escaped to New Orleans, where he gave testimony to the U. S. Army about events in St. Landry Parish. Don D'Avy has copies of his testimony.
"You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives," said David, 71. "Sometimes back there in the closet, you find things that you're not very proud of.
"But I love Opelousas. I love my neighbors. I love being a part of something like this."
Marcel said she hopes citizens can share their own research at a future panel discussion. No date has been set for the event.