Did you know… John Kemp?

Voter intimidation 1868

In the fall of 1868, Americans were voting for president for the first time since the American Civil War. The popular war hero Ulysses S. Grant ran for the Republican party against former New York governor and Democrat Horatio Seymour. The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution had just passed in July, giving African-Americans citizenship and the right to vote. Across the country, there were many who wished to keep blacks from voting, or force their votes in particular directions. The Democratic Party platform stated that Republicans were implementing Negro supremacy, and their aim was to dismantle it.

Sixth. Economy in the administration of the government, the reduction of the standing army and navy; the abolition of the Freedmen’s Bureau; and all political instrumentalities designed to secure negro supremacy; …. Instead of restoring the Union, it has, so far as in its power, dissolved it, and subjected ten States, in time of profound peace, to military despotism and negro supremacy.


In Louisiana, John Kemp, an African American activist, spoke out for the rights of African-Americans. His public stance was a bold move, coming on the heels of riots incited by Democrats in September. Southern white Democrats hunted down two hundred African Americans in an attempt to suppress votes.


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.


“From the parish of Vermillion, I have a report from the Registrar which sets forth among other things, “that for two or three months prior to the election, an armed band of men, under the guise of vigilance patrol, took charge of the town of Abbeville and its environs, threatening everyone who was not prepared to express Democratic sentiments. The Registrar’s life has been more than once threatened; messages sent to him to ‘shut up his Republican mouth or a hole would be bored in him’, and ‘no one would dare to vote the Republican ticket. The club room was guarded so as to keep Republicans from meeting. Considering the above facts, and many others not mentioned, I as Supervisor of [voter] Registration do not and cannot consider the election of the third instant as a fair and honest expression of the will and wishes of the people; that it is not only unfair but that it was conducted in its incipient canvass by force of Democratic [Party] powder and lead. I, therefore, enter this my solemn protest against any Democratic majority so claimed.”

“The consequences of the intimidation just referred to is nowhere more apparent than the city of New Orleans. With more than eighteen thousand registered colored voters in this city, and certainly not less than six thousand white Republicans, it appears that less than three hundred persons voted the Republican ticket. Why Republicans did not vote is easily explained, by taking a glance at the weekly mortuary report of the Secretary of the Board of Health, which shows three white men and ten colored came by their death, either by gunshot or other wounds, in one week in this city, during which such a state of anarchy mob-law existed that the ordinary police authorities were powerless and the streets at night were patrolled by bands of self-appointed men, armed with all kinds of dangerous weapons, during which time no colored man or known Republican dared show themselves on the streets after dark.

The New Orleans Republican newspatper, 01 December 1868, page 4
Tangipahoa Training School for Colored

Against this background, African American activist John Kemp took to the streets, crying foul and fraud to anyone who would listen, asserting that a war had just been fought to give black people their rights, yet no one was willing to step up to enforce those rights. The war was not yet over, he said, while a black man was not free to vote undisturbed, while a white man who defended the rights of a fellow citizen to free speech and voting had to fear for his life or livelihood. He began advocating that African Americans throw off the chains of debt and servitude, vote, or even leave to the frontiers where they could be unmolested. The white population didn’t want to lose its servant labor.

In the parish of St. Helena and Tangipahoa, the Ku Klux Klan took to the streets in white robes, threatening any who would register or vote Republican. Kemp attracted their attention. After dark, they came with torches and dragged him to the street. They beat his wife, who tried to defend him. They put him on a horse, hands tied, and after reading mock charges, hung him.

A banner from the 1920s

“The people generally are well satisfied with the result of the St. Landry riot, only they regret that the Carpet-Baggers escaped,” wrote Daniel Dennet, editor of the Democratic Franklin Planter’s Banner. “The editor escaped; and a hundred dead negroes, and perhaps a hundred more wounded and crippled, a dead white Radical, a dead Democrat, and three or four wounded Democrats are the upshot of the business.” … “The groups managed to achieve their ultimate purpose, as was borne out by the results of the November presidential elections. Even though Republican nominee Ulysses Grant won, not a single Republican vote was counted in St. Landry Parish. Those who oversaw the election felt “fully convinced that no man on that day could have voted any other than the democratic ticket and not been killed inside of 24 hours thereafter.”


The Opleousas massacre, St. Landry, and Tangipahoa riots are little remembered today.

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