Racist Insurrections and Black Cops: The Battle of Liberty Place and the Metropolitan Police in 1874
In 2017, four Confederate monuments were removed from display in New Orleans after public outcry against the racist legacy they represented. Three depicted Confederate leaders, but perhaps the most egregious monument of the four was a stone obelisk commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place. This “battle” -- or, more accurately, insurrection and coup -- was a climactic moment in Louisiana’s Reconstruction era, a decade defined by near-constant racist terrorism throughout the state. And in New Orleans, subduing this white violence and maintaining order in the city often fell to a short-lived but pioneering force: the integrated Metropolitan Police.
Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans served as the largest market in America for the buying and selling of enslaved human lives. At the same time, the city was home to one of the nation’s largest populations of Free People of Color (FPC), or gens du coleur libre. Antebellum race relations were perhaps more fluid in New Orleans than elsewhere, based as they were upon a complex caste-like system integrating enslaved/free status, skin color, parentage, and national origin. But ultimately this system shared the same foundation as Southern society at large: white supremacy, upheld by the enslavement of black human beings.
The Reconstruction period following the war was marked by an ongoing struggle for the soul of the South: equitable progress, or Lost Cause regress? Black citizens, ready to claim their finally-recognized rights, sought to pursue economic opportunities, vote, and seek representation in government. Many whites did everything in their power to prevent these rights from being realized, often through voter suppression, riots, and violence. But despite their best efforts, Republican Henry Clay Warmoth was elected Governor of Louisiana in 1868, with Oscar J. Dunn, a Black man, as Lieutenant Governor. Racist whites were furious. And Warmoth, having witnessed firsthand the violence of the last several years and eager to pursue peace, began his term by creating the Metropolitan Police, a new force tasked with maintaining safety in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes.
The Metropolitan Police was unlike any police force that had existed in the state until that time. Integrated and diverse, the force was 65% Black at its outset. Many of these Black officers were light-skinned, and had been free before the war; some were former Union soldiers. A small percentage were formerly enslaved. These Black men carried rifles or revolvers, wore uniforms, and acted with the full authority of police officers, arresting whites when necessary. In addition to serving as ordinary beat cops, Black men also held many important leadership positions on the force, both as Precinct Commanders and on the Board of Metropolitan Police Commissioners. Octave Rey, who served as Captain commanding the Fourth Precinct, was a respected member of the Black community, an affluent property owner, and a Union veteran, who a friend described as “dynamic, energetic, and powerful.”
Police operations were also broadened to include public health and social services. A special unit was devoted to safety and sanitary operations, sending officers to inspect properties, investigate safety complaints, and remove 32,850 loads of “night soil” (sewage) from the city. Given that New Orleans had no real sanitation system prior to the war, this unit was both innovative and highly necessary. Police also worked with the Board of Health to fight disease, engaging in public health programs against epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever, transporting victims to hospital when necessary, and disinfecting homes and streets. In a surprisingly progressive stance, the Metropolitan Police Superintendents even proposed the decriminalization and regulation of sex work, recognizing women’s rights to bodily autonomy and safety.
The Metropolitan Police were also involved in publicly administered relief for the poor, another service that was essentially nonexistent at the time. Police sheltered homeless people at Precinct stations and provided hot meals to those in need, housing an average of 15,000 people per year between 1868 and 1874. Arrests for “vagrancy” -- the thinly-veiled criminalization of unemployment and poverty, disproportionately targeting Black people -- were significantly reduced in the years of the Metropolitan police, constituting only 4.8% of total arrests (down from 17.8% in the ‘50’s).
Unsurprisingly, this pioneering and diverse police force met severe resistance from much of the white public. A New Orleans Times editorial in 1873 decried “the law which foists upon us men who are by the terms of their creation placed in false relations with the community they are ostensibly intended to serve,” and white people often harassed Black officers in the street. Many jurisdictions refused to pay their taxes to support the police, which led to lengthy court battles and left police commissioners often unable to pay officers’ salaries.
But these legal and financial troubles paled in comparison to the most effective form of getting their way ever developed by white people: outright violence. In 1869, when the Metropolitan Police force was installed in service of Jefferson City (now the Carrollton area), the Mayor and the standing Police Chief refused to allow the Metropolitans to perform their duties, arresting them for carrying weapons. The conflict later escalated into a shootout, in which the Jefferson City force fired on the Metropolitan officers, killing one and wounding at least 11. Often called upon to respond to political riots, organized violence by white supremacists, and a well-armed general public, the lives of Metropolitan officers were constantly in danger. By 1870, the resistance -- and threat of bodily harm -- to Black officers on the force became so great that Superintendent Wilson suspended all Black policemen. Many were later hired back, though their percentage on the force was never again as high. In the 1870’s, the force was 28.6% Black, half the prior number but still roughly equivalent to the Black percentage of the city’s population.
As the Metropolitan police sought to keep the peace, anti-integration forces grew more and more radicalized. White supremacist organizations such as the Knights of the White Camellia, the White League, and the K.K.K. bloomed around the state, their secretive fraternal mumbo jumbo gradually giving way to repeated acts of overt terrorism. In many communities throughout Louisiana, Black people were beaten, terrorized, and lynched on a regular basis by these racist crusaders, often in attempts to suppress votes or install sham governments. Twice in 1873, supporters of anti-Black political factions staged assaults and captured government buildings in New Orleans, overwhelming the defenses of the Metropolitan Police who tried to prevent the takeovers. Both instances were ultimately resolved by U.S. Army troops, who intervened and allowed the insurrectionists to peacefully surrender. By this time, the Metropolitan Police were essentially being used as a militia to defend the state’s rightful government from conservative antagonists. Later in 1873, they were deployed to Colfax, a town 200 miles from New Orleans, where over 100 Black freedmen had been murdered by a white supremacist paramilitary group after a contested election. The Metropolitans were responsible for cleaning up the mess.
The culmination of the force’s efforts to defend its citizens against repeated violence and election-tampering by white supremacists came on September 14th, 1874. Widely known as the Battle of Liberty Place, the events of this day are more accurately described as an insurrection to overthrow the Louisiana state government. Under the command of Frederick Nash Ogden, thousands of White Leaguers formed a militia, seized and barricaded a position on Poydras Street, and pushed into the French Quarter to seize the Cabildo armory and the Statehouse, Louisiana’s seat of government at the time. Defending the city were between 500-600 Metropolitan Police and a force of Black state militiamen. Despite their best efforts, they were outnumbered and unable to defend their position; 11 were killed, and 60 were wounded. The White Leaguers occupied the Statehouse, installed their own government, and appointed their own police force.
The next day, the insurgents were ordered by President Grant to lay down their arms. They were escorted out of the Statehouse after making “speeches of objection,” and none were arrested.
This failed yet devastating putsch marked the beginning of the end for the Metropolitan Police. Disputed elections continued for the next several years; in 1877, Democrats and Republicans both claimed gubernatorial victory and established rival state governments, and lame duck President Grant declined to intervene. Bolstered by white supremacy across the state, the Democrats succeeded in seizing power. The new governor dismantled the Metropolitan Police, and the last U.S. troops left New Orleans. Louisiana’s Reconstruction struggle for integration and fair representation was snuffed out, and the era of Jim Crow began.
Two decades later, the City of New Orleans -- by then firmly under the control of the Democrats -- erected a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, commemorating not the public servants who lost their lives defending their city, but the terrorists who murdered police officers and wrested control from a democratically-elected government in a bloody coup.
The past has a habit of coming full circle in moments of great national reckoning. As we have seen with far too much clarity in recent days, our democracy is still under fire by those who refuse to accept the outcomes of fair elections, and acts of violent insurrection are not the antiquated stuff of history books. All too often we see horrific patterns of the past repeated, and for every person who thought such awful things “could never happen” in the modern age, there’s someone else with enough lived experience to say, “of course it could, and we told you so.”
But if we look closely enough, we may find that the past can offer more than just confirmation of the evils we see in our society today. It may also provide hidden nuggets of inspiration, of moments or chapters when things that aren’t working today actually succeeded in some small way. Like every institution in American society, policing is plagued by racist policies and practices. Deep transformation is required, and the challenges we face in accomplishing this transformation sometimes seem impossible to overcome.
But perhaps in these moments, these horrible and exhausting moments when the burden of white supremacy simply feels insurmountable, when we feel that police can never be what we want them to be -- perhaps in these moments we might think of Octave Rey, the Black Police Captain who fought for Black lives in the Civil War, fed and sheltered the homeless, defended his government against a coup, and commanded the respect of countless white and Black police officers almost 100 years before the Civil Rights Act -- and reflect on what, if anything, felt insurmountable to him.
Ball, E. (2020). Life of a Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Nystrom, J. (2020, November 14). Reconstruction. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://64parishes.org/entry/reconstruction
Rousey, D. C. (1996). Policing the southern city: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.