Ryan Franklin, one of my colleagues, teaches a Graphic History course every year. For the class, Franklin chooses various graphic novels and memoirs that focus on historical events and individuals to teach students about historiography and research. One of the books he uses is Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman’s Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War (2015). When I saw this book on his desk, I flipped through it and knew I wanted to read it, so I asked him if I could borrow it. Each chapter in Battle Lines focuses on a object and uses that object to tell the story of the Civil War.
As I flipped through the book, Fetter-From’s layouts for “Chapter 8: A Photograph” immediately caught my attention. The chapter follows a photographer staging pictures on the battlefield, and each page, apart from a two- page spread, has nine panels in three panel rows and three panel columns. One page depicts rocks a wall where the photographer wants to place a body to stage the photograph. The image is dissected into nine panels, and in the middle panel we see the photographer’s hands framing what he will see when he looks through the camera. Fetter-From’s layout acts as a camera here, and we focus on the middle panel, framing the picture ourselves. In other chapters, Fetter-From follows the flight of a mosquito carrying malaria, the lives of three individuals intersecting, opera glasses, and more. Today, though, I want to focus on “Chapter 14: Nooses” where Fetter-From depicts a rope being formed and tied into a noose across a ten page chapter.
Over the span of ten pages, “Nooses” moves from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 to the Colfax Massacre in 1873, an eight year span. The chapter begins, as each chapter does, with a newspaper headline and an article. What stands out, for me, in “Nooses” is that the newspaper is the Shreveport Mercury, a paper from my hometown and a paper from the last capital of the Confederacy. The article focuses on the end of the war, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, plans for reconciliation, and the birth of the Lost Cause myth. This paper is important here because Colfax is a few hours South of Shreveport and during the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, this area, the Red River Valley and North Louisiana, saw some of the most lynchings and incidents of racial violence in the United States. I’ve written about the Bossier Massacre, one incident that occurred in 1868 that left around 160 African American men, women, and children dead.
On the first page of “Nooses,” following the newspaper, we see four panels showing the killing of John Wilkes Booth, a portrait of Booth, a crowd wathcing an execution, and a large panel showing officials getting one of the conspirators ready for execution by hanging. We see the noose in the final panel as a man places a hood over the conspirator’s head. Behind these panels we see fibers flowing, as if in the wind, loose and unorganized. We can tell they flow from the right side of the page, and when we turn the page, we see the fibers joining together, running the across the middle of the two pages, forming into a strand that will become, on the subsequent pages, part of a rope.
With the strand forming over the two pages, we see Lincoln’s funeral and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Advances begin here; however, the lone strand, on the next two pages, joins with multiple other strands, tightening together to form a stronger rope strand. These two pages begin with some progress, notably the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but we also see the white pushback through the institution of sharecropping, another form of slavery, and the coming together or wealthy whites to form paramilitary organizations to terrorize and suffocate any progress.
We see larger strands of rope braided together on pages six and seven, reinforcing its strength in preparation for the formation of the noose. Here, Kellman and Fetter-Vorm detail the rise of the Klan, a fascist organization that “functioned as the military wing of the Democratic Party in the South.” They highlight the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, showing whites intimidating voters at a polling place. Following Ulysses S. Grant’s crackdown on the Klan, Kellman and Fetter-Vorm point out that white supremacy didn’t need the shadows, men rode around in their Confederate grays enacting racial violence in broad daylight. At this point in the chapter, we see the rope tightening, becoming increasingly stronger.
The rope appears on two more pages, a four panel spread where we see the taught rope on the left and on the right we see, in the final panel, a white man fashioning the end of the rope into a noose. These four panels detail the Colfax Massacre where white supremacists murdered between 60 and 150 hundred or more African Americans. Eric Foner calls Colfax “The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority.” While we do not know if definitively if 160 individuals were murdered in the Bossier Massacre, that would make it the bloodiest. That massacre took place over the 1868 election and the ratification of the progressive 1868 Louisiana constitution. This is not the point of the post because any violence is atrocious, but I point this out to show the proliferation of racial violence and how much we don’t know for certain.
“Nooses” ends with a full-page panel where we see the trunk of a tree and the feet of four African American individuals, their feet tied with ropes, hanging from the branches. The narration details how many people the whites murdered, and the final narration states, “None of the whites were punished.” A historical marker stood in Colfax till last year, and it privileged the three white men who died during the massacre, concluding with the phrase that the “riot” “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” Another monument in the town cemetery, dedicated to the three white men, reads that the men died “fighting for white supremacy.” That obelisk was erected in 1921.
“Nooses” highlights the importance of knowing about massacres such as Colfax. Through the rope and he noose, it details the tightening of white supremacy following the Civil War and the racial terror of Reconstruction and the years following. The movement from loose fibers to a tightly braided rope to the formation of the noose itself traces the ways that white supremacy retrenched itself, tightening the rope in different ways since the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted.”
There is a lot more to say, notably that the push to have the Colfax marker removed started in 1989 with a journalist who was incarcerated in Angola writing for The Angolite, the prison’s newspaper. There is more to say about the marker itself and the racial terror in Louisiana and beyond. I don’t have space for that here, but read the links above for more. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.