By Kyle Whitmire, The Associated Press

Eufaula, Ala., is a city that markets its history to tourists, and is a town replete with historical markers and monuments. But perhaps the most historically significant thing that happened there has no such memorial and has been largely for- gotten by those who live there. (Kyle Whitmire |

Yes, there is history in Eufaula. But there’s something missing.

The most significant memorial in Eufaula is the one that isn’t here. Just a little further down Eufaula Avenue — past that Confederate monument and around the corner from the fish — is the site of a tragedy.

While the White League shared many of the same goals as the Ku Klux Klan, the group operated openly. It had organized militias for driving Republicans and unionist forces out of the South. 1874 illustration from Harper’s Weekly. (Wikimedia Commons)

Where today the air reeks with car exhaust, there was gunsmoke.

Where traffic creeps between stoplights, bodies lined the street.

In the median of that busy road was once a massacre.

Here is where Alabama took a bloody turn, something so shock- ing at the time that it led to two Congressional investigations. It might be the most consequential thing that ever happened in this town.

But you won’t find mention of it — not here, not now.

Step into my time machine. There’s something important I want to show you.

An ambush in 1874

Henry Frazer was a Black Republican when that wasn’t an unusual thing in Alabama. That day he told the men not to bring weapons, he would later tell investigators in one of two Congressional inquiries into what happened that day in Eufaula.

The year was 1874, and Alabama was nearing the abrupt end of Re-construction. Frazer, who was also a Methodist minister, had spent two weeks canvassing support among the sharecroppers around Eufaula, back when cotton farmers still loaded their crops onto boats. The Monday before Election Day, he led about 400 Black men toward town to vote. They camped by the roadside outside of town, and set off on foot at eight o’clock the next morning, marching to drums and fifes.

The only marker memorializing the 1874 murders is in Comer, Ala. near where Willie Keils, son of Elias Keils, died protecting ballots from a mob. The marker doesn’t mention the seven to 10 killed in Eufaula and it calls the elder Keils a “scalawag.” (Kyle Whitmire |

“I told them that although they might carry sticks, they should not carry any other weapons,” Frazer told investigators “I instructed them to stand in a body until they got a chance to vote.”

When they arrived in Eufaula, they met another group of Black men coming into town from the other direction. A policeman searched them and as the men began to vote, a man named Harrison Hart rode up on a horse. He asked what time it was.

“Somebody made answer to him that it was nearly twelve o’clock, and he said, ‘In about an hour’s time, we will have a frolic,’” Frazer testified.

Hart wasn’t the only one anticipating a frolic.

The city judge and election supervisor, Elias Keils, had warned federal authorities that trouble was imminent. The night before the election, Keils met the

Black voters in rallies outside of town and implored them to endure any insults they would hear and to not return any curses. They were to vote and get out as swiftly as possible.

If they did, Keils said, they would be protected. It was a promise he never should have made.

Nine years into Reconstruction, there were signs already that federal forces had grown weary of their mission reconfiguring social order in the South. At least twice ahead of that election, Keils wrote the U.S. Marshal in Montgomery to ask for support.

“Every day the most vicious of the ‘White League’ are carrying into various portions of this county newbreech-loading double- barrelled shot-guns with fixed ammunition, plenty of which has lately been shipped here,” Keils wrote a month before the election. “We all know what this means, particularly when the most infamous threats are daily made by those of the ‘White League’ who control it.”

The White League had recently taken root in Louisiana and Mississippi, and its influence was spreading across the South. While it shared many of the same goals as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League operated openly. It had organized militias for driving Republicans and unionist forces out of the South. After the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, the League occupied that city for three days. And it had plans for the 1874 midterm elections.

Keils had been a secessionist before the Civil War but since the war ended he had switched to the Re- publican Party. He’d fallen out of favor among Eufaula whites, both for his new political allegiance and for the mercy he showed to Black defendants in his court. His opponent in the 1874 election wrote a song about him, which I won’t quote because it uses the n-word a lot, but it makes clear why Keils had fallen out of favor: He protected Black voters, he let one Black defendant work as a doorman in his court, and, the thing they couldn’t forgive, he let Black people serve on juries in judgment of white defendants.

He was, to use the epi- thet of the time, a scalawag. James Williford knew what that was like. A deputy U.S. Marshal — Williford had grown up across the river in Georgia. But since he’d joined the Marshals service, he’d become an outsider.

“If a man does anything for the United States Government he is looked upon with about as favorable eyes as Gabriel looked upon the devil in Paradise,” Williford testified later.


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