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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,654

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This is the grave of Francis Nicholls.

Born in 1834 in Donaldsville, Louisiana, Nicholls grew up in a wealthy Louisiana slaveholding family, part of the plantation class that had transformed that state since the American occupation of it in 1803. Nicholls’ family was not part of the Creole or New Orleans elite and were much more closely connected to the rest of the white South’s ideas of violence and domination over the land and people who worked it, though I certainly don’t mean to downplay the other forms of violence and domination from older Louisiana. In any case, Nicholls, like many of his ilk, was brought up that war was the best thing and that a man needed to be a man and stand up to anyone who challenged him, especially wussy northern reformer types who thought the slaves were people or something. So Nicholls went to military academies and then to West Point, which is where many of the best southern boys went, as opposed to the best northern boys, who often went into business or education.

Nicholls graduated in 1855 and was sent to Florida to fight in the Third Seminole War. But he didn’t care for it much and decided to resign his commission and return to Louisiana in 1856. I guess you could leave early in those days. He decided on the law instead and went to Tulane for awhile and then passed the bar and started a practice in Napoleonville.

Then the South committed treason in defense of slavery and Nicholls was all in on that. He joined almost immediately and was named a captain of the 8th Louisiana Infantry. He was shot in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. Unfortunately, he survived, but at least he lost an arm for his treason. But that arm didn’t stop his rise and he became a brigadier general. Then, at Chancellorsville, a shell landed near him and ripped off his foot. So our friend here was now down two limbs, but remained alive. However, after the foot, he had to leave the treason army. To an extent, he later regretted having been in the Confederacy, stating “My war record is a source of private misfortune without a corresponding gain to anyone. My services to my country were not worth the price to me. Every battle I went into I was wounded, and so I could not serve all the time.” This feels more a projection of his personal pain (which I am sure was real, having read plenty about the state of post-war amputees) than a rejection of the cause.

And if there’s one thing Nicholls was committed to, it was the cause of white supremacy backed with violence. Maybe he saw that treason wasn’t the way to do that, but working within the United States for violent white supremacy? Well, that’s just great! In 1876, Nicholls ran for governor as a Democrat, of course. This was the disputed election that threatened to pull the nation back into civil war. Louisiana was one of those contested states. The reason is that Black people could still mostly vote. Most of the South had already gone back over to white control, or “redemption” as the racists put it. That was through outright violence, which the vastly overrated Grant administration had completely given up on trying to stop. Desperate to hold onto power at the federal level, Republicans got the presidency for Rutherford Hayes (what a guy to go to the mat for!). In exchange, not only did Republicans pull the military out of the South, giving the region a free hand to engage in the white supremacy that most Republicans mostly believed in anyway by 1877, but it also recognized Democrats in the disputed local elections. And thus, Nicholls became governor of Louisiana.

Nicholls would serve two terms, the first from 1877-80 and the second from 1888-92 (evidently the state had change the length of its terms in there). Perhaps what Nicholls’ administration became most known for was its unbelievable levels of corruption. I know it’s shocking to talk about corruption and Louisiana politics, so I hope you all are seated right now. Now, Nicholls was himself not personally corrupt. He was not stealing. But most of his appointees were. there was the infamous Louisiana Lottery, another scheme brought straight from the North after the war, where the New Yorkers involved just stole the money and bribed the legislature to let it happen. This would continue until the early twentieth century. Then there was the convict labor system. It took about 5 minutes after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment for southern states to realize that they could still enslave lots and lots of Black people and even some whites. All they had to do was convict them of a crime, then sell them to a private operator instead of spending the money to incarcerate them. So that’s what happened and what happened to the money? It mostly disappeared into the pockets of those involved.

In his second term, there was a race riot in New Orleans against the Italians. New Orleans was the only city in the South to receive any major immigration. Why would immigrants come to the South to compete against Black people? But New Orleans was always different than the rest of the South. And were Italians even white? I mean, c’mon now, just look at them. So in 1891, there was a race riot that lynched 11 Italians. The Italian Consulate asked for help from Nicholls in protecting their people. He absolutely refused to do anything. Nice guy.

In 1892, Nicholls got appointed to the Louisiana Supreme Court as Chief Justice. He stayed in that position until 1911, when he just got too old to do it anymore. When Nicholls became chief justice, there was a little case coming before the court called Plessy v. Ferguson. So of course he ruled in favor of New Orleans and its segregation ordinances, kicking this onto the Supreme Court where a bunch of Republican-appointed justices, many of which had fought for the Union in the Civil War, were more than happy to agree with Nicholls. So I guess we should probably consider whether Nicholls State University in Louisiana should be named after this guy.

Otherwise, he ran his plantation empire, mostly sugar, using that cheap Black labor that maybe wasn’t quite as cheap as it used to be under slavery, but close enough.

Nichols died in 1912, at the age of 77.

Francis Nicholls is buried in Saint John’s Episcopal Cemetery, Thibodaux, Louisiana.

If you would like this series to visit other governors of the early Jim Crow era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Lowry is in Brandon, Mississippi and George Smith Houston is in Athens, Alabama. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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