Heart of Louisiana: Alexandria’s Lee St. riot

Heart of Louisiana: Alexandria’s Lee St. riot
At a time when close to a half million troopers were training for World War II, a Louisiana town was ground zero for a riot, or massacre, that highlights the racial tensions of the 1940s. (Source: WVUE)

ALEXANDRIA, La. (WVUE) - At a time when close to a half million troopers were training for World War II, a Louisiana town was ground zero for a riot, or massacre, that highlights the racial tensions of the 1940s.

Some historians believe there was a cover-up by the United States military and researchers are hunting for a possible mass grave.

Historians are searching for a long-buried secret. The possibility that black soldiers training for World War II in Louisiana were victims of a racially motivated massacre by police and the military.

“What happened that night? Where are they buried?” asks Michael Wynne.

Wynne is an amateur historian and retired law enforcement officer in Alexandria has been pushing to find those answers.

Lee Street was the center of Alexandria’s black community in 1942. And the empty lot was the site of the Ritz Theater. This is where the violence began.

“Something happened. The police and the military as well as the military police cornered off an eight block area for hours,” says Wynne.

The central part of the state was the site of Louisiana maneuvers, the largest ever training exercise for the U.S. military. Nearly half a million men were stationed at camps near Alexandria. It is believed many of the black soldiers targeted in the Lee St. violence were stationed at Camp Claiborne. Those black soldiers mostly came from northern states.

“Where they had never lived in segregation or the social etiquette that went along with how to negotiate interactions with whites. So that was completely alien to them. So, it led to conflicts anywhere they were positioned in the South,” says Dr. Doug Bristol.

Dr. Bristol is a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and says it appears the violence started when a black soldier stepped in front of a car driven by a white woman.

“So she called the local police officer over who of course immediately started to arrest him and other soldiers that had come out with him that night, came around and this became a police riot because one among the things they reported where police were doing things like just shooting into black barbershops. So it just became this rampage through the Lee St. area,” says Dr. Bristol.

“I didn’t set into this to make the army look bad,” says Dr. Bill Simpson. “I simply wanted to find the truth.”

Dr. Simpson is a retired professor from Pineville who began researching the incident 25 years ago.

He collected oral histories of people who dispute the military’s account that only three soldiers were seriously injured.

“The most plausible would be maybe 20 to 30 soldiers would be killed that could conceivably, I thought, be concealed,” says Dr. Simpson.

“They used to go to the movies, go to dinner with the soldiers that came into town,” says Linda Rhodes.

Rhodes remembers stories from her grandmother about Saturday nights on Lee St. in Alexandria.

“After that incident that had happened on Lee St. they didn’t see any of their soldier friends anymore,” says Rhodes.

“We’re looking at these signals here,” says Dr. David Holt. “The up and the over with. Long trails coming down.”

If a dozen more black soldiers were massacred, it’s unknown where they are buried. It’s rumored they could be in Pineville’s Holly Oak Cemetery.

“We’re definitely finding some evidence of lots of unmarked graves here,” says Dr. Holt.

Small flags mark some of those spots.

“But as far as a mass grave, at this point, I haven’t seen compelling evidence,” says Dr. Holt.

“There probably are relatives still around of the men who were killed. It was an ugly time. It was an ugly scene. It did happen. I think that would bring a degree of closure,” says Dr. Simpson.

The truth remains elusive and the search will go on to find out if black soldiers training to fight America’s enemies overseas also faced a deadly threat at home.

The City of Alexandria will be placing a historic marker along Lee St. at the site of the 1941 violence.

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