The Thibodaux massacre was a racial attack mounted by white paramilitary groups in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887. It followed a three-week strike during the critical harvest season by an estimated 10,000 workers against sugar cane plantations in four parishes: Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, and Assumption.
The strike was the largest in the industry and the first conducted by a formal labor organization, the Knights of Labor. At planters' requests, the state sent in militia to protect strikebreakers, and work resumed on some plantations. Black workers and their families were evicted from plantations in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and retreated to Thibodaux.
Tensions broke out in violence on November 23, 1887, and the local white paramilitary forces attacked black workers and their families in Thibodaux. Although the total number of casualties is unknown, at least 35 black people were killed in the next three days (more historians believe 50 were killed) and as many as 300 overall killed, wounded or missing, making it one of the most violent labor disputes in U.S. history. Victims reportedly included elders, women and children. All those killed were African American.
The massacre, and passage by white Democrats of discriminatory state legislation, including disenfranchisement of most blacks, ended the organizing of sugar workers for decades, until the 1940s. According to Eric Arnesen, "The defeated sugar workers returned to the plantations on their employers' terms."
The sugar cane harvest and processing was a complex series of events that had to be closely coordinated among a large labor force pushed to work to physical extremes. Sugar plantations were described as "factories in the field" and had a high death rate during slavery times. Conditions were little improved after Reconstruction.
A major issue arose in the early 1880s when plantation owners began cutting wages and forcing sugar workers to accept scrip for pay due to a declining international sugar market. These "pasteboard tickets" were redeemable only at company stores, which operated at high profit margins. As the plantation kept the books, often illiterate workers were increasingly bound by debt and unable to get free. Required by law to pay off the debt, workers became essentially bound to the plantation in a state similar to slavery. Most of the cane workers were black, but there were also whites. The Knights of Labor used the scrip issue to organize workers, and thousands joined the group.
In October 1877, Duncan F. Kenner, a millionaire planter, founded the statewide Louisiana Sugar Producer's Association (LSPA), consisting of 200 of the largest planters in the state, and served as president. The powerful LPSA lobbied the federal government for sugar tariffs, funding to support levees to protect their lands, and research to increase crop yields. For the next decade these members also worked to gain control over their labor: they adopted a uniform pay scale and withheld 80 percent of the wages until the end of the harvest season, in order to keep workers on the plantations through the end of the season. They ended the "job" system. The largest planters, who maintained stores, required workers to accept pay in scrip, redeemable only at their stores.:190
The workers resisted, mounting some actions each year contesting some part of the LPSA's program. The state government supported the powerful planters, sending in state militia when the planters used convict lease labor from prisons to harvest and process the cane.:190
In 1887 the Knights of Labor organized a major three-week sugar strike against cane plantations in Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, and Assumption parishes. Most plantations were idle. The strike was organized by the national Knights of Labor organization, who had established Local Assembly 8404 in Schriever the preceding year.
In October labor representatives delivered demands to the LPSA that included an increase in wages to $1.25 a day, biweekly payments, and payment in currency instead of the "pasteboard tickets", or scrip, redeemable only at company stores.
As the LPSA ignored the demands, the Knights of Labor called the strike for November 1, timed to coincide with the critical "rolling period" of the crop, when it had to be harvested and processed. The work stoppage threatened the entire sugar cane harvest for the year. The 1887 strike was the largest labor action in the industry, involving an estimated 10,000 workers, a tenth of whom were white. It was the first time a formal labor organization had led a strike in this region.
The planters appealed to Louisiana Governor Samuel Douglas McEnery, who was also a planter. McEnery, declaring, "God Almighty has himself drawn the color line," called out ten infantry companies and an artillery company of the state militia,:190 sending the latter to Thibodaux, the parish seat and "heart of the strike." They were to protect strikebreakers and suppress strikers; they evicted workers from plantation housing. The militia suppressed strikers in St. Mary Parish, resulting in "as many as twenty people" killed or wounded on November 5 in the black village of Pattersonville.:191
The militia protected some 800 contract workers brought in to Terrebone Parish, and helped capture and arrest 50 strikers, most for union activities. The strike collapsed there, and workers returned to the plantations.:191
Many of the black workers in Lafourche Parish retreated after eviction to the crowded African-American section of Thibodaux, and the state militia withdrew. They left it up to local officials to manage from there.
Events in Thibodaux
Parish District Judge Taylor Beattie, who owned Orange Grove Plantation and was a member of the LPSA, announced formation of a "Peace and Order Committee" in Thibodaux. He declared martial law, and recruited 300 white men for his committee to serve as a paramilitary group.:191 He ordered blacks within the city limits to show a pass to enter or leave. Like many top-ranking white state officials, Beattie was an ex-Confederate and former slaveholder. He was a former member of the Knights of the White Camelia, a paramilitary group that had worked to suppress black Republican voting during Reconstruction.
Beattie ordered the paramilitary to close the entrances to the city on the morning of November 22 and stand guard. The strikers resisted being boxed in and fired on two of the pickets, injuring both. The committee and other white vigilantes immediately started to round up and kill black workers and their families, starting three days of violence against mostly unarmed blacks. They targeted known and suspected Knights of Labor organizers. The blacks were murdered in town and where they tried to hide in the surroundings woods and swamps. Bodies were sometimes left in shallow graves or the swamps.
On Monday two blacks were shot - a man named Watson died, and a second man Morris Page was painfully wounded After two white men were injured, a volunteer company went out to the black settlement and claimed to have been fired upon. They captured several shotguns, while fatally shooting six blacks and wounding four others. On November 26, 1887 the bodies of three blacks were found in a thicket on the Allen Rienzi plantation. It was s believed they had been wounded on Wednesday and had taken refugee where they were later found dead.
A black newspaper described the scene:
'Six killed and five wounded' is what the daily papers here say, but from an eye witness to the whole transaction we learn that no less than thirty-five "...fully thirty negroes have sacrificed their lives in the riot on Wednesday..." Negroes were killed outright. Lame men and blind women shot; children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negroes offered no resistance; they could not, as the killing was unexpected. Those of them not killed took to the woods, a majority of them finding refuge in this city.
This account is the source for the casualty figure of 35. According to historian Rebecca Jarvis Scott, "No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made; bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come." Eric Arnesen wrote that local white residents privately admitted more than 50 workers were murdered in Thibodaux, but the total was uncertain. Along the Bayou Lafourche, black oral history has told of hundreds of casualties, including wounded and missing.
James Keith Hogue attributes 50 deaths to the three-day attacks by the paramilitary, saying that in addition, numerous Knights of Labor organizers disappeared over the next year. He likened these actions to the violence and intimidation by the White League in Louisiana in the 1870s, when they suppressed black voting.
After the massacre, labor organizing among sugar workers essentially was suspended; plantation workers returned to work under the owners' terms. White Democrats, who dominated the state legislature, soon passed laws for disenfranchisement of blacks, racial segregation and other Jim Crow rules. There was no more effort to organize sugar workers until the 1940s. It was then initiated in the context of increased civil rights activism after World War II.
In that same period, beginning during the war, many Louisiana blacks joined the Great Migration to the North and West Coast to escape the continuing violence and racial oppression. It was not until the mid-1960s that the civil rights movement achieved the passage of Congressional legislation to enforce civil and voting rights for African Americans and other minorities in the United States.
In May 2017 descendants of the African American workers and Louisiana Plantation owners honored those killed The Louisiana 1887 Memorial Committee (www.la1887.com) in partnership with the University of Louisiana Lafayette Public Archeology Lab, is attempting to verify a mass gravesite on private property, with plans for examination and proper burial in volunteered churchyards of any victims found. In May 2017 the Thibodaux City Council officially condemned the violence and acknowledged that the event occurred. The Lafourche Parish Council did likewise in November 2017.
Representation in other media
"The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike" a book released in Nov. 2016 by The History Press written by John DeSantis, provides eyewitness accounts obtained from documents in the U.S. National Archives and names eight of the victims. It also provides a detailed history of a U.S. Civil War veteran who was wounded during the incident and whose records provide new information and insight.
- The film The Man Who Came Back (2008), directed by Glenn Pitre, presents a very loose adaptation of the above historic events, putting a Western genre plot on top of the sugar strike and massacre. The film was never released in theaters but played at the New Orleans Film Festival.
- A song The Ballad of Jack Conrad by John DeSantis, viewable on YouTube, tells the story of the massacre through the eyes of a man who was wounded during the event.
- The Weekly Thibodaux Sentinel and Journal of the 8th Senatorial District. volume, November 26, 1887, English, Image 1
- Bell, Ellen Baker, "Thibodaux Massacre (1887)", KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, 15 September 2011, accessdate 23 April 2017
- John C. Rodrigue, "Thibodaux Massacre", in Eric Arnesen, editor, Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1, 2007, p. 826
- Rebecca Jarvis Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery, p. 85
- Eric Arnesen, Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1, p. 825
- Hogue, James Keith (2006). Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of ...
- Joe Gray Taylor, Louisiana, a Bicentennial History, American Association for State and Local History, 1976, p. 135
- The Opelousas courier., November 26, 1887, Supplement, Image 8
- The Weekly Pelican, 26 November1887
- Howard Zinn, 2004; , retrieved March 27, 2009.
- Hogue (2006), Uncivil War, p. 192
- Japan Times May 12,2017
- Rodrigue, John. Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1862–1880. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
- DeSantis, John. "Tracing an Atrocity: How an Obscure Affidavit in the National Archives Unraveled a Historical Mystery". Prologue Magazine, summer 2017, volume 49, number 2.
- Smithsonian Magazine. 2017. "The Thibodaux Massacre Left 60 African-Americans Dead and Spelled the End of Unionized Farm Labor in the South for Decades."
- IMDb.com, Inc. (2010). "The Man Who Came Back (2008) - Full cast and crew". Retrieved 2010-07-03.