In 1887, African-American cane workers in Louisiana attempted to organize—and many paid with their lives
On November 23, 1887, a mass shooting of African-American farm workers in Louisiana left some 60 dead. Bodies were dumped in unmarked graves while the white press cheered a victory against a fledgling black union. It was one of the bloodiest days in United States labor history, and while statues went up and public places were named for some of those involved, there is no marker of the Thibodaux Massacre.
Days after, a local planter widow Mary Pugh wrote, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule the nigger or the white man for the next fifty years.” It was a far-sighted comment— black farm workers in the South wouldn’t have the opportunity to unionize for generations.
Years after the Thirteenth Amendment brought freedom, cane cutters’ working lives were already “barely distinguishable” from slavery, argues journalist and author John DeSantis. (His book, The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike, is an excellent and compelling account of the massacre.) With no land to own or rent, workers and their families lived in old slave cabins. They toiled in gangs, just like their ancestors had for nearly a century. Growers gave workers meals but paid famine wages of as little as 42 cents a day (91 cents per hour in today’s money, for a 12-hour shift).
Instead of cash, workers got scrip that bought basics at high prices at plantation stores.
But they had advantages that their counterparts in cotton areas lacked. Planters needed their labor, and growers living on thin margins failed to attract migrant laborers to replace local workers, especially in the crucial rolling season when the sugarcane needed to be cut and pressed in short order.
In the sugar parishes arcing through the southern part of the state from Berwick Bay to the Mississippi River, African-American men voted. The Republican Party, which supported black civil rights, was stronger in sugar country than anywhere else in the state. By the late 1860s, African-Americans became legislators or sheriffs, and black volunteer militias drilled, despite living and working conditions still bearing the marks of slavery.
In 1874, nine years after slavery ended in the United States, cane cutters demanded a second emancipation. They wanted a living wage, or at least the chance to rent on shares. Planters wanted to cut wages after the lean harvest of 1873-74 coincided with an economic recession, and while Louisiana growers produced 95 percent of the nation’s domestic sugar and molasses, they were losing market share to cheaper foreign sugars.
Sensing they were in a strong bargaining position, workers banded together in several sugar parishes, including St. Mary, Iberia, Terrebonne, and Lafourche, demanding cash wages of $1.25 per day, or $1.00 if meals were included.
But the growers refused, upset that African-American workers were demanding an end to their paternalistic work regime. So African-American leaders like Hamp Keys, a former Terrebonne Parish legislator, called a strike.
Keys led a march from Houma to Southdown Plantation in Terrebonne, rallying workers with a fiery speech. The sight of black protesters riled growers, and acting with their interests in mind, the parish’s African-American sheriff formed a posse of whites to face down strikers. Surprised at the opposition, Keys’s marchers retreated.
In the state capital of New Orleans (relocated to Baton Rouge in 1882), Republican Governor William Pitt Kellogg also backed growers. But he was under siege from the Louisiana White League, a paramilitary white supremacist group formed in 1874 to intimidate Republicans and keep African-Americans from voting. Despite Kellogg’s being a pro-growth moderate who favored low taxes, White Leaguers tried to oust him in a violent coup. The Battle of Liberty Place, as it was called, pitted white militiamen against federal troops and metropolitan police. Governor Kellogg was temporarily forced out of New Orleans. He returned under guard but would be Louisiana’s last Republican governor for more than 100 years.
America was retreating from Republican-led Reconstruction and abandoning civil rights. African-Americans in sugar regions kept the right to vote, but their influence in state elections was waning. As W. E. B. Du Bois put it in Black Reconstruction in America, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again into slavery.”
Sugar workers attempted another strike in 1880, and both growers and workers resorted to sporadic violence. But time was on the growers’ side. African-Americans were being disarmed and thrown out of office, and some were leased out to hard labor for petty and trumped-up crimes. With few options available by 1887, Terrebonne sugar workers reached out to the Knights of Labor.
The Knights was the biggest and most powerful union in America. It began organizing African-American workers in 1883 in separate locals (a local is a bargaining unit of a broader union). Despite segregation, the Knights organized women and farm workers. And it made strides against Jim Crow. At the Knights’ 1886 national convention in Richmond, Virginia, leaders risked violence by insisting that a black delegate introduce Virginia’s segregationist governor.
Across the states of the former Confederacy, whites viewed organized labor as agitation that threatened the emerging Jim Crow order. Even in the North and Midwest, the Knights fought an uphill battle against authorities who sided with railroad and mine owners. Several states called out militias to break strikes during the late nineteenth century, but the Knights was at its peak of popularity in the 1880s.
In Louisiana, the Knights organized sugar workers into seven locals of 100 to 150 members each. Hamp Keys joined former black leaders like ex-sheriff William Kennedy. In August of 1887, the Knights met with the St. Mary branch of the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association asking for improved wages. And again the growers refused.
So the Knights raised the stakes in October of 1887 as the rolling season approached. Junius Bailey, a 29-year-old schoolteacher, served as local president in Terrebonne. His office sent a communique all over the region asking for $1.25 a day cash wages, and local workers’ committees followed up, going directly to growers with the same demand.
But instead of bargaining, growers fired union members. Planters like future Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglass White kicked workers off the land, ordering any who stayed arrested. Siding with growers, Democratic newspapers circulated false reports of black-on-white violence. “The most vicious and unruly set of negroes,” were at the Rienzi Plantation near Thibodaux, the New Orleans Daily Picayune reported. “The leader of them said to-day that no power on earth could remove them unless they were moved as corpses.”
As the cane ripened, growers called on the governor to use muscle against the strikers. And Samuel D. McEnery, Democratic governor and former planter, obliged, calling for the assistance of several all-white Louisiana militias under the command of ex-Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard. One group toted a .45 caliber Gatling gun--a hand-cranked machine gun--around two parishes before parking it in front of the Thibodaux courthouse. An army cannon was set up in front of the jail.
Then the killings started. In St. Mary, the Attakapas Rangers joined a sheriff’s posse facing down a group of black strikers. When one of the workers reached into a pocket, posse members opened fire on the crowd, “and four men were shot dead where they stood,” a newspaper reported. Terror broke the strike in St. Mary Parish.
In neighboring Terrebonne, some small growers came to the bargaining table, but larger planters hired strike-breakers from Vicksburg, Mississippi, 200 miles to the north, promising high wages and bringing them down on trains. The replacement workers were also African Americans, but they lacked experience in the canebrakes. As they arrived, militiamen evicted strikers.
And Thibodaux, in Lafourche Parish, was becoming a refuge for displaced workers. Some moved into vacant houses in town, while others camped along bayous and roadsides. Reports circulated of African-American women gossiping about a planned riot. Violence broke out in nearby Lockport on Bayou Lafourche when Moses Pugh, a black worker, shot and wounded Richard Foret, a planter, in self-defense. A militia unit arrived and mounted a bayonet charge on gathered workers, firing a volley in the air.
But the strike was gaining national attention. “Do the workingmen of the country understand the significance of this movement?” asked Washington D.C.’s National Republican, pointing out that sugar workers were “forced to work at starvation wages, in the richest spot under the American flag.” If forced back to the fields at gun point, no wage worker was safe from employer intimidation.
In Thibodaux, Lafourche Parish District Judge Taylor Beattie declared martial law. Despite being a Republican, Beattie was an ex-Confederate and White League member. He authorized local white vigilantes to barricade the town, identifying strikers and demanding passes from any African-American coming or going. And before dawn on Wednesday, the 23rd of November, pistol shots coming from a cornfield injured two white guards.
The response was a massacre. “There were several companies of white men and they went around night and day shooting colored men who took part in the strike,” said Reverend T. Jefferson Rhodes of the Moses Baptist Church in Thibodaux. Going from house to house, gunmen ordered Jack Conrad (a Union Civil War Veteran), his son Grant, and his brother-in-law Marcelin out of their house. Marcelin protested he was not a striker but was shot and killed anyway. As recounted in John DeSantis' book, Clarisse Conrad watched as her brother Grant “got behind a barrel and the white men got behind the house and shot him dead.” Jack Conrad was shot several times in the arms and chest. He lived and later identified one of the attackers as his employer.
One strike leader found in an attic was taken to the town common, told to run, and shot to pieces by a firing squad. An eyewitness told a newspaper that “no less than thirty-five negroes were killed outright,” including old and young, men and women. “The negroes offered no resistance; they could not, as the killing was unexpected.” Survivors took to the woods and swamps. Killings continued on plantations, and bodies were dumped in a site that became a landfill.
Workers returned to the fields on growers’ terms while whites cheered a Jim Crow victory. The Daily Picayune blamed black unionizers for the violence, saying that they provoked white citizens, suggesting the strikers “would burn the town and end the lives of the white women and children with their cane knives.” Flipping the narrative, the paper argued, “It was no longer a question of against labor, but one of law-abiding citizens against assassins.”
The union died with the strikers, and the assassins went unpunished. There was no federal inquiry, and even the coroner’s inquest refused to point a finger at the murderers. Sugar planter Andrew Price was among the attackers that morning. He won a seat in Congress the next year.
The massacre helped keep unions out of the South at just the moment it was industrializing. Textile manufacturers were moving out of New England, chasing low wages. And after textile factories closed in the 20th century, auto, manufacturing, and energy companies opened in southern states in part for the non-union workforce.
Southern black farm workers would not attempt to unionize again, until the 1930s when the Southern Tenant Farmers Union attracted both white and African American members. But it too was met by a violent racist backlash. The struggle for southern unions continued into the Civil Rights era. On the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech supporting striking sanitation workers. He urged his audience “to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. ...You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”