The Thibodaux Massacre Left 60 African-Americans Dead and Spelled the End of Unionized Farm Labor in the South for Decades

tags: Labor Unions, Thibodaux Massacre

Calvin Schermerhorn is a Professor of History at Arizona State University.

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. 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....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,” testified Reverend T. Jefferson Rhodes of the Moses Baptist Church in Thibodaux. Going from house to house, gunmen ordered Jack Conrad, 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. 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....

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