Black and white sugar workers in Louisiana began organizing with the Knights of Labor in 1886. Several strikes were broken by violence and the use of imported strike breakers. In 1887, ten thousand workers, most of them black, walked off the sugar plantations when the planters refused to meet their demands for wages of $1.25 a day. The governor called out the militia, angry at the sight of black and white workers on strike together. He said: "God Almighty has himself drawn the color line." Militia men killed four blacks. The black settlement at Thibodaux was then attacked by militia, and at least twenty people were killed. Two strike leaders were arrested, then lynched. What follows is a report1 on the strike from an African-American newspaper in Louisiana.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
Murder, foul murder has been committed and the victims were inoffensive and law-abiding Negroes. Assassins more cruel, more desperate, more wanton than any who had hitherto practiced their nefarious business in Louisiana have been shooting down, like so many cattle, the Negroes in and around Thibodaux, Lafourthe parish, La.
For three weeks past the public has been regaled, daily, with garbled reports of the troubles existing between the laborers and planters in the sugar district. Strange to say not one of these reports, excepting two, exculpated the Negroes from any desire, or any intention so far as their actions could be judged, of resorting to violence and bloodshed in order to secure the just and equable demand made by them for an increase of wages. Militia from different portions of the State have been on duty in the threatened section, and during all of this time the only acts and crimes of an outrageous character committed were so committed by either the troops, sugar planters or those in their hire. The Negroes during all of the time behaving peaceably, quietly and within the limits of the law, desiring only to secure what they asked and demanding what they had and have a perfect right to do— an increase of wages.
The planters refused to accede to their requests and at the same time ordered them from the plantations. At this juncture, and especially was it the case at both Thibodaux and Houma, the Knights of Labor, to which organization most of the laborers belong, hired all the empty houses in the above towns they could, and there quartered the homeless blacks. Such unexpected action maddened the planters and their followers, (some excepted) and as a [con]sequence they resorted to arms and every other devilish device which the ingenuity of a few chosen spirits could devise in order to force the Negroes to work for the wages offered.
With an obstinacy worthy of the righteousness of their cause the Negroes quartered in Thibodaux refused to accede to the planters.
Such being the case, the planters determined to kill a number of them, thus endeavoring to force the balance into submission. The militia was withdrawn to better accomplish this purpose, and no sooner had they departed for home than the preparation for the killing of the Negroes began. Last Sunday night, about 11 o'clock, plantation wagons containing strange men fully armed were driven into Thibodaux and to Frost's restaurant and hotel and there the strangers were quartered. Who they were and where they came from, no one, with me exception of the planters and Judge Taylor Beattie, seemed to know; but it is a fact that next day, Monday, [martial] law was declared and these cavalcades of armed men put on patrol duty and no Negro allowed to either leave or enter the town without shooters, insolent and overbearing toward the Negroes, doing all in their power to provoke a disturbance.... Finding that the Negroes could not be provoked from their usual quiet, it was resolved that some pretext or other should be given so that a massacre might ensue.
It came: Tuesday night the patrol shot two of their number, Gorman and Molaison, and the cry went forth "to arms, to arms! the Negroes are killing the whites!" This was enough. The unknown men who by this time had turned out to be Shreveport guerrillas, well versed in the Ouachita and Red River plan of killing "niggers," assisted by Lafourthe's oldest and best, came forth and fired volley after volley, into the houses, the churches, and wherever a Negro could be found.
"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 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.
Such is a true tale of affairs as enacted at Thibodaux. To read it makes the blood of every man, black or white, tingle if his system is permeated with one spark of manhood. To even think that such disregard of human life is permitted in this portion of the United States makes one question whether or not the war was a failure?
Citizens of the United States killed by a mob directed by a State judge, and no redress for the same! Laboring men seeking an advance in wages, treated as if they were dogs! Black men whose equality before the law was secured at the point of the bayonet shown less consideration than serfs? This is what is being enacted in Louisiana today, all of which is due to the Monroe speeches of Gov. [Samuel Douglas] McEnery and Senator [James] Eustis.
At such times and upon such occasions, words of condemnation fall like snow-flakes upon molten lead. The blacks should defend their lives, and if they needs must die, die with their faces toward their persecutors fighting for their homes, their children and their lawful rights.
1 Anonymous, "Red-Handed Murder: Negroes Wantonly Killed at Thibodaux, La." (November 26, 1887). In The Weekly Pelican (New Orleans, Louisiana), vol. 1, no. 52 (November 26,1887), p. 2.