This Day in Labor History: November 22, 1887

On November 22, 1887, a group of white vigilantes crushed a Knights of Labor led strike of black sugar workers in the fields around Thibodaux, Louisiana. Fighting back against largest black social movement in the state since the end of Reconstruction, whites killed dozens and perhaps hundreds of black workers, seeking to take control of the racial hierarchy, state politics, and labor relations back from empowered African-Americans.

Slaves had made up the sugar workforce before 1865 and with the failure of Reconstruction to give blacks meaningful rights, the white plantation owners sought to reinstitute conditions as close to slavery as possible. The Louisiana Sugar Planters Association determined to keep wages as low as possible. Workers made about 60 to 65 cents a day, paid in company scrip that kept them dependent upon the white economic structure. But black workers never accepted white attempts to recreate dependence. They fought back in many ways, including by striking. Beginning in 1880, sugar workers engaged in some sort of protest each year over the conditions they faced.

By 1886, the determined struggle of the Louisiana workers attracted the Knights of Labor. Although the Knights would fall into decline after the Haymarket Riot, in 1886 it was at its height and the sugar workers welcomed its organizing expertise and national following. In a world where the American Federation of Labor, founded in that year of 1886, would explicitly exclude black workers (among a lot of others), the Knights being willing to cross racial boundaries is notable and important. Many of the Knights’ local assemblies were segregated, but sometimes they were integrated. With the Knights’ support, worker organizing increased rapidly. A planter wrote in 1886 that employees “are becoming more and more unmanageable. By degrees they are bringing the planter to their way of thinking in regard to how they should work and no telling at what moment there will be a serious move to compel the planter to comply with any request.”

Boarding House for Sugar Workers, Louisiana

Workers took serious actions as 1887 went on. As early as January, 15 workers went on strike. For instance, a striker named Adam Elles was arrested and charged with preventing Nelson Christian, a black Union veteran, from working. As the summer slid into fall and the harvest season approached, whites became increasingly fearful of mass action. Local newspapers began reminding readers of the horrors of black political action, tying that into larger paranoia of black-on-white violence that southern whites had connected to mobile and empowered black labor going back at least a century.

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