This Day in Labor History: November 22, 1887

On October 19, the Knights local in Morgan City met to fashion its list of demands for regional sugar workers. This included a raise to $1.25 a day, biweekly payments, and cash pay instead of the company store scrip. Junius Bailey, a former slave who was now president of the Knights’ joint local executive board, sent a letter to the sugar planters that read, “should this demand be considered exorbitant by the sugar planters…we ask them to submit such information with reason therewith to this board not later than Saturday, Oct. 29 inst. or appoint a special committee to confer with this board on said date.” The sheer existence of such demands and such a letter were outrageous to a white elite who still considered enslavement the rightful status of its labor force.

At its height up to 10,000 workers were on strike, although there’s no way to actually know and the number may have been created for journalistic shock value. In response, Thibodaux whites organized the Peace and Order Committee. Led by Judge Taylor Beattie, an ex-Confederate, planter, and former member of the Knights of the White Camelia (a Louisiana white supremacist paramilitary organization similar to the KKK), the Peace and Order Committee declared martial law over Thibodaux’s black population. It also made blacks show a pass to stay in the city, a policy reminiscent of the slave passes that regulated black movement before 1865.

Over the next two weeks, tensions continued to rise. On November 22, the Peace and Order Committee closed the roads into Thibodaux and decided to end the labor uprising once and for all. Mary Pugh, owner of the Live Oak plantation said that unless this strike was repressed, “white people could live in this country no longer.” On the morning of the 22nd, the militia walked into town and just started killing black people. A couple of strikers fought back, wounding two militia members. But the militia went house to house, pulling out black people and executing them in cold blood. Black workers fled out of the city and the strike effectively ended.

The numbers of dead remain unknown. At least 35 were killed. But some have estimated that number could be as high as 300. That’s a big disparity. Counting numbers of dead black people or dead striker was not exactly a priority of Gilded Age America and so you see significant death toll disparities in cases like this. The aftermath was one of joy for the region’s white elite. The editor of the Thibodaux Star, who had been a member of the murderous militia, wrote of “negroes jumping over fences and making for the swamps at double quick time. We’ll bet five cents that our people never before saw so large a black-burying as they have seen this week.” Mary Pugh wrote, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next 50 years but it has been well done & I hope all trouble is ended.”

Even after the Thibodaux Massacre, the sugar workers continued to fight. The Knights of Labor proved useless in organizing in the wake of violence; like with Haymarket, this was not what Terence Powderly had planned for. But these workers were politically mobilized and in 1888, despite the repression, black voters outnumbered white voters. Segregation and Jim Crow was not just about political control. As the whites of Louisiana made very clear as they repealed black voting rights with maximum violence during the late 1880s and 1890s, this was about keeping labor under control–cheap, exploitable, and within the racial hierarchy.

I used Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery as the major reference for this piece. Check it out if interested.

This is the 45th post in this series. The rest are digested here.

Oh yeah, Happy Thanksgiving. Maybe give a few thanks to the workers who suffered and died over the years to make your lives better.

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15 comments on this post.
  1. T.R. Donoghue:

    Thanks for this series. I consider myself fairly well educated on labor history (grew up in the union hall with my dad and am now a labor lawyer) but your series always brings something new and interesting.

  2. Jeremy:

    Well, this killed my buzz. Good post, though.

  3. Erik Loomis:

    I’m a happy holidays kind of guy.

  4. Hogan:

    We’ll bet five cents that our people never before saw so large a black-burying as they have seen this week.

    Now how am I going to get rid of all this rage before dinner? Thanks a lot, Erik.

    No, seriously, thanks a lot.

  5. Erik Loomis:

    I recommend drinking.

  6. DrDick:

    The Florida sugar growers have not progressed much since 1886. The have been cited several times for slave labor practices similar to or worse than these.

  7. Hogan:

    That’s your solution to everything. Oh wait, that’s my solution to everything.

  8. Semanticleo:

    Hmm. They were breaking the Law, right? They would have dragged Manning out to be lynched, if they thought they could. Not saying it’s a prized comparison, but…….the LAW.

  9. Pestilence:

    Really? I mean,I dont actually doubt it, but if you have more recent details, I’d love to read about it

  10. Jeremy:

    Mine too.

  11. DrDick:

    Ask and you shall receive, from
    Vanity Fair 2001
    . It is not just sugar either.

  12. On this Labor Day, let’s remember what unions have done for America | Fabius Maximus:

    [...] November 22, 1887: Thibodaux Massacre [...]

  13. On this Labor Day, Let’s Remember What Unions Have Done for America : Sierra Voices:

    [...] November 22, 1887: Thibodaux Massacre [...]

  14. What are the odds of violence from the Right in America? | Fabius Maximus:

    [...] November 22, 1887: Thibodaux Massacre [...]

  15. ChuckM:

    … I grew up in Houma, Louisiana just down the road from Thibodaux, and took the (mandatory) Houma Junior-High School Civics course circa 1969. We were taught (a mimeographed sheet with drawings, believe or not) about Viet-Cong booby traps, but not one word about the Thibodaux Massacre … of course, we were also not taught anything really useful about civics for that matter. And we, like our teachers, all stared dumbfounded at the Civil Rights struggles going on around us, wondering what was causing people (mostly black, but some white) to get so riled up…

    – Chuck

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