Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Local History: Sugar Cane Workers Strike and Massacre of 1887

 One of the most interesting, and probably least known events in Louisiana history is the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887.The Thibodaux Massacre of 1887 was the second most bloody labor dispute in U.S. history.

In 1886, the newly-formed railroad workers union decided to help the sugarcane workers organize themselves, and held a racially integrated union meeting in Shreiver, LA. Sugarcane workers were basically indebted serfs for plantation owners at this time.

The cane workers were paid in coupons reedemable only at the company store, and the store's prices were marked up so much the workers had to go into debt to buy goods they needed. Of course, plantation owners couldn't get away with this without the help of the law and police, so there were laws that made it a crime to leave an owner's land if one was indebted to the owner. Obviously, these workers needed some help.

In 1887, after organizing a union, they presented 3 demands to plantation owners: the elimination of the coupon system, a small increase in their daily wages (which were $13 per month), and payment every two weeks. When their demands were not met 10,000 plantation workers went on strike during the crucial harvesting season. Most of the strikers were black, but nearly 1000 were white.

The workers prevented the local sheriffs from evicting any of them from the plantation owned cabins they lived in, so the state sent in the Louisiana militia to break the strike. The militia, armed with rifles, evicted the workers and helped scab replacements get safely to the fields. The strikers, with nowhere to go, gathered in Thibodaux and other towns in St. Mary, Terrebonne, Assumption, and Lafourche parishes. After hearing "reports" of strikers firing into scab-run sugar mills, whites in Thibodaux organized vigilante squads to guard the town, apparently afraid of strikers "burning it down."

The strike turned bloody when, while attempting to cordon off the black section of Thibodaux that black strikers had gone to after being evicted, 2 white vigilantes were shot. This enraged racist whites in the town, and they rode through the neighborhood firing their weapons and wreaking havoc.

Strikers and their family members were rounded up by vigilantes. Many were told to "run for their lives" and then executed. On the morning of November 23, 1887 anywhere between 30 to 300 black strikers were killed. Non-local militiamen known as the Shreveport Guards (from an area known for white supremacist ideology to this day) were thought to have taken part in the massacre.

This strike took place at a time when the labor movement was a completely new idea, and anything must have seemed possible to those workers who began to dream of a better life. Their dreams, not yet dimmed by cynicism, recuperation, or fear, could only be destroyed by barbaric brutality on the scale of the Thibodeaux massacre.

The next attempt to organize sugarcane workers in southeast Louisiana came in the 1950´s, long after this first bloody battle in cane country, because they cannot kill an idea.

The bosses (and white supremacist traitors who do the sell-out job of keeping working people divided by making whites fear people of color) have been trying to force us to give up on dreaming dreams like those of the sugarcane workers, but the desire for freedom, justice, and dignity is something that cannot be shot down.

They rely on spectacular violence to instill fear in us, hoping to scare us out of demanding the realization of our dreams, or even daring to dream at all. But ideas are bulletproof, and so despite the seemingly inhuman capacity for violence that the rich and the government it owns have shown, in the Thibodaux Massacre and a million other heinous acts since then, we're still here, motherfuckers!


  1. My Grandfather, Moise Louis Martin, was one of the leaders of the second attempt to unionize in the 1950's. He started the first union at the Raceland Sugars mill in Raceland, Louisiana in the early 50's. A combat veteran of WWII with service in the Phillipines and Okinawa, he returned to his community and was was called a communist, a traitor, and a Bolshevik for his efforts to obtain a living wage for the mill and field workers of his area. He was also adamant about making the union multi-racial, still a controversial thing in the 50's.

    One other thing: The Knights of Labor were a quasi-Masonic labor union. Yes, that's right. Their principles, rituals, morals, and zeal originated in the misunderstood fraternity (the slogan of the "Scottish Rite" is the slogan of the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" (later solidarity).
    They held America's first labor day celebration in New York in September, which predated the Haymarket events and was later adopted by the US as our official labor day b/c of the red scare and the fear of international worker's solidarity, but the KofL was a force to be respected and better understood.

  2. The Republican led states and assembly members are attempting to break down union particpation and union gains. Its up to the people to banned together to stop them. Napolean Bonaparte stated the only thing that keeps the poor from murdering the rich is religion.

  3. I am interested in the story of your grandfather. I have been trying to find out information on the organizing then. Have you heard of Fr. Vincent O'Connell, S.M., a Marist priest who helped the workers.
    Can you write me?

    stephen.duplantier at
    replace the "at" with the correct keyboard character and remove the spaces.