A supervisor on horseback watches workers loading sugar cane for a mill onto horse-drawn carts on a plantation near New Orleans, Louisiana, circa 1901. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
In February 1887, Oregon became the first state to create a Labor Day holiday in recognition of the achievements of workers. Later that year, four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — passed laws establishing a Labor Day holiday.
Also in 1887, about 10,000 Black sugar plantation workers in Terrebonne, St. Mary and Lafourche parishes in Louisiana stopped working just as the harvest season was getting underway. Organized by the Knights of Labor, then the most powerful union in the United States, the workers demanded cash wages of $1.25 a day, not the plantation scrip that was only good at the plantation-owned store. They were paid the equivalent of 42 cents for a 12-hour day, or about $15 today.
The sugar barons rejected the demands, fired the union leaders and started evicting striking workers from plantation-owned housing with the help of troops ordered into the area by the governor. The troops arrived on Nov. 2.
“The troops spread through plantations in the region, evicting the striking workers, who then streamed into Thibodaux as refugees. The troops left around Nov. 18, and in Thibodaux tensions increased,” author John DeSantis wrote in Prologue Magazine in 2017.
As rumors of potential violence spread, fueled by newspaper reports, a local judge authorized vigilantes to barricade the town, identify strikers and demand passes from any Black person trying to leave or enter.
“The situation was being cast more and more as a race war and less as a labor dispute,” DeSantis wrote.
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Before dawn on Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving, two volunteers manning one of the blockades were wounded by shots fired from a nearby field. Town leaders blamed the strikers. Armed mobs of white men took to the streets.
What followed was a frenzy of murderous violence that left at least 35 Black people dead, though some estimates range as high as 100 or more. No reports of white casualties, other than the two vigilantes, ever surfaced. DeSantis published a fascinating book on the events, The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike, in 2016.
The violence pretty much ended the strike. Days afterward, a wealthy planter’s widow wrote, presciently: “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule the n***** or the white man for the next fifty years.”
No meaningful organizing effort by Black farmworkers occurred in Louisiana until 1953, when about 2,000 plantation workers in St. James Parish dropped their tools in the cane fields and staged a work stoppage. After weeks of intimidation, evictions and court injunctions by planters and the white power structure, the laborers returned to the fields without any gains.
The history of labor in the South is rife with such stories, and race and racism are embedded in each.
I grew up in Thibodaux and didn’t learn about the massacre or the 1953 strike until I was middle-aged. Of course, I didn’t learn about the 1919 Elaine massacre — a labor-related mass murder of Black people — until I moved to Arkansas in 2007. I learned more about the labor unrest in Appalachian coal mines in high school and college than I did about labor history in my hometown.
This history, and its lessons, are necessary, even if uncomfortable, and we shouldn’t have to wait until we’re grandparents to learn them.
So, as you’re enjoying your BBQ and beer this Labor Day, please give a thought and a thanks to those who fought and continue to fight for the the rights of all workers.
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