The Struggle to Work // The Thibodaux Massacre

by Rachel Klaus, co-features editor

Work in the Bayou Region, just like much of the South, has many roots in slavery. Slaves were often field hands for sugar plantations, doing everything from planting the sugar cane, to plowing the fields, to harvesting and then making the sugar. And neither the work itself or the system for work were easy or pretty.

One of the Bayou Region’s most violent examples of working in the shadows of slavery came on Nov. 23, 1887, when nearly 60 unarmed black laborers and their families were killed in Thibodaux by white vigilantes following a three-week sugar cane labor strike, according to John DeSantis in his 2016 book “The Thibodaux Massacre.”

The estimated 10,000 laborers from Lafourche and three surrounding parishes went on strike for a livable wage to be paid in U.S. money rather than plantation script that could only be used at an individual, specific plantation store.

“What they were paid, was essentially not enough,” DeSantis said.

“They wanted a dollar a day and $1.25 a day if they worked through the night. They just did not want to be paid in script anymore.”

The strike, in the middle of the harvest season, came after the plantations ignored the laborers’ demands for weeks.

“Both sides were in fear and distrustful to one another,” DeSantis said. “A couple of days before the massacre Judge Taylor Beattie ordered a state of martial law so no one could enter or leave town. It made the strikers even more afraid. There were just so many factors that led up to the massacre.”

In the end, the shooting lasted for more than 2 hours and killed men, women and children. And the effect on work in the Bayou Region would be the passage of laws by white democrats keeping sugar cane workers from organizing until the 1940s.