On November 23, 1887, white vigilantes gunned down unarmed black laborers and their families during a spree lasting more than two hours. The violence erupted due to strikes on Louisiana sugar cane plantations. Fear, rumor and white supremacist ideals clashed with an unprecedented labor action to create an epic tragedy. A future member of the U.S. House of Representatives was among the leaders of a mob that routed black men from houses and forced them to a stretch of railroad track, ordering them to run for their lives before gunning them down. According to a witness, the guns firing in the black neighborhoods sounded like a battle. Author and award-winning reporter John DeSantis uses correspondence, interviews and federal records to detail this harrowing true story.
In this concise and vivid study, journalist DeSantis uncovers the long-hidden history of an 1887 bloodbath in which men from some of Louisiana's most esteemed white families murdered between 30 and 60 African-American men in the small town of Thibodaux. As DeSantis emphasizes, in the region south and east of New Orleans "black slaves boiled and spun sugar into gold for white planters," producing though their forced labor the wealth that built the magnificent plantation houses that now function as tourist attractions. After the Civil War, ex-slaves, some of whom had served in the Union Army, came into conflict with their former owners, who numbered among the South's most "unreconstructed rebels." Tensions increased as many black sugar workers joined the Knights of Labor and organized walkouts from the cane fields in an attempt to negotiate higher wages. Fearing a loss of the sugar workforce in a crucial year following a bad harvest, planters convinced Gov. McEnery to dispatch the state militia to Thibodaux. They stormed the town's black neighborhood and committed a massacre of which news was immediately suppressed. DeSantis's work recounts this horrific tale in gripping detail, restoring to public memory an important moment in the entwined histories of race and labor in America.