What were the causes of the Thibodaux massacre?

In an effort to get some content on this website, and without having to do too much work in the interim, I’m going to post periodically some of my older material that I think is still relevant or that I’ve reworked.

The following was originally written on January 4, 2018 on the website Quora. I had just finished reading a book by John DeSantis when I came across the question randomly and decided to respond. It wasn’t my most popular answer on Quora as it earned exactly one upvote. However I thought it an interesting and important topic, especially given the connection it has to my adopted hometown. What is written here is just a snippet. I highly recommend reading this book if you have the time and inclination.

What were the causes of the Thibodaux massacre?

I will do my best to answer this question but will probably miss many important details. It should be noted that the best source of information on the Thibodaux Massacre is a book by John DeSantis: The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike, which you can find on Amazon. You can also search through the newspaper he writes for The Houma Times (houmatimes.com | Covering the Houma-Thibodaux area) for more information as well.

In brief, the background for the incident was post-reconstruction Louisiana. Many of the elite and respected men of the town, including many elected officials, were Civil War veterans. Sugar cane was still the major industry, as it was pre-Civil War. And, even though the war freed the slaves, many former slaves still worked at the same plantations they did before the war.

However, for several years proceeding 1887, there were attempts at organizing labor in the fields in the area which included Houma, St. Mary Parish, the River Parishes, and elsewhere, with varying degrees of success (or lack thereof). The Knights of Labor (Knights of Labor – Wikipedia) were involved and were seen by many of the local plantation owners as outside agitators.

In 1887 there was a strike by the workers in and around the town of Thibodaux. The Louisiana militia was sent to Thibodaux to break the strike – which they did. The militia left, but tensions were still high with both blacks and whites carrying guns through town ready for a fight to break out. A Committee for Peace and Order was established, whose first order was to shut down the town, with no one allowed to enter or leave unless they had a “pass.” In addition, the sheriff promised to deputized 30 new deputies and have them patrol the streets. Committee members entered a bar room on St. Mary Street. The bar was owned by Henry Franklin, who was a black parish council member, member of the Knights of Labor, and an early supporter of the strike. Shots were fired and two black men were wounded. One of them, William Watson, was killed.

With the town shut town, volunteers were placed along the roads in and out of town to enforce the travel restrictions. Two of those men were Henry Molaison and John Gorman, who were watching the road near the southern most end of St. Charles Street, where it connected to the main road through town and to the canal that linked Bayou Lafourche to Houma. At about 5AM on Wednesday, November 23 first Gorman and then Molaison were shot and injured.

The next day, the Massacre commenced vigilantes going through through town and the plantations shooting:

While the predawn volleys from the cornfield didn’t kill the sentries, they succeeded in killing a fragile peace, with Clay Knobloch’s Lafourche militia and hundreds of volunteers rushing to the town’s black quarters. There is no documented attempt of those involved to follow the rule of law, or any hint of blacks taking up arms, or shots being exchanged once the rampage began. White guards and citizens opened fire on blacks, storming homes and rooming houses without authority or warrant. One account describes a charge on a brick St. Charles Street building, believed to have housed women, and the children of striking parents.

“There were several companies of white men and they went around night and day shooting colored men who took part in the strike,” said the Reverend T. Jefferson Rhodes of Thibodaux’s Moses Baptist Church, his words preserved on a handwritten affidavit on file at the U.S. National Archives, uncovered in 2016.

(Source: DeSantis, John. The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike (True Crime) (p. 133). Arcadia Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

For more information on the Massacre, I highly recommend the book I mentioned above. It is a very easy read and is well researched and documented.

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