Excerpt from The Thibodaux Massacre

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Thibodaux, Louisiana November 23, 1887, 7:00 a.m.

Bleeding from his chest and right arm, Jack Conrad squeezed himself under the simple wood-framed house on St. Michael Street as members of the mob, maybe fifty strong, kept on firing, clouding the air with acrid smoke. “I am innocent!” the fifty-three-year-old veteran called out, protesting that he had nothing to do with the strike of sugar laborers, nominally the cause of the violence. He pressed his chest against the cold ground and felt hot blood pooling beneath him.

Another ball ripped through Conrad’s flesh, and he pushed his face against the earth and weeds. Nearly a quarter century had passed since Jack and other members of the Seventy- fifth U.S. Colored Troops stormed Port Hudson, doing a job the white senior o cers did not believe possible, wresting the high ground from the Rebels and opening up the Mississippi River for Yankee gunboats. They fought for their own freedom, hoping a be er life would result. But the war’s outcome made li le di erence on the sugar plantations. Now, here he was, cornered like a cur beneath his own home, playing dead while bullets whizzed and hot, spent cartridges plinked onto the dusty street, the scu ed boots of the regulators and the hooves of their cantering, spooked horses a breath away. “He is dead now!” one of the men called out. “Let us go.” The voices trailed o as the mob moved on to a house on Narrow Street. More shots rang out amidst wails of women, shouts of men and the unceasing cries of babies.

The chronic cough, the one that made Conrad’s war buddies joke that he would die of consumption, had to let loose, scraping exposed shards of sha ered collarbone deeper into raw, bleeding esh. A pair of arms—Jack wasn’t sure whose— pulled him out from under the house and carried him inside. Jack Conrad was one of many people shot in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on November 23, 1887, although he, unlike many other victims, lived to speak of what is now called the Thibodaux Massacre. White regulators, angered by a month-long strike of mostly blacksugar cane workers in two Louisiana parishes, evicted from plantations and taking shelter in Thibodaux, spread terror and death. Some of the perpetrators and their supporters—identi ed in this book—were from some of the most upstanding families in town. Some of their descendants to this day hold positions of power and esteem. Records disappeared. Nobody was ever held accountable. Multiple accounts of the day say the shooting went on for nearly three hours throughout the neighborhood east of Morgan’s railroad tracks, called to this day “back- of-town,” then—as now—home to many African American families. A diluted account of what occurred is contained in a journal kept by the priest of Thibodaux’s Catholic church, the French -speaking Very Reverend Charles Menard. Each year since 1849, when he first arrived in Thibodaux, Père Menard penned a summary of the year, baptisms of children, the burials of the Catholic dead and other events of note. His journal for 1887 relates that a large tomb was built at the center of the church cemetery for the priests who might wish burial there. It describes in detail the tomb-
blessing ceremony, marked by a procession with six banners and ranking church o cials. It then makes reference to the strike and the violence, the victims of which most likely were left in li le more than shallow graves, with no tombs or markers to note that they had once labored and lived: There was a strike, directed by the famous Knights of Labor, from the North. It concerned raising the wages of those who work during the sugar cane grinding season. The negroes, the large majority being simple and very ignorant allowed themselves to be led by bad advisors. Some of them went out on strike and wanted to prevent the others from working. There was much concern among the planters who foresaw the possibility of their abundant crop being lost by what could be a very disastrous delay in grinding. They were obliged to nd new workers and to take precautions for their protection against violence from the strikers. Several shots were red at the non-striking workers during the night and several were slightly wounded. Militia companies were organized. A militia company with a machine gun came from New Orleans. Thibodaux was ooded with striking negroes, who began to make threats to burn down the place. It became necessary to place guards throughout the town. Everyone armed himself as best he could. On Nov.23, about 5 o’clock in the morning, a picket of six men stationed on the edge of town was red upon. Two of them were seriously wounded... This fusillade angered the other guards who rushed to the scene and began ring on the group of negroes from whence the shots had come. It was every man for himself. A dozen were killed and there were some wounded. The day passed with marches and countermarches to force the unemployed negroes and those without a domicile to evacuate the town. All left promptly to go to the country. The negroes realizing that they had been tricked and duped went to the plantations and asked for work without conditions. Thus was concluded the famous strike which was bad for both the planters and the workers. Grinding proceeded in calm and peace to the satisfaction of all. The mainstream press, just like Père Menard’s journal, did li le to relate the true horror of the a ack now known as the Thibodaux Massacre, instead perpetuating a belief that it was a regre able but excusable—even justi able— indiscretion. His estimate of a dozen killed, like the o cial acknowledgement of eight dead, is in all probability another understatement. New, credible accounts of the massacre in- clude estimates that the shooting went on for somewhere between two and three hours. Estimates of eight to a dozen dead, given that information—which is consistent with other accounts from totally di erent sources—are inadequate. Suggestion by historians of thirty or more killed, including estimates as high as sixty, are likely more accurate ...