National News

Honoring victims of a racial massacre 130 years ago

Posted May 11

— Descendants of victims of a racial massacre 130 years ago in south Louisiana and descendants of Confederate and plantation families are working together to honor those victims and possibly find their remains.

Members of white mobs went door to door for more than two hours, shooting unarmed blacks, on Nov. 23, 1887. The violence ended a monthlong strike by sugar plantation field hands, including many former slaves as well as some whites. Though records are sketchy, they indicate that 30 to 60 people died in the Thibodaux (TIB-uh-doh) Massacre, said John DeSantis, whose book about the incident was published late last year.

Local tradition holds that there's a mass grave on the grounds of what's now a black American Legion chapter .

DeSantis and others created the Louisiana 1887 Memorial Committee to raise money for an archaeological survey to learn if that's true — and, if it is, have any remains exhumed, investigated, and buried in consecrated ground.

The public was invited to the group's first meeting Thursday night in Thibodaux. The 19 to 20 members include a descendant of Jack Conrad, who was shot four times and left for dead, and at least one descendant of a local plantation family, DeSantis said.

"I'm very interested in whether or not the mystery concerning the graves can be solved," said committee member Denis Gaubert, who is not a descendant of planters but is local camp commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

He said most of those killed probably "were innocent of any kind of crime. They're buried in forgotten graves. That's just not right."

An initial survey will cost up to $24,000, said Mark A. Rees, head of the Louisiana Public Archaeology Lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

If, as people believe, a city landfill covered a mass burial, that might have helped preserve bones or other artifacts, said Rees.

The killings' origin in a labor dispute may be unique in the state's racial violence of the time, DeSantis said.

The strike of 1887, which may have involved as many as 10,000 workers, culminated a series of smaller strikes since 1880 in Louisiana's sugar country. The sugar workers had two main demands, DeSantis said: $1 a day instead of the 60 to 75 cents they were getting, and payment in cash rather than chits usable only at one plantation's company store.

The state militia was sent to Lafourche Parish to evict strikers from plantation housing. The strikers "essentially migrated to Thibodaux," DeSantis said.

After the militia left, he said, "tensions started getting very high. The workers didn't have any place to go. The white population in Thibodaux was very afraid."

Racial violence had marked the decades after the Civil War in Louisiana — nearly 3,500 people were killed or wounded in the state between 1866 and 1875, "a great majority of them ... colored," according to a letter read into U.S. Senate testimony at the time and cited in DeSantis' book.

A judge declared martial law in Thibodaux. Sentries were set up at the city limits. The mob rampage occurred after two white sentries were shot and wounded about five minutes apart. Nobody knows who shot them: a black weekly newspaper blamed the vigilantes themselves, while townsmen blamed the strikers.

"That's when the panic began to spread," DeSantis said. "By full light, armed mobs were in back-of-town Thibodaux."

The only investigation of the incident wasn't an attempt to bring anyone to task: it was a query in Washington into whether Jack Conrad's wounds entitled him to a pension as a veteran of U.S. Colored Troops.

DeSantis said testimony from that investigation, found last year in the National Archives, "confirms they were shooting every black person in sight and they were pulling people out of houses."

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