- The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike by John DeSantis
Senior staff writer and journalist at the Times of Houma in Houma, Louisiana, John DeSantis has written a focused account of the historical background and events that made possible the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887. In The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike, DeSantis succinctly describes the nature of the conflict referenced in the book's subtitle and views the massacre as the culmination of numerous labor disputes between black workers and white sugarcane planters in Louisiana's southeastern parishes near and along the Gulf Coast.
DeSantis first heard stories of the massacre in 1995, but his chance to contribute new insights on the event came in 2015 when he found "a long-lost list of eight victims" of the massacre in the archives of Nicholls State University (p. 12). DeSantis followed additional clues that led him to the "pension files of Jack Conrad, a former slave and veteran of the U.S. Colored Troops, who was shot and wounded in the massacre" (p. 12). The files confirmed "the deaths of unarmed people, from the mouths of black people [in testimony] submitted under oath" (p. 12). Using Conrad to anchor the narrative of the strike and the massacre, DeSantis shows the complexities of racial violence as labor strife with deep roots in slavery, through the struggles of several thousand black workers who were members, leaders, organizers, followers, and supporters of the Holy and Noble Order of the Knights of Labor to negotiate with planters over wages and working conditions. Strikers knew that sugarcane planters rigorously rejected their demands and militant efforts to unionize, but they were unprepared to combat the planters, who used the lethal force of vigilantes, the Louisiana government, and militias to indiscriminately gun down unknown numbers of black strikers and black civilians. Estimates of black people killed range from "six to the hundreds, although an examination of most historical accounts would indicate a number between thirty and sixty, with many more wounded" (p. 137). In the aftermath, workers were disciplined to accept planters' authority, which was later reinforced during Jim Crow.
DeSantis puts black laborers' stories front and center to balance perspectives on an event whose historical significance had been downplayed for decades. He divides the book into three sections: "Sugar, Slaves and Civil War" and "Birth of a Movement" each contain three chapters, and "A Page Torn from History" has four chapters. The book includes notes, a bibliography, and an index. DeSantis does not explicitly place his discussion in a historiographical context, but his account of the Thibodaux massacre will most likely appeal to high school students, undergraduates, and laypersons who will find the book accessible and readable and to scholars who will see the book as a portal to academic literature and the historiography of racial and labor strife in the South. [End Page 197]