I’m reading | Thibodaux Massacre | Frederick Douglass

Calvin Schermerhorn, November 21, 2017, The Smithsonian

On November 23, 1887, a mass shooting of African-American farm workers in Louisiana left some 60 dead. Bodies were dumped in unmarked graves while the white press cheered a victory against a fledgling black union. It was one of the bloodiest days in United States labor history, and while statues went up and public places were named for some of those involved, there is no marker of the Thibodaux Massacre.

Days after, a local planter widow Mary Pugh wrote, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule the nigger or the white man for the next fifty years.” It was a far-sighted comment— black farm workers in the South wouldn’t have the opportunity to unionize for generations.

Years after the Thirteenth Amendment brought freedom, cane cutters’ working lives were already “barely distinguishable” from slavery, argues journalist and author John DeSantis. (His book, The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike, is an excellent and compelling account of the massacre.) With no land to own or rent, workers and their families lived in old slave cabins. They toiled in gangs, just like their ancestors had for nearly a century. Growers gave workers meals but paid famine wages of as little as 42 cents a day (91 cents per hour in today’s money, for a 12-hour shift).

Instead of cash, workers got scrip that bought basics at high prices at plantation stores.

But they had advantages that their counterparts in cotton areas lacked. Planters needed their labor, and growers living on thin margins failed to attract migrant laborers to replace local workers, especially in the crucial rolling season when the sugarcane needed to be cut and pressed in short order.

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Martha S. Jones, February 16, 2018, Journal of the Civil War Era
Marking his 200th birthday this week, I want to acknowledge the debt legal historians owe to Frederick Douglass. When Chief Justice Roger Taney denied that free black Americans were citizens of the United States in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Douglass immediately opposed him. Then, across his lifetime, Douglass never forget how Taney had used the high court to demean African Americans. From the podium and the pen, Douglass made a record that has endured and thus ensured Dred Scott will be long remembered as the lowest point in the history of race and law.[1]

We’ve no reason to think they ever met, these two nineteenth century figures with roots in Baltimore. Both Frederick Douglass and Roger Brooke Taney called that city home in 1837 and 1838. The former was an enslaved laborer on the eve of stealing his liberty, while the latter had just recently been appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. While both inhabited the nation’s third largest city, Douglass and Taney walked very different streets.

Still, Taney and Douglass knew one another, though not in the “they were acquainted” sense. They knew one another as archetypes that took part in on-going struggles over the future of those who managed to throw off slavery’s shackles, free people of color. Taney understood the lengths to which enslaved people would go to free themselves. He was, for example, party to a transaction in which an enslaved man, Cornelius Thompson, purchased his own liberty in 1832. And of course, Douglass knew how law shaped the circumstances of the enslaved. In his 1845 fugitive memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he recalled encounters with law, from detention in an Eastern Shore jail to exclusion from courtrooms that disallowed black testimony against white wrong doers.

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