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The Thibodaux Massacre: An Interview with author John Desantis
Fear, rumor and white supremacist ideals clashed with an unprecedented labor action spawned an epic tragedy. On November 23, 1887, white vigilantes gunned down unarmed black laborers and their families due to strikes on Louisiana sugar cane plantations. A future member of the U.S. House of Representatives was among the leaders of a mob that routed black men from houses and forced them to a stretch of railroad track, ordering them to run for their lives before gunning them down. According to a witness, the guns firing in the black neighborhoods sounded like a battle. Author and award-winning reporter John DeSantis uses correspondence, interviews and federal records to detail this harrowing true story.
John DeSantis is the senior staff writer at the Times of Houma, Louisiana. A product of New York City, his work has previously appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications. A journalist whose criminal justice background was attained at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, he has covered social justice and race relations extensively in New York, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina and California. He is also a former city editor at the Thibodaux Daily Comet. His other books include For the Color of His Skin: The Murder of Yusuf Hawkins and the Trial of Bensonhurst and the New Untouchables: How America Sanctions Police Violence. A recipient of numerous awards from the Louisiana Press Association, the Associated Press Managing Editors Association and other news media organizations, DeSantis resides in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana.
John, thank you so much for joining us on Crime Capsule. It is a pleasure to have you.
[00:00:06.890] - John D
It's a pleasure to be here.
[00:00:10.070] - Benjamin
Normally, I ask our guests about methods and sources and bibliographies at the end of our conversation, after we've kind of covered the main bit of the story and the key players and that sort of thing. But in the case of this riot in Tibeto, this riot, this massacre, this absolute tragedy, the methods and the sources are central. I want to bring those right to the fore. You were not supposed to tell this story. In fact, no one was supposed to tell this story. Why was that?
[00:01:01.670] - John D
There are two distinct views here. One, of course, having to do with one having to do with the truth or the truth of the perpetrators at the time it occurred. And one of the big challenges in not only researching this but eventually writing about it was having to look at it and respect it from the standpoint of these people being people of their time, I certainly don't ascribe to their values, their values, the political situation. All of it had to be looked at and considered in the researching and the writing because it was the social, economic and political considerations that were part of this bubbling stew that led to the tragedy that led to the crime. And it was a crime, a crime for which nobody was ever held accountable. In a clearer answer to your question, it wasn't supposed to be told because on the one hand, it reflected very poorly on the ancestors of people who were very established members of very established white families, for lack of a better term. So any narrative which spoke the truth about what occurred conflicted or would conflict greatly with the group memory of what occurred. I didn't learn until well into the research.
And there were two facets of this research. One involved records and things you could look at, but the other, more importantly, had to do with the social research, the historical social research, oral histories. And it wasn't until the book was published that the current or the narrative up to that point had been that for white families in Tibeto, this atrocity was, in their mind, an act of selfdefense. And not to bring current day politics into this, but it was interesting to me that this story was being told at the start of the Trump presidency when fear and during that whole campaign in 2016, fear was a key element. And it was fear and beliefs of things that would occur, not really with a lot of basis that this story certainly.
[00:04:44.870] - Benjamin
From almost the very moment it was over. What you see at work here is what my old colleagues in archaeology departments would have called the politics of forgetting. Right? I mean, you have an immediate silencing beginning to take place and a cover up and really a letting go of this shameful act that would have left a permanent stain on parish's reputation. And for our listeners who aren't aware when we speak of Louisiana, Louisiana has parishes, not counties unlike other American States. So if you hear us talk about Terabon Parish or La Fush Parish, we're talking about counties. John, you had a lot of work to do to uncover this politics of forgetting and the early sources that you worked with Nichols State Archives University in that area. You had census lists, you had a coroner's report, and you even had a Journal by a local priest that you worked with. But they were also partial, weren't they?
[00:05:58.130] - John D
They were very much. And that's, again, why it was very important to actually be non judgmental in examining these things, because judgment during the course of the research would have hindered objective analysis. Yes. From the local media to the New Orleans media to, as you mentioned, the diaries of a priest, a local priest. These were all shaded in the colors, for lack of a better word, the ruling class at that time, they controlled the narrative. In fact, weeks after this occurred, and again, the more things changed, the more they remain the same. I guess one of the things that became apparent was that the people in authority were blaming the victims. And there was a letter that appeared in the Tibeto Sentinel and also, I believe, was published in one of the New Orleans papers, too, which a key player in these events. Judge Taylor Baby wrote of the tragedy of what occurred, and I'm using the word tragedy. He did not. But it was considered an unfortunate incident, and it came in Baby's way of looking at it because the Negroes, as he put it, had chosen the wrong leaders. They had chosen to follow the wrong people.
And certainly we've seen so many examples over the years in our lifetimes, especially when it comes to black white relations, for those in power to take that kind of a position, if you look and not to be tangential on this, but when I was working on my first book, which dealt with a modern day lynching, as it were, one of the things that was a constant throughout in New York in the 1980s was that the family of a young man who had been killed by some local white thugs in Brooklyn, the problem was not the murder. The problem was the fact that the young man's family and African American people in general had followed the wrong leader. They had followed Reverend Al Sharpton, and that was a really bad thing to do. So looking back at the massacre and the aftermath of it, the narrative became that if the local black population had not listened to labor organizers, that a lot of people would still be alive and this horrible thing would not have occurred. You had also mentioned and this is kind of chilling in the narrative that the local priest who had written of this in his diary, very glancingly so without giving any sense of the true horror of what occurred, ended his narrative by saying that, and I'm injecting the word, fortunately, that the sugar harvest that year was fine, that it was one of the best harvests that they had in years, despite the strike that led to the massacre.
That I think more than anything, certainly shows what the local mindset was all in the service of white gold.
[00:10:51.630] - Benjamin
in just a moment. But what struck me in your account was this is so common in questions of Southern research and Southern history. And this actually came up in an interview that we did with one of our guests about the Dixie mafia some weeks back. Your account describes over and over again the interwoven nature of community in Southern Louisiana. You interview the descendants of the families who were both participating in and victimized by this massacre. You speak to archivists who come from the places that their collections describe. And yet, despite this deeply interwoven nature, the coin has two sides, doesn't it? So often with Southern violence, the chief characteristic is its intimacy, the preexisting bonds between the perpetrator and the victim. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody has worked with everybody. There are familial relations which are at stake. Violence in the south, especially in this period, is rarely random, isn't it?
[00:12:24.110] - John D
Very rarely random, but a common thread. And certainly when we look during the time of the civil rights movement and those of us who know our history on that, for example, the issues that white society would blame African American people for, again, I'm using a very difficult phrase to work with you. It's not our Blacks who did the demonstrating, the protesting, or in this case, the striking. It's them outside agitators, always the agitators. Again, with that narrative we discussed in terms of the leaders of the strike, they were definitely seen as outside agitators, which goes back to that narrative of, well, our black people followed the wrong people because they should have followed us, because they should have known better. And again, in that sense, cross generationally, we see that narrative unfolding again and again.
[00:13:56.010] - Benjamin
There is an unlikely hero in this story, a very unlikely hero, a man who was nearly lost to history. Were it not for a startling discovery that you made in the course of the research, tell us about Jack Conrad.
[00:14:22.270] - John D
Actually, Jack Conrad wasn't nearly lost to history. He was nonexistent. Essentially, in this context, Jack Conrad was a man who was born, we believe, in either Ascension or Assumption Parishes, one of those two, if I recall him correctly, and ended up in a situation where his mother and himself and we believe a brother were sold during slavery to a family that was a land owning family and a land owning family. And Lafuge Parish, the Cailloux and the best that we could put together. He grew up on a plantation that the Kai US own. I need to inject here because this is going to come up at various points during our discussion. When we think of plantations, when we think of plantations, we think of Tara and the big house, and then there's fields nearby where people are working and so on. However, the truth was that in many cases, especially when you're dealing with sugar, which is something you're dealing with very much in South Louisiana, the plantation, as it were in some cases, consisted of tracts of land where sugar was grown. But it was not always this type of situation where people were living there, where there was this big plantation economy, the kind that we're used to reading about.
In this case, Mr. Caillout, who owned the property that Jack was involved with, was a Gunsmith, but he also and he and members of his family grew sugar. Sugar was an amazing cash crop. So Jack Conrad, somehow as he was growing up, became involved with sugar. We're not sure exactly how. And around 1862, after Union Army forces had overrun Tibetano after the Battle of Georgia Landing, many black families left the plantations on which they work, all traveling down what's now Highway One from the Donaldsonville area, going all the way down to Tibeta. And in many cases, some of the men and boys would end up either voluntarily or because they were impressed in would join the Union Army, the federal forces. And Jack Conrad, who would have been at that point, he was a young man. He joined the United States Army, which was the occupying army there, ended up getting mustard in New Orleans, and he became a member of what was then the 75th US Colored Infantry.
[00:18:21.810] - John D
So he was involved in the war to that extent. We know that some of his records indicate that he had served as a Carpenter, served as a Baker or chef for a while. But it's important to note that during the War Between the States, as well as during any conflict that we look at today, any war that we look at today, whether you were a Carpenter, a tank mechanic, a horseshoer, if you were traveling with the army, you were carrying arms and you were very much at risk. And that's an important thing to remember here. So Jack Conrad traveled with the 75th all the way north in Louisiana through the Red River campaign. So he was in some places where there was a lot of action. And then when the war was over, Jack Conrad was dismissed, decommissioned in New Orleans. And what he did, still a young man, was he went back to the Kawai family, he went back to the place where he had come from, and he began work in their sugar operation and then subsequently at someone else's sugar operation as ostensibly a paid laborer. Right. We know that one of the things that occurred with him was that he had acquired some skills that allowed him to actually do repairs on boilers, which was a big deal.
A boiler at a sugar refinery operation was the key piece of equipment, and so a boiler repairer would have been a key part of these operations, particularly, I might add, when the sugar industry in South Louisiana was attempting to get itself back on its feet in the aftermath of the war.
[00:21:06.050] - Benjamin
I'd actually like to ask you to read us a passage from your book about the extent of the sugar operation and in particular for our listeners who are not actually aware of how sugarcane is harvested and turned into refined or processed sugar or molasses, as the case may be, you have a pretty good account of how that works and how dangerous it was on page 36 in your book. And we'll come back to Jack because his role as kind of the hero of reclaiming the story from history is going to come very much to the four down as the years go by. But for now, if you would just start us off, it's an extended passage, two paragraphs on page 36, that begin in 1859, the slaves of Terabyn and La, Fush and Assumption Parishes. If you just take those next two long paragraphs for us, and I'll ask our listeners to bear with us because this detail is incredibly important.
[00:22:13.190] - John D
We'Re looking at a reference in these paragraphs to 1859, and that, of course, being just prior to the outbreak of the war. The slaves of Terra, Bone, Lafouche, and Assumption Parishes numbered 21,276. Overall, the non slave population of the three parishes comprised 19,923 whites, 315 free Blacks, and 103 native people. In a year when Louisiana produced more than 350,000 hog heads, hogset is a standard barrel of sugar. While it did not set a record, 1859 was one of the highest years in sugar production up to that time. The work done to produce it was intense, beginning with furrows dug a yard wide and seeds planted by hand six inches deep. Workers hunched and dug, planted and tended one row after another. Children as well as adults laid 70 plantings or more for one prospective area of growth, depending on the variety of Canes. As the crop grew, slaves swung large heavy cane knives against the stalks to whack away weeds. When harvest time came along, strong backs and arms wielded the knives against the tough stalks again. Once fell, they were loaded on some mule drone carts. As the carts wobbled to the Mills, women and children working as scrappers fell in behind, snatching up segments of cane that fell off.
A greater level of skill was employed at the refineries, where the stocks were crushed under huge rollers, in most cases three times over. The juice collected from the rollers was poured into large centrifuges that rapidly spun plastering blocks of solid Brown sugar to the walls and the sweet juice collected at the bottom. The juice was boiled at extremely high temperatures. As the crystallizing process began, more intensive work was required for breaking up the blocks of Brown sugar and other tasks. Danger lurked throughout the process. A missed step with a boiler or the handling of the searing hot juices could mean a horrible death. Slaves and later paid workers lost arms in the canecrochers. Workers from more recent times, now retired from the cane field, said in interviews that their own work was not much different from that of the slaves or wage workers in the later 19th century. Gustav Rhodes Jr. A retired Assumption Parish cane worker who began toiling and sugar when mules were still used, perhaps put it best in a 2007 interview when he said, you worked from can't, you can't can't see in the morning, so can't see at night.
[00:25:47.870] - Benjamin
That is remarkable. Thank you, John. When I read that, I just thought this was one of the best appreciations of the extent of the work. And for our listeners who are not familiar with the landscape of South Louisiana, you can still go to a number of these plantations that still exist and see the equipment that was used at the time. I'm thinking particularly of St. Joseph Plantation, these massive copper tons that were used. They are enormous. And you can see how anybody trying to wield one would just be at permanent sort of risk of having these horrible, as you say, boiling hot juices sloshing over onto them at any point in the process, scalding them, burning them, scarring them on their legs and arms just at every waking moment. It was grueling work producing this stuff. And yet the profits for the plant or class were so high that the physical risk and the danger were of less consequence.
[00:26:57.710] - John D
the profits for the industry overall, of course, were large enough to make it and at various peaks in the history of sugar in Louisiana. Certainly great fortunes were made, however, and this is one of the excuses for the violence that occurred. It was also, like other types of farming, a lot of risk, risks from nature, market risks, political issues, things such as the desire for tariffs at certain points and so on. All of the families that were in the sugar business, I need to point out here that we're not just talking about those who grew the sugar, those who own the land, but communities like Pivotal were so dependent on these crops. If you look at these communities today, when the oil field is the dominant economic driver, such as it's been recently, everyone is involved to one degree or another, from grocery stores to gas stations. With today with the well being of the oil industry or the oil service industry in the case of that region, well back during much of its history in the 18th and later the 19th century, these communities depended on sugary.
So even if you were not a sugar planter, your work one way or another depended on the success of these fields. And it was literally the economic life blood. That is what these local economies were built around. That's very important to remember. And so with war has happened. With war came destruction, came many issues involving land ownership, involving the ability to move the product of the crop itself. And so when the war was over, these people who had been Kings of what amounted to industry in that area at that time were penniless, and they had to rebuild their supply routes, they had to rebuild the business, and more than ever, they needed labor to do this. As we had just discussed, the labor was incredibly intensive, and an important aspect of sugar cane is that it depended by its very nature on gang labor. You had to have very strong men and very strong women and very strong men and a lot of them and a lot of them with the end of the war well, something else that needs to be said here is that when the war ended, there was another issue in Louisiana, and that was Reconstruction, and the sugar parishes like Terra, Bone and Fuch remain under federal control.
We're talking troops in the streets for roughly eleven years after the end of the war. Reconstruction lasted longer in Louisiana than it did anywhere else in the south. So although we would like to look at the war ending as being the time when prosperity could be rebuilt in these communities, from the standpoint of the community, you had all kinds of issues during that Reconstruction period.
[00:31:50.030] - Benjamin
And that struck me in your account because you described in some detail how at the end of the war, emancipation really was a shortlived victory. I mean, you had these whites who had fought for the Confederacy, the planter class, many of whom have gone off on horseback to the war. They were out of power in one sense, because their financial dealings had been decimated. But very quickly they sought to reassert the old order, even under federal occupation. So you had the landowners engaging in intimidation campaigns against black laborers. You had vigilante justice emerging as a theme during this period in the early 1860s, early 1870s, and you had resentment against the Freedman's Bureau, of course, which is widespread across the south. And yet you also have this other tension of the black laborers who had had that taste of freedom of rights. They are beginning to want more. They are wanting to become heirs to the land in their own right and to keep the guarantees of the end of the war. The federal guarantees in the Constitution enshrined. And so out of these tensions, small skirmishes, smaller sort of we call them riots. But the Colfax incident, Easter Sunday of 1873, they're not at the scale of what happened in Tibado.
But you begin to see these kind of conflagrations, right. You begin to see the angers, the frustrations boiling over, and suddenly bodies are dropping in the streets. And the tension between the New South that is emerging in this time and the Old South, which refuses to allow it to emerge, is manifest invisible.
[00:33:50.150] - John D
Very much. And, of course, other parts of the south where crops like cotton were essential, you had sugar, and it's idiosyncrasies in that sugar belt in South Louisiana. And there were various situations where people well, for one thing, newly propertied black people were the subject of various types of intimidation. It's important to remember that with the institution of the Freedman's Bureau, one of the things that occurred was that white landowners, these people who had been on top, were having their land taken away. Former Confederate officers who either refused or sometimes got back home too late to take loyalty of had their land confiscated. And so there was a tremendous amount of resentment in this sense. Several big tracts of land in Terrabone and in La Fuche ended up going to groups of black families via the Freedman's Bureau who would be doing petitions for the land had to meet certain requirements. There was something else important to remember the political at this time, which was that all during Reconstruction, there were various methods used by the federal government and by the Republicans who were taking power in Louisiana to deny the right of franchise to people who had owned property.
So in one situation that we mentioned, one polling place in La Fuch Parish was moved from a very easily accessible place on the main highway to way deep in the worker quarters of one of the plantations. And so men and of course, it was only men who were voting then either for various reasons, would not go and vote. There was ballot stuffing. There were all kinds of things going on. And this was the Republicans who were trying to maintain their power during and after Reconstruction. Now, in some parts of the south, some of this activity resulted in birth to organizations like the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana. You have to remember, the Ku Klux Klan did not admit Catholics, and you had a large number of Catholics who were landowners in South Louisiana. But there were other organizations like the Knights of the White Camellia, who attempted to enforce this idea of white rule. Eventually, what occurred was that the Democrats, these were the people who had been blanded whites and their supporters, they came back into power. There were major changes in government, but all along the way, violence was used to enforce the will of that numbered majority.
And so you had situations such as Colfax, where there was an attempt to well, the power of Republicans, which included newly enfranchised black voters. In Tibeto, there was a over time, the Home Guard under the Antivaido, the Home Guard. The militia, as it were, was an entirely black outfit. And so you had these newly minted black militiamen with the blessing of the official state government who were doing armed maneuvers in the middle of the town square, which did not sit well with the white populace.
[00:39:21.950] - Benjamin
One of the first being able to carry weapons. Right.
[00:39:29.110] - John D
Nichols was elected governor. One of the first things he did was disarm these militias, took their guns away, which was a huge victory for the planter class and the people who supported them. And I have to add something, which is that during Reconstruction, these black militias and again, I'm calling them black militias because their makeup was primarily black, but they were being fully supported by the government that was in power during Reconstruction. And so when you had various atrocities that occurred, whether it was a lynching of one black man or further north in Louisiana, situations like Colfax, these black militias would come to the aid of black people who were being terrorized that's during Reconstruction. So after Reconstruction, these protections no longer existed, not to mention that federal troops were withdrawing from the area. And so once again, as the Democrats seized control in Baton Rouge, you had a situation where the old Guard was reestablishing itself, and with that reestablishment came a re storing of the old ways in terms of the way order was set up on the various plantations and so on. What you then had was this burgeoning group of people, many of them former Confederate Army officers, and they were officers largely because they were landed people, men of power, men of money, and a lot of the ones who had the most to lose should the federal government be able to prevail.
And they had come back home and they wanted to build up their sugar operations again because it was all they had. They didn't have much else, but they had the land.
[00:42:11.210] - Benjamin
So we're working towards the events of November, 1887, which we will cover in detail next week. But one of the things which is often true of moments of great violence is that they don't come out of nowhere. Right. You don't suddenly have wars erupt overnight. You don't suddenly have massacres take place in a vacuum. There are always factors which lead to outbreaks of mass violence. You write about the events in the 1870s. There are a couple of strikes. That wintertime where the laborers who are still living on these plantations have organized and they have begun to find one another and to make demands of their employers, such as rising wages from $18 a month to $20 a month, or to be able to own part of the land on which they were working and share in the profits. What we have here is a growing set of these tensions that had been in place for some years with the planters allied with the state law enforcement apparatus and the labors who are organizing themselves under the Knights of labor, which is an organization you describe at great length.
What is the mood here as we approach 1887? Because it doesn't look like things are simmering down.
[00:44:03.590] - John D
There was a grudging understanding among the planters that they were going to have to deal with a phenomenon they had never dealt with before. And this is not going to sound good anyway, I put it. But if tomorrow, if I own horses and tomorrow my horses decided that they were going to negotiate with me what they received in return for pulling my wagons or for carrying me to the store, that would be unthinkable. That would be something that in my mindset, that would be something that in my mindset I would have great difficulty accepting. And again, when we look at the importance of seeing the mindset of the people at this time, the people who had been in power, that essentially was what the workers who had been an enslaved population who were regarded as property. All of a sudden your property is saying to you, hey, wait a minute. I don't like this deal. I don't like the way it's working out. I don't like the idea of you giving me a few pennies and paying the rest in plantation script. Plantation script is something that becomes very important to this conversation. There were situations where labor well, in 1874, on one of the very largest sugar plantations in South Louisiana, which was South Down, which was the sugar plantation.
By 1874, when the workers were saying, wait a minute, we want to negotiate our situation here. And the Minor family which owns Southbound was put in a position to have to negotiate. There were very tense moments of this. And as the planters struggled to come to terms with this new order, the workers struggled to try to be able to make ends meet. Because what was becoming apparent eight and ten and 15 years after the war was we're supposed to be free, but we're not. And the people. And remember, you get a whole new generation in here as well. People who were born not as slaves, but as free people who had ostensibly the right to vote. They wanted to be able to change their circumstances as anyone would. They wanted their piece of what they had been told they were entitled to. And so these labor issues, not only in Tarobone and La Fish, but also further west and New Iberia and other places began dealing with the idea of, hey, wait a minute, if we don't work, the sugar doesn't get planted or harvested. And we've got a bargaining chip here. What ended up occurring as a result of this was that the planters formed industry organizations.
They would do things like set the price of sugar. They would negotiate payment or terms of payment as a group that would extend to right down to the workers in the field. And so by the time 1886 rolls around, you already had a situation that made the planters very nervous. And I have to add, too, the idea, and this is where fear enters into the picture, the idea that the laborers could conceivably, just as it had happened in some cases during slavery, get what they wanted by way of violence? Well, with the exception of the Net Turner Rebellion, for example, those attempts didn't come too much, but there was still a tremendous amount of fear. The local medias, the outlets were very involved in spreading the idea of fear. And indeed, by the time you get to just before that 1887 growing season, the local newspaper in Tibeto had taken an article that they ran back just prior to 1876 about the local black militia. They took an article that had run in 76 about the local black militia, and they re ran the article as if it was true at that time. Right. It was disinformation of the type that we see on social media now, but that was in the mainstream media of the day.
And so this fear extended not just from the planters, the property owners, but to their wives, their children. They were taught to fear, and fear, as we see, becomes an important element of the disaster that occurred in 1887.
[00:51:01.840] - Benjamin
The last question that I have for you this week, John, is amid this climate of fear and uncertainty, intention, where was Jack Conrad? What was he doing at this moment just before the violence broke out?
[00:51:24.350] - John D
Jack Conrad we dawn on 1887, and I had mentioned that he had become a very highly skilled worker. So Jack Conrad was not living on a plantation at that point. Jack Conrad was living in a rent house in what was then referred to as back of town Tibeto, where there was a very large black population. He lived in this rent house with his wife Mary, with their children. And we believe he was living with his brother in law as well. One of the people who was living there with him was his son Grant. Now, we think that Grant, who was 19 years old in he was a laborer. We believe he was on strike when the strike occurred. Jack had continued working on the plantation, which was the plantation he worked on then was owned by Mr. Whitehead. And Jack was working, although when we get to November 23, 1887, Jack had stated that he was home sick and that he was not on strike, but that did not deter what occurred later in terms of the violence.
[00:53:02.050] - Benjamin
Well, we're going to pick right back up with Jack when we come back next week. But for now, thank you so much for setting the stage for us and for helping us to understand the tensions that led to this disaster, as we said last time with Stephanie Hoover, these are not the stories that we want to hear, but they are the stories that we have to hear. So thank you, John, so much for being here with us.