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Book Chapter

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There are several ways to fit these events into narratives of southern history in this period. The presence of black and white Knights of Labor organizers encourages one to view the strike as an unusually bold instance of the cautious policy of cross-racial alliance followed by the Knights in this period. The failure of the strike, and the inability of the Knights to protect their members from repression, might be seen to illuminate the limits of that policy. Alternatively, one can situate this conflict in the story of modernization and consolidation of industry, a Sugar Bowl variant on the Gilded Age pattern of large-scale capital investment and large-scale labor repression. On this view, the breaking of the strike eliminated an obstacle to the hegemony of a particular elite vision of the organization of production and of labor relations. Finally, one can understand the Thibodaux Massacre alongside the 1873 Colfax Massacre and the 1874 Battle of Canal Street in New Orleans, Louisiana's macabre and outsized contributions to the violent imposition of white supremacy through a combination of local white mobilization and what Lawrence Powell calls "silk-stocking vigilantism".

This chapter is somewhat less ambitious. Rather than situate the events of November 1887 in one or another story about where Louisiana was headed, it will ask a different pair of questions: How could a strike of this magnitude ever get off the ground in a setting as hostile to African-American mobilization as the Louisiana sugar parishes in the 1880s; and what might we learn about the politics of freedom by looking at the decades that separated the end of slavery from the events of 1887? These questions are addressed on three levels: the structure of production on sugar estates; patterns of mobilization by African Americans in these parishes in the 1870s; and the social geography of the bayou country, with its implications for networks of support and points of vulnerability.