SUPPRESSION OF THE BLACK KNIGHTS
SUPPRESSION OF THE BLACK KNIGHTS
To defeat the organizational efforts of Northern workers, employers used the blacklist, the lockout, Pinkertons, “iron-clad” oaths, anti-labor laws, intimidation, and discharge; Southern employers used all of these and added to the arsenal sectional weapons of their own: vigilante terrorism, lynchings of the threat of lynching, the militia, and blatant hysterical appeals to racism
A special fury was reserved for Negro Knights and the men who organized them, forcing the Knights to work in secret. For example, Hiram F. Hoover, a white organizer in South Carolina and Georgia, secretly recruited Negroes into the Co-Operative Workers of America. Its purposes centered around better wages and conditions, along with civil and political reforms. The organization held its meetings between midnight and daylight to avoid detection, but white opponents constantly harassed known members. Hoover’s experiences graphically revealed what treatment organizers of black farm workers might expect to receive. May 1886 was an eventful month for Hoover. In Milledgeville, Georgia his life was threatened if he refused to leave town. From there he went to Warrenton, Georgia, where he ignored a similar ultimatum. As Hoover met with about 300 blacks in a local church, masked men delivered several shotgun blast through the window. Near death, the stricken leader was taken to Augusta on May 20, where physicians removed 150 pieces of buckshot from his face. Hoover lost the vision in one eye and thereafter his face was a massive scar. En route to Augusta, he was nearly lynched, but the mob spared him because of his condition. After he recovered Hoover moved to New York and returned to obscurity. Documents 1–6 reflect the hostility encountered by union organizers in South Carolina.
The greatest strike of the decade in which Negro workers were involved, however, occurred in the sugar districts of Louisiana in November 1887. There had been several strikes for higher pay in the past, but invariably they were smashed by the state militia. In 1886, the Knights began to organize black and white sugar workers, and in November, 1,000 mostly black laborers went on strike demanding a fifty percent raise which would bring their wage to 75₵ per day. In retaliation owners formed the Sugar Planters’ Association, drove the workers from their cabins, and crushed the strike with scabs. But this was only a rehearsal for the main event. With the average male earning about $13 per month, which he received in tickets redeemable only at the company store, another stoppage seemed inevitable.
In October 1887, District Assembly 194, representing the sugarmen of four parishes, demanded that the planters pay $1.25 per day rendered weekly in legal tender. When the planters summarily rejected these demands, 9,000 Negroes and 1,000 other sugar workers walked off the plantations. Immediately the landowners called on Governor McEnery to send in the militia. Enraged by the sigh of black and white workers acting in concert, and thus violating the color line which McEnery declared “God Almighty has himself drawn,” the governor readily complied. When fifty to 100 Negroes refused to disperse, the militia opened fire, killing four strikers and wounding five others. Throughout the parishes strikers were arrested or evicted from their cabins.
When the owners agreed to $1.00 per day, but refused to recognize the Knights of Labor as their bargaining agent, the black strikers flatly rejected the offer. As the strike progressed, black leaders were arrested and imprison while armed white military “clubs” attacked make-shift settlements of evicted Negro families, reportedly killing twenty inhabitants in one incident. The terrorism reached its height when a white mob removed two incarcerated blacks from their jail cells and lynched them. In the face of such viciousness, and the refusal of the Knights’ national organization to become involved, the strikers’ spirits failed, and most of the workers returned to the fields under the old terms (Doc. 7–48).
To black workers the sugar strike of 1887 had been a terrible lesson. Even though 9,000 Negroes had refused to accept a higher wage in order to secure the recognition of their union, that same organization refused to support them Once again a white union had demonstrated to black workers that labor solidarity was an ideal which did not include Negroes, and in the end this realization would help to undermine the Knights of Labor.