Persons Unknown

By  |  March 17, 2020
Photos and captions by Nina Robinson | A family portrait at Laurel Valley Village in Thibodaux, Louisiana, honors Jack Conrad and the rest of the victims of the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887. “That tree,” says Wiletta Ferdinand, one of Conrad’s descendants, “if it could tell the story of what happened on that plantation, we would know so much about the horrors of slavery, but also the spirit of our ancestors, how they made it through this horrible time.” Photos and captions by Nina Robinson | A family portrait at Laurel Valley Village in Thibodaux, Louisiana, honors Jack Conrad and the rest of the victims of the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887. “That tree,” says Wiletta Ferdinand, one of Conrad’s descendants, “if it could tell the story of what happened on that plantation, we would know so much about the horrors of slavery, but also the spirit of our ancestors, how they made it through this horrible time.”

A community’s search for a mass grave in Thibodaux, Louisiana


 

T

he lawn is deeper than it is wide, stretching back about one hundred and fifty feet from the drainage ditch beside the road. It extends from the ditch to a metal fence covered in a tangle of vines that have swarmed the nearby bushes and trees, creating a wall of leaves. The grass is neatly and perpetually mowed, a pale green scorched brown at the edges. Other than under the trees at the back, it lacks any shade, lies wholly exposed. To the right, the short, uniform turf gives way to gravel, and then to a peach-colored mobile home. To the left, it meets the weathered yellowish plaster building of the lawn’s owner, the Raymond Stafford Post 513 of the American Legion.

It had rained earlier in the day, but the sun now washes Thibodaux, Louisiana, in late-summer swamp heat. Clouds billow like bleached linens tossed into a blue sky. From their perches in the few surrounding oak trees, birds sing tumbling, chaotic trills into the air. Rows of slim, metal-roofed shotgun houses line the block; their structures sag under the weight of time, paint peeled.

No one is in sight, but a song drifts on the breeze, seeping through the mobile home’s walls, the stereo turned up, a voice crooning, “But I know . . . a change gonna come.” 

I’m sitting in my car at the edge of the impeccable grass, gazing at the level ground (the lawn is sometimes used as a parking lot). I’m listening to that song, of all uncannily fitting songs, and to the birds, and trying to see, improbably, if I can sense it. The street’s unassuming stillness seems to accentuate the prickling at my neck of some extraordinary potential, as if the breeze itself came from the dead.

Before this land housed the Raymond Stafford American Legion Post, founded by black veterans during segregation, it was a city dump. Prior to that, local lore tells of a gruesome use. The stories could be wrong, the feeling imagined. Perhaps—and perhaps not—buried beneath the Legion’s land lie the remains of black sugarcane workers who were among those murdered by a white mob on November 23, 1887, tossed into a mass grave, and then promptly, purposefully forgotten. The estimate of the total number of the dead ranges, unconscionably, from eight to, as one newspaper reported at the time, three hundred.

 108 feat Westwood Robinson 01Black veterans established the R.S. Post 513 of the American Legion during segregation and named it after Raymond Stafford, the first black soldier from Lafourche Parish to die in World War II. Prior to that, the property was the city landfill. To many locals, it is also known as the mass grave site of black sugarcane workers killed during the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887.

 

Thibodaux, population 14,576, perches on a slight bend in Bayou Lafourche (pronounced la-foosh), in Lafourche Parish, about an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans. Parts of the town feel frozen in time, a few blocks of antebellum architecture in the historic core and the odd surviving plantation house. Common surnames—the name Thibodaux among them—extend back centuries, and other signs of the past endure. Outside the white-columned parish courthouse (built in 1860, per its historic marker) flies a slightly tattered American flag. Thibodaux was once a port in a sea of sugarcane plantations, and the tall stalks still grow in rows in the fields along single-lane highways, their leaves reaching up in flopping, emerald spears as the autumn harvest nears. The industry continues to bring in $3 billion annually to the state, according to the American Sugar Cane League. Sugarcane gave Louisiana its colonial wealth and the South its sweet tooth. It made fiefdoms of plantations and kings of white plantation owners. Enslaved Africans and their descendants worked, were born, and died on these plantations well into the late twentieth century.

I’d heard of Thibodaux’s suspected mass grave from local news reports in 2017, and it seemed, at the time, unlikely: a forgotten mass grave in a small Southern town. I’d later come to learn of other such sites. In 2018, news broke of the discovery of nearly one hundred graves of black men worked to death in sugar plantation prison camps near Houston, Texas. Last year, archeologists announced that they may have found mass graves stemming from the Tulsa massacre of 1921. The act of surfacing intentionally buried history feels righteous, even luminous, casting back old lies as if they were shadows, brightening the truth. In Thibodaux, the shadows are more than one hundred and thirty years old.

In 1887, a decade after the end of Reconstruction, the planter class of Louisiana’s river parishes faced financial ruin. Black sugarcane workers, organized by the Knights of Labor, had launched a multi-parish strike in late October just as the harvest loomed. They demanded better wages and the elimination of scrip, a form of plantation-store credit that funneled wages directly back to planters and stripped black workers of what little financial freedom they’d gained through the abolition of slavery. Planters had spent Reconstruction “determined to reassert authority over labor and over black people,” as John C. Rodrigue writes in Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1862–1880; economic and racial primacy were synonymous. 

As tensions rose, Governor Samuel McEnery sent in the state militia. Planters kicked workers out of their plantation homes—many of them lived in former slave quarters—and brought in strikebreakers. Black men, women, and children camped on the streets of Thibodaux, and local newspapers regularly complained of “audacious” and “idle Negros.” There were reports of violence perpetrated by both camps, and when the state militia left late in the month, Thibodaux’s white elite, led by Judge Taylor Beattie, created a “Committee on Peace and Order” and enforced martial law. White men with guns patrolled the town. Early on a Wednesday morning, November 23, 1887, someone hidden in the cane fields shot at two white guards standing near a fire. A bullet hit one of the men’s cheeks and fell out of his mouth. (Both men survived.)

A planter-class woman, Mary Pugh, wrote that the shots “opened the Ball.” For the next two hours, a white mob of fifty to sixty men roamed the black and white parts of town, dragging black men and boys from houses and slaughtering them on sight, forcing others to stand in the middle of the road and then run for their lives as the mob sprayed them with bullets. Other stories tell of white residents hiding their favored black servants. Men were chased into the swamps and cane fields. Bodies continued to be found weeks later. Pugh wrote that the massacre “will settle the question of who is to rule . . . for the next fifty years”: the white man or the black man (Pugh used a slur). It would be longer before another labor-organizing effort arose. As for the harvest, one townsperson noted at the end of the year that it had been the biggest crop of sugar “in living memory.” 

History is, in part, the memories we choose to protect and reinforce, to ensure their longevity and influence. In Thibodaux’s protected memory, sugarcane has endured, plantations have endured, Confederate heroes have endured—but not the massacre. In history books, it survived as a literal epilogue on Louisiana’s sugarcane plantations. Stories passed down through families were vague. Some scholars and few others even knew it took place. That is, until a few years ago, when a journalist wrote a book about it and sparked the question not just of how the town should remember its past, but whether it should quite literally unearth it in the search for a century-old mass grave.

John DeSantis’s book The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike landed in bookstores in the fall of 2016. A gravelly voiced, chain-smoking newspaper veteran with wisps of white hair and light blue eyes, DeSantis moved to the Thibodaux area from New York in 1995 to work at local newspapers, including stints as the city editor of the town’s paper, the Thibodaux Daily Comet, and as a reporter at the Houma Times in the next town south.

DeSantis first learned about the massacre from Burnell Tolbert, sixty-seven, the president of the local NAACP, who had heard snippets about it from his grandfather, a sugarcane worker. DeSantis has a long history of covering race and violence. His previous books probed the murder of black Brooklyn teen Yusuf Hawkins and police violence against minority groups. The story of the massacre preoccupied him, and he took it on as a kind of crusade. “Truth is something that begs to be told, and I think sometimes it just has to wait a long time,” he told me. It was DeSantis’s doggedness that pressed Clifton Theriot, the archivist at Thibodaux’s Nicholls State University, to try unorthodox methods—he searched the archives’ entire collection from 1887—that revealed the record of a coroner’s inquest, written in partially legible cursive on long, tea-stained paper that likely hadn’t been seen since it was catalogued in the 1990s. 

The inquest had been conducted hastily the day of the massacre, in the aftermath of the violence. Held before an all-white jury and consisting of what appear to be all-white witnesses, it is ostensibly an investigation into who killed seven black men and one woman murdered by the mob. It runs a brief four pages, three-quarters of which describe in detail how the two white guards were shot and none of which names a single member of the mob, nor what happened to the bodies of those who were killed. The coroner, Dr. John Gazzo, concludes simply that the victims “died of gunshot wounds received from persons unknown.” (“Persons unknown” would become the ubiquitous, obscuring legal phrase applied to the perpetrators of lynchings.) But while it lacks any real inquiry, it remains a crucial document as the only known official record of specific victims, whose names are recorded in arched ink: Willis Wilson, Felix Pierre, Archy Jones, Frank Patterson, Riley Anderson, Mahaley (Mahala, according to DeSantis’s book) Washington, Marcelin Welton, and Grant Conrad.

With those names in hand, DeSantis scoured census records and discovered Grant’s father, Jack Conrad, formerly enslaved on a plantation in Lafourche Parish and a veteran of the Civil War. At the National Archives, DeSantis found Jack’s Union Army pension file, a two-hundred-page treasure trove. In testimony they provided so that Jack could claim compensation from the Army for his injuries, both Jack and Grant’s sister Clarisse, who went by Clara, describe the massacre in detail. “When I opened the door, one of the mob said ‘crack down on him’ and at that they went to shooting,” Jack testified. He hid under his house, was shot multiple times and left for dead. Clara watched the mob shoot and kill her uncle, Welton, and gun down nineteen-year-old Grant, her brother, as he tried to hide behind a barrel.

The Conrads’ story became an overarching narrative for DeSantis’s book. After his manuscript deadline had passed but before publication, DeSantis again searched census records and obituaries for descendants of Clara and her husband, Jesse Jackson, until he came across Sylvester Jackson, a man who’d lived in Thibodaux all his life. “I knew he was an older man, and I didn’t want to wait until he could see me. I wanted to share this with him immediately, right then,” DeSantis told me. He called Jackson and inquired about his family tree. “I asked him if he minded if I told him about a piece of his family history he might not know. And he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then I told him the story of Jack Conrad.” 

Jackson is a tall man, lately thinned by age and illness, with a low, kind voice. “I didn’t even know Jack Conrad’s name,” he told me with a note of amazement. He had no idea who Jack was, nor did anyone in his family. 

The book’s publication drew national headlines, prompting a feature in Smithsonian magazine. Patty Whitney, a local genealogy researcher who sits on the executive committee of the Lafourche Heritage Society, said of the massacre, “It’s not taught around here at all. It’s not acknowledged. It’s not discussed. It never happened.” The national attention created a stir in town. Some white residents “were horrified” after the book’s release, according to Whitney, filled with the sense that the publicity surrounding the massacre would have some kind of negative consequence for the town. One person told her that it’s “just going to cause trouble and make black people think they deserve something,” she said, a reference to reparations. The book arrived just as the national battle over Confederate monuments began to kindle, and one could not miss the connection: a violent, white-supremacist history being unearthed, Jim Crow–era monuments tipping off their pedestals—both efforts to correct the inequities of inherited history. DeSantis, who felt especially compelled to uncover the story in the wake of the mass killing of black worshipers at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, was aware of the scab he was about to rip off. “I had a responsibility I felt to do something, whatever was within my power, to make it a healing thing instead of a hurting thing,” he told me. 

I met DeSantis at a Starbucks in a strip mall in Houma, a landscape of box stores and parking lot mazes. We sat in the corner of the patio, him with a cigarette between two fingers, which he draped over the railing to coax the smoke away from the table. Conversation with DeSantis is a series of dizzying right-angle turns through fine detail and numerous sub-threads, and we talked for over an hour. He had pursued the story based in part on the knowledge that the local and state press had helped cover up the violence. He hoped that a local newspaper would finally “tell the story that it had not told the people years before.” 

DeSantis created the nonprofit Louisiana 1887 Memorial Committee after the book’s launch, carefully curated around the consensus that history, good and bad, needs to be remembered, and that the victims, if they could be found, deserve a dignified burial. Among those recruited for the committee were Jackson and other descendants of the massacre victims, Burnell Tolbert, and a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp.
DeSantis also worked with descendants to press for official acknowledgment of the massacre at the state and federal
level. In December of 2016, an American flag flew above the U.S. Capitol in remembrance of the massacre’s victims, at the behest of Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond; in the fall of 2017, the city and parish issued proclamations condemning the violence and jointly declaring November 23, 2017, as “1887 Commemoration Day.” The bishop of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese held a mass to honor the victims. 

The proclamations stop short of an apology for what happened. “The shootings were extra-judicial and extra-legal, contrary to the laws of Louisiana, injurious to peace and order,” and no one was ever held accountable, one proclamation reads in part, and states that the city condemns “the violence that occurred on November 23, 1887.” It ends with a call for “continued efforts to explore this history in order to facilitate justice and reconciliation.” It leaves out who, exactly, is responsible for such efforts. 

108 feat Westwood Robinson 02Wiletta Ferdinand (right), Barry Payton Jr. (left), and Sylvester “Uncle Sampson” Jackson stand near the sugarcane field on the Caillouet Plantation. Their shared ancestor, Jack Conrad, was a survivor of the Thibodaux Massacre. Born enslaved in 1834, he—along with his three-year-old brother and their mother—was sold for $1,000 to Jacques Caillouet of the Caillouet Plantation.

 

Wiletta Ferdinand, Sylvester Jackson’s niece, first heard of the massacre from a history professor at Howard University in the 1970s, with no sense then of what it might mean to her family. She’s now leading their efforts to commemorate the dead. Ferdinand has dark, shining eyes and plump cheeks, and she wears her hair in a black bob with bangs that drape across her forehead. She’s not particularly tall, but she has a quiet presence and seems perpetually happy; she is as likely to laugh at the end of any given sentence as not. Before DeSantis’s book and his phone call to her uncle, the family traced their Thibodaux roots back to her great-great-grandmother Clara, Jack’s daughter and the source of Ferdinand’s middle name. Every summer as a child, Ferdinand, now in her sixties, came from her home in New Orleans to stay with relatives who lived a few blocks away from the Legion. The yard used to host small fairs, and kids like Ferdinand rode the rides, ran up and down the field, “on top of probably the graves of our ancestors,” she said. Later, her nephew threw the football across it. Jackson, eighty-seven—the family’s “Uncle Sampson”—grew up a few blocks away. He’s now the patriarch, a dapper dresser quick to chuckle. Long ago, his mother told him that the Legion’s land was a grave (later, when DeSantis knocked on the doors up and down this block, the older folks all pointed down the street to the crisp lawn, and they, too, called it a graveyard). “They didn’t talk about it too much. It was like a secret,” Jackson told me. Jackson served in the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force, and he briefly joined the Legion. The first house he owned with his wife, Delores, purchased sixty-two years ago, was directly across the street. 

In the wake of DeSantis’s book, history and rumor are colliding. The Thibodaux Massacre puts the dead at thirty to sixty, but DeSantis could not find records of their burials. Denis Gaubert, the commander of the local Randall Lee Gibson camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a member of the 1887 Memorial Committee, said Paul Leslie, a historian and former professor at Nicholls in Thibodaux, told him about the massacre decades ago, and even pointed to the Legion lawn as a possible gravesite.

DeSantis formed the committee, in part, to figure out how to investigate the site. He reached out to local archeologists. The committee and scientists held a public meeting in the spring of 2018 to gauge the town’s interest, and those who showed up were in favor of moving forward. On a blistering 95-degree day in May, a team of scientists surveyed the site. Davette Gadison—a forensic anthropologist and PhD candidate at Tulane University who’s excavated mass graves in Guatemala, El Salvador, and other countries—led the team, which also included Mark Rees, head of the Louisiana Public Archeology Lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Cynthia Ebinger, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane. Jackson arrived at 10 a.m. and sat all day in the nearby shade, watching. 

The goal wasn’t to immediately find human remains, but to establish just how far down they might need to dig in order to do so. They used ground-penetrating radar and dug soil samples across a forty-five-meter-by-twenty-meter area, compiling the data to build a map of the ground beneath the lawn. Think of the land, Gadison told me, “like a layer cake.” The grass sits on top. Beneath it, layers of compacted debris from the site’s era as a city dump and incinerator extend more than a meter deep: an array of clay, loam, and silt in dark-grays, browns, and olives, mottled by blacks and reds, shot through with a hodgepodge of shell, brick, rusted iron, ceramic tile, glass, coal, and ferrous metals. The debris was so dense in one place that it broke the steel tip off the probe. Beneath that, the core samples found a layer of grayish-brown soil that appeared sterile—undisturbed, perhaps, since 1887. Mass graves leave behind a scar in the ground, Gadison explained, like a cake that’s been cut and put back together. Even when a pit has been refilled, its steep edges remain. This is what they were looking for.

The survey’s results were inconclusive: The radar and core samples revealed plenty of unsurprising evidence of human action, even a suggestion of right angles in the soil, but no specific indication of a mass grave. In a report delivered in the fall of 2018, the scientists recommended further exploration, remote radar sensing, and, this time, a backhoe to slowly peel away the ground in three-foot-deep trenches, to get beneath the dump’s remnants. They warned of environmental hazards of digging up a landfill, and of the fact that soil pH and the high water table could deteriorate bone. The dump, the report added, could have “obliterated evidence of a mass burial.” 

“I’ll put it to you this way,” Rees said. “If someone wanted to hide a mass grave, then there’d be no better way of doing it than putting a landfill on top of it.”

Rees estimated that the next step could cost as little as a few thousand dollars or as much as tens of thousands, depending mostly on whether labor and equipment are donated or paid for. He’s seen less important projects wrap up within a week—but those tend to be driven by regulatory requirements. If, for instance, someone dug up the Legion’s land to build apartments and found remains, they would need to excavate those remains with an Unmarked Burials Permit. There used to be a state government program to fund archeological digs with public value, Rees added, but he said it died under budget cuts. As long as the land remains as is, there is no state obligation to touch it. “Not all history is wanted,” he told me.

But this history, at least by some, is desperately wanted, however challenging it may be to find. One of the ways we care for the living is through caring for the dead. We embalm. We inter. We burn, cloak, anoint, watch over, and erect gravestones. Jackson is hoping to bury his long-dead uncles in a family tomb, where Clara Conrad Jackson’s remains lie. Ferdinand, too, wants a home for her ancestors, the discovery of whom she described as an awakening.

“Even if they’re in the spiritual world, we can always go there with the name on the grave, the stone, and say, ‘We need help. Oh, please give us the strength to do whatever we need to do,’” she said. “And that’s how we feel about the people who are in the unmarked grave. If they’re there, we would like some closure.

“I think we really need a monument for Jack Conrad and the victims of the Thibodaux massacre in Thibodaux, on Canal Boulevard”—the main thoroughfare—“but you know, that’s my opinion,” Ferdinand added. 

Allan Wilson, a Houston-based chef, is a descendant of Willis Wilson, one of the eight named victims of the massacre, and he, too, wants the site dug up and the massacre memorialized. In an eerie echo of dates, Wilson’s son was born exactly one hundred years after the massacre, on November 23, 1987.

Gaubert, the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp commander, joined the 1887 Memorial Committee out of a love for and a commitment to history. He likewise believes that a monument is needed, something he sees as akin to keeping up monuments to the Confederacy, which he views as memorials to dead Confederate soldiers. “People say, ‘Well, you know, [the Confederate monuments were] done to intimidate the blacks and to celebrate white supremacy.’ Well, I don’t believe that. I mean, there may have been some underlying current of thought along those lines, but you have to understand that the South lost a lot of young men in that war. 

“History is history. Whether it’s ugly or pretty, alright. You can’t change it. It happened,” he said. “We need to remember it.” 

Ferdinand’s nephew, Barry Payton Jr., told me that digging up the site will help expose the truth. He said he hoped the city, the parish, and Nicholls State University, named for the Confederate general Francis T. Nicholls, would “get involved” and “put [their] name on it.”

He added, “It’s a matter of principle. If it’s not there? Let’s look somewhere else. We know that this incident happened, and the truth needs to come out. Certain animals get better burials.”

Over the past year, DeSantis has taken a step back from any leadership role in memorializing the massacre or digging up the grave, handing control over to the descendants, to whom be believes it belongs (“There comes a shadow, a vulnerability to the idea of historical or cultural appropriation, which I’m very sensitive to,” he told me). The 1887 Memorial Committee has gone dormant, its website defunct. And Ferdinand’s family members have set up their own nonprofit to help memorialize the massacre: The Jack Conrad Thibodaux Massacre Foundation.

108 feat Westwood Robinson 03Margie Scoby (right) with her daughter, Kori, at the Ducros Plantation. As the founder, president, and curator of the Finding Our Roots African American Museum in Houma, Scoby explains, “I’m in charge of the most powerful African American museum in the South. I take pride in it, because it tells me my family history. . . . It says that we came out victorious, and we will continue to strive for the best. It’s not there to put anybody to shame; history is history, but it needs to be told. My theory is if you don’t tell, it’s gonna repeat itself.”

 

On a recent fall day, Ferdinand sat on a folding chair under the shade of a tent at Gentilly Fest—one of those patchworks of music stages, food stalls, and craft vendors on a sprawling park in Gentilly, a New Orleans neighborhood built over drained swampland and peppered with brick bungalows. A few cousins and her granddaughter milled about. Above them, a large banner announced: in memory of jack conrad, grant conrad and other victims: thibodaux massacre, november 23, 1887. Muddled music carried from the gospel stage over a thin crowd—that afternoon the Saints were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars, and attendance at Gentilly Fest was modest.

The family had been there for two days, soliciting donations and selling $1 pink pens and Kit Kat bars to raise funds. Some of the money would be used, they hoped, to place a plaque naming victims of the massacre at the Legion. A portion of the funds would support a contest the family organized which awards a handful of $100 scholarships to New Orleans students who write essays about the massacre. “If we dig deeper we could find that our ancestors were just as strong and brave as Jack Conrad,” one student finalist wrote. “His story lives on through his family.” And some of the funds could eventually be used to dig up the suspected graveyard. 

“It is a big step and it needs to happen, and it can’t happen without money,” Ferdinand told me. That day they didn’t get many donations, though a couple of teachers said they wanted her to do a presentation in their classrooms. 

Most people at the festival had never heard of the massacre. “They asked, was it anything like in Oklahoma or Florida?” Ferdinand said. In the Tulsa and Rosewood riots of the 1920s, white residents attacked black people, their homes, and businesses. Others have compared the Thibodaux massacre to the Colfax (1873) and St. Bernard (1868) massacres, both in Louisiana, when mostly black residents also died at the hands of white residents, leaving an estimated dead of sixty-two to one hundred fifty, and thirty-five to one hundred thirty-five, respectively. 

A woman walked over. “Thibodaux massacre?” she asked. “This happened in 1887? I have people out there.”

Ferdinand told her about Jack, and how he survived: “So Jack told the story.”

“Wow,” the woman said.

“So pass it on,” said Ferdinand.

“I surely will. My mom and her people are from Thibodaux and Houma. My mom always took us to Thibodaux and Houma for Thanksgiving.”

“What’s the last name?” asked Ferdinand.

“Tolbert.”

“Burnell!” said Ferdinand. “He’s with the NAACP.”

“He’s my mom’s first cousin!”

“Okay! He came to one of our events.” Ferdinand showed the woman DeSantis’s book, for which Tolbert wrote an introduction. 

“This is beautiful,” the woman said. “This should be a movie.”

Barring some influx of massive funds or viral attention, this was how Ferdinand and her family could spread the word, could convince people to care about this sliver of vicious history, so as to raise enough money to find the missing dead and leave a permanent marker to the massacre on Thibodaux’s landscape. One slick humid day, one woman at a time.

“We’re getting a lot of exposure,” she said. “The exposure, that’s what we’re trying to do. Tell a true story—to whoever comes.” 

108 feat Westwood Robinson 04Barry Payton Jr. walks through the slave quarters at Laurel Valley Plantation, the largest surviving nineteenth- and twentieth-century sugarcane plantation complex in the United States; more than sixty original structures, including slave quarters and Creole cabins, remain on the property.

 

108 feat Westwood Robinson 05Wiletta Ferdinand (right) and her sister, Linda, stand at the edge of Laurel Valley Plantation. 

Inside a converted two-story house with white siding in Houma, Thibodaux’s larger neighbor, Margie Scoby and Alvin Tillman direct the Finding Our Roots African American Museum, opened in 2016. They describe themselves as two of a kind, vessels of their family histories, chosen by grandparents and elders who poured stories into them when they were still children under the shade of oak trees. Both believe their work—digging through old newspapers or dusty archives in local courthouses—is guided by the “spirit of the ancestors.” “Everything that we’re looking for, everything that people can’t find, we happen to find it,” Scoby said. Tillman called Scoby his “provision from God.” Scoby said of Tillman, “He have the gift.” 

We met on a fall day when the museum was closed. In a dark back room, the walls covered with floor-to-ceiling documents and memorabilia, Scoby showed me the small exhibit they’ve curated on the Thibodaux massacre. A record of the Georgetown College slave sale lists a one-year-old boy, Felix Pierre, bought by Thibodaux’s Judge Beattie in 1838. Forty years later, the name reappears on a list of victims in the coroner’s report of the massacre. 

We passed a wood cutting hanging in the hallway of a family digging beside an oak tree, and we entered a large, wood-paneled kitchen where jars of soil sat on a window ledge—coffee-colored, charcoal, and tawny brown. They were for a planned exhibit called Blood, Sweat and Tears, featuring samples of earth from every plantation in Lafourche, Terrebonne, and St. Mary parishes and the names of every black person who lived on them. There were one hundred and ten plantations in Houma alone, Scoby said. 

This museum is the proposed site for a memorial to the Thibodaux massacre’s victims created by the Equal Justice Initiative, the founder of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (This memorial would be separate from the effort to erect a plaque at the suspected gravesite by the Legion.) At the EJI memorial, tall steel columns suspended in rows are inscribed with the names of lynching victims—one column per county where a lynching took place. The memorial also includes duplicate columns intended to be erected in the corresponding counties. (In a New Yorker profile of EJI founder Bryan Stevenson, Jeffrey Toobin described this component of the memorial as “provocative,” since the “columns that remain in Montgomery will stand in mute rebuke to the places that refuse to acknowledge their history of lynching.”) The column for Lafourche parish lists fifty-two victims, all but ten “Unknown.” Scoby believes that one of her own great-great-grandfathers, Harrison Johnson, may have died in the violence on surrounding plantations leading up to the massacre, since she couldn’t find a record of him after 1887. 

Tillman, who that day sported an Obama presidential baseball cap, was the first black chairman of the Terrebonne Parish Council. He grew up on the local Hollywood Plantation. “Here at the museum we share those narratives as a teaching tool, you know, to move toward the completeness of the history of the tri-parish area,” he said, a completeness that is missing. “Because if you’re going to tell a story, you tell the story.” Municipalities have a tendency to pacify those who seek unwanted history, Tillman added: “Why don’t we give you a proclamation, we do this ceremony for you guys, everything gonna be alright. Then we move on.” With the Thibodaux massacre, he said, “basically that’s what happened.” 

On an earlier visit to the area, I’d wandered through the Laurel Valley Plantation store, a small museum and tourist destination in a former general store where workers once used scrip to buy goods, one of the remaining buildings of a once vast plantation in Thibodaux. Down a side road, beyond the bending spikes of sugarcane, single-room slave quarters still stand, their wooden walls bleached gray. The store’s shelves, its walls, and all available surfaces were covered with plantation memorabilia. A honky-tonk country song played in the background. Paul Leslie, the history professor who once told Denis Gaubert about the massacre, also runs the plantation store and organizes the annual Laurel Valley Spring Festival celebrating Louisiana’s “sugar-cane culture,” as he told a local paper last year. DeSantis told me that Leslie took issue with aspects of the book, but when I requested an interview, Leslie declined due to poor health. So did a descendant of one of those implicated as a leader of the white mob. Nor did Thibodaux’s mayor respond to interview requests. When I visited the store, a gracious woman behind the desk was happy to chat about the book. She told me that her husband doesn’t agree with everything DeSantis found, and that “there was some discussion of how it all worked out and who was driving the massacre.” DeSantis has a certain viewpoint, she said, and some of the locals didn’t see things his way. 

Scoby and Tillman continue to research the massacre, building out their vision of the whole story. Together, they told me about a white man who’d been touring other local history sites and plantations with his son, before arriving at their museum’s door. The son asked why they had come here. “He says, ‘So you can learn the true history,’” Scoby recalled. 

They used an argument I heard from many others: that history must be remembered to avoid being repeated, and that knowing it can shape who you are in the present. We were sitting around a large kitchen table, and Scoby, who is statuesque and wore her hair in a black wrap, tilted her head toward me. “The truth sits right in my soul,” she said. 

Every year, around the time of the massacre, the descendants of Jack Conrad gather from across the U.S. in Louisiana to remember the dead. They held their first three events in Thibodaux, but Ferdinand says few local people joined them—no descendants of planters to whom they reached out, or nearby churches, or schools. “We didn’t get the support that I felt we should have gotten,” she said. So they decided in 2019 to gather at Ferdinand’s brother’s fishing villa in Port Sulfur, a town clinging to the dwindling banks of the Mississippi River as it disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. Ferdinand and others wore their red “Jack Conrad” t-shirts and pinned red, black, and green ribbons above their hearts. They drank wine and cans of Coca-Cola, ate barbecued chicken and ribs, and fish caught the previous day. Jackson sat in a chair beside Delores, his wife, his hand resting on his cane, dressed in gray slacks and black brogues, despite the heat. 

Before eating, the family stood together under the shade. Prince sang from the speakers. “We gather here today to remember the victims,” Ferdinand said. She held a wooden chalice used during Kwanzaa and poured water onto the grass as she repeated the eight victims’ names, “and all the dead. Rest in peace.

“Anyone else want to say anything?” she asked. Silence. “Amen!” said Jackson, and the family laughed. 

108 feat Westwood Robinson 06 In 1832, Joseph W. Tucker acquired the land that would become the Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation, one of the biggest sugar producers in Lafourche Parish.

108 feat Westwood Robinson 07A hand-painted sign at the entrance of the Laurel Valley Store reads, our past is our present to you. “I can’t really identify with what is going on with Laurel Valley,” says Wiletta Ferdinand, pictured right, “because they’re still making money off of my ancestors’ toil, their labor. . . . I don’t know what they mean. Their past? Their past has made our life miserable.”  

Whether the Legion’s even, crisp lawn will be excavated will depend on money, organization (scientists from the first survey told me they’re open to helping with further investigation), and will. Members of the city and parish councils I spoke with uniformly supported the idea of a plaque at the Legion post. Most agreed that whatever happens to the potential mass grave, and however the history is remembered, is up to the descendants and the Legion, which owns the land. A few felt the matter of acknowledging the massacre was settled, since both governments had already issued a proclamation. None reported any blowback or criticism over the proclamations. None suggested that the city, parish, or state governments had any particular responsibility or central role to play in the site’s future. 

The question of the grave has a kind of dual character. It is, on the one hand, absurd to think that victims of a racial mass slaughter should be left to lie unclaimed beneath a tidy lawn, as if we didn’t know they could very well be there. On the other hand, this appears to be not a particularly galvanizing reality for many in the town, other than the descendants of victims and a handful of others, even among its most ardent history lovers. There have not been, for example, any particular efforts for a historic marker by the Lafourche Heritage Society, though Whitney, the genealogist, told me that she and Nicholls archivist Clifton Theriot had floated the idea. Nor has there been any exhibition on the massacre by the local tourism bureau. There may be, she said, a cultural aversion to disturbing a gravesite. Perhaps, too, an aversion to disturbances of other sorts. 

Gerald Theriot, the Legion’s post commander (no relation to Clifton Theriot), said that the Legion is open to further excavation or placing a monument of some kind on the property. The massacre is “a part of history that’s missing in this area,” he said. “We consider that a very valuable and significant part of our own post history, that the individuals who procured this property would happen to get a site where such an event may have happened.”

Theriot once participated in bus stop sit-ins in Houma during the civil rights movement. He said he’s glad the city and the community are acknowledging that something did happen, and that “we just gotta stop wiping certain things under the rug.”

Even the placement of an accurate plaque somewhere in the town could set a precedent for public history without bias, which is lacking. In Colfax, for instance, one plaque about the riot celebrates “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South,” and another monument memorializes the white men “who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.” 

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book on forced and coerced labor of African Americans after the Civil War, said that if Thibodaux does manage to put up some kind of monument, “if there’s some sort of consensus around this thing that would make it legitimate and honest and enduring, then that’s a miracle.” 

108 feat Westwood Robinson 08To celebrate the spirits of the people buried there, Ferdinand and her family pour a libation each time they visit the gravesite, reciting the names of the eight victims: Willis Wilson, Felix Pierre, Archy Jones, Frank Patterson, Riley Anderson, Mahala Washington, Marcelin Welton, and Grant Conrad.

108 feat Westwood Robinson 09Uncle Sampson stands in the driveway of the American Legion hall. The 1887 Memorial Committee—a group of descendants of the victims and members of the community—is working with archeologists to confirm and potentially unearth the gravesite. 

On the wood carving hanging in the main hallway of the Finding Our Roots museum in Houma, the right side is dominated by the knobby branches of an oak tree. At the base of the trunk, a boy sits on a mound of dirt beside a shovel as if exhausted, a pit beneath him. The tree’s roots descend under the ground like veins, and on the other side of the pit, a man—in my mind, it’s the boy’s father—is reaching down and digging with his bare hands. The pit is deep, but not deep enough to reach two figures in chains huddled in the bottom left corner. In the wood cutting, the man’s hand is perpetually grasping for them.

The carving was created for the museum, but it felt to me as if it were made for Thibodaux. So much of the language we use to describe investigating the past employs imagery of the ground, phrases I’ve used here—we uncover, unearth, exhume, bring to light. It’s usually metaphorical, this grasping, not physical labor. It’s art on a museum wall, not a project to quite literally dig up ancestors under a stretch of grass on a residential street. The pessimist would say that the Legion’s ground is far more likely to remain untouched, given the obstacles to further examination. But Ferdinand called the discovery of Jack Conrad an awakening, and her family also treats it as a blessing and a responsibility. When we last spoke, she had not lost her patient grip on the matter, her sturdy joy in the project. Emails were continuing to be sent. Calls were being made. Her last emailed update noted new $50 and $25 donations to the family’s nonprofit and the expansion of the scholarship to two additional New Orleans schools. She signed off: “Take care, stay strong. Love and prayers, Wiletta.” 


This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.


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Rosemary Westwood is a writer and journalist living in New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Walrus, Vox, and elsewhere. She was previously a magazine reporter and columnist in Canada and a producer at CBC and BBC radio news networks.