Last Friday, in a small town in rural Louisiana, the state’s 16th Judicial District Court rescheduled a preliminary hearing to address procedural matters in a lawsuit described in nine double-spaced pages.
Ho hum, not usually the beginning of a great story, right?
But this lawsuit could trigger something historic. It was filed last year by the Carrier family, black and poor, against the Schwing, Duhe and Romero families, white and affluent. The lawsuit alleges these families, along with Texaco and Chevron, have stolen oil and gas resources from the Carrier’s farmland continuously for more than 100 years. The Carrier land is just outside of New Iberia, Louisiana, where the plaintiffs and the defendants live in very different parts of town.
Apparently, the Carriers’ experience or some variation of it is not uncommon among black farming families in rural Louisiana. In 2017, I talked to several who reported that, at some point over the past 100 years, the family was swindled out of its farmland or the mineral resources beneath it. Were they going to do anything about it, I would ask. The response was always some variation of a sigh or a chuckle. Two professors from the University of Louisiana — one who specializes in civil rights and the other a Louisiana historian — acknowledged the problem but said that, like much of black history in Louisiana, the subject hasn’t been studied, written about, or addressed in law.
If you are asking yourself why the Carriers waited 100 years to file a lawsuit to address an injustice that must have been obvious from the beginning, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time in rural Louisiana. Over those past 100 years, Jim Crow, lynchings, and a weird prevailing social compact might prevent a black family from suing a white family or an oil company. If you are black and you are lucky enough to find a lawyer willing and able to file your lawsuit, you might lose your job, or worse. In the mid-50s, the Carrier farmhouse mysteriously caught fire one night while the family slept, shortly after a member of the Carrier family suggested he understood what was happening on his land. Even in 2019, the lawsuit has created extraordinary stress and fear for some members of the Carrier family.
The Carriers’ courageous lawsuit could create a path for other families to assert their property rights in Louisiana. It provided me with the inspiration for a novel I plan to publish in the coming months. In the meantime, you can read more about the Carriers’ case and the historic town of New Iberia. But you won’t read about it in the Louisiana papers.