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Bull Bayou oil fields, Louisiana., ca. 1919. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Bull Bayou oil fields, Louisiana., ca. 1919. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.  

Uncle Tom's Oil City Blues

By Dr. Henry Wiencek


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Photos from an article about the Northern Louisiana oil industry found in the January 1919 issue of The Lamp. Exxon-Mobil Historical Collection.
Photos from an article about the Northern Louisiana oil industry found in the January 1919 issue of The Lamp. Exxon-Mobil Historical Collection.
Photos from an article about the Northern Louisiana oil industry found in the January 1919 issue of The Lamp. Exxon-Mobil Historical Collection.
Photos from an article about the Northern Louisiana oil industry found in the January 1919 issue of The Lamp. Exxon-Mobil Historical Collection.

In January 1919, Col. F. W. Weller, president of the Standard Oil Company of Louisiana, reflected on the incredible changes he had observed in the Bayou State since his firm began doing business there. Writing in The Lamp, a Standard Oil company newsletter preserved at the Briscoe Center, Weller proudly described how "unprofitable cotton fields [had become] the business home of more than two thousand workers."

For Weller, a "New South" was being created by the "magic wand of industry." In the same issue, C. K. Clarke, who managed the pipeline department for Weller, wistfully alluded to Harriet Beecher Stowe: "If Uncle Tom were still in the cabin from which Mrs. Stowe introduced him to the world, he could almost see our pipe line from its door." Like Weller, Clarke's point was to show how the oil industry could be a force for North-South reconciliation in places like Louisiana and Texas.

As a second-year graduate student, I was awarded one of the Briscoe Center's graduate fellowships. In addition to providing financial support, the fellowship was instrumental to the development of my dissertation on the Louisiana oil industry. Working with the ExxonMobil Historical Collection, I encountered documents (such as The Lamp) that pointed to Standard Oil's work in Louisiana. I wanted to learn more, especially about how this massive company engaged with the local community and culture.

The Lamp offers a compelling, if imperfect, window into the first years of Louisiana's oil industry. Its articles and imagery project success, modernity—a "New South." But a deeper look reveals the lingering power of the Old South and its plantation mentality. Standard Oil may have transformed the "unprofitable cotton fields" of Louisiana, but it left the racial codes of those fields intact. From an economic perceptive, cheap black labor remained as critical to the emergent oil industry as it had been to the 19th-century cotton economy.

Louisiana became one of the nation's major centers of domestic oil and gas production after a spate of fossil fuel discoveries from 1904 onward. At the same time Spindletop gushed across the Sabine River in Texas, places such as Caddo Parish were transformed from desolate stretches of swamp into a boisterous collection of tent city boomtowns. Driller Carl M. Jones remembered that so many oil wells were flaring off natural gas that you could "read a newspaper at night several miles away." Land prices spiked, migrants and speculators rushed in, and Shreveport and Baton Rouge dragged themselves into the 20th century.

But even as oil changed Louisiana's economy, this new industry actively enforced and perpetuated racism. In places like Caddo Parish, black pipeline workers lived in racially segregated 16-by-20-foot tents that were constantly deconstructed and moved as the line progressed forward. Meanwhile, white camps had wooden floors, "a head cook, a pastry cook and a second cook, and usually about four flunkies to peel potatoes and wash dishes." Already paid half the wages of their white counterparts, blacks were often obliged to buy their own food at country stores nearby. At times, they had to hunt for their food.

White employers such as Weller and Clarke regarded their black workforce as little more than cheap economic parts. That was true even in death. When accidents killed white employees, Standard Oil paid all of the funeral expenses. However, when a black laborer died on the job, the company simply buried him along the pipeline's right of way.

Work patterns were often shaped by nostalgia for the old plantation. One black pipeline worker named "Old Henry Lowry" earned an extra 25 cents a day for leading his compatriots in work tunes: "He would sing when the work would begin to lag and the others would join in and they would all be singing and the work would be going great." The songs accompanied "any kind of work that lent itself to rhythm." For historians today, these songs also point to a black identity that took root in the Louisiana oil industry, despite the desire of white communities to monopolize both the industry's profits and culture.

In October 1940, folklorist John A. Lomax, whose papers are also archived at the Briscoe Center (see below), traveled to Mooringsport, Louisiana, in search of Bob Leadbetter, the uncle of the folk icon Leadbelly. "Uncle Bob" introduced Lomax to his grandson Noah Moore. Lomax recorded Moore playing a song called "Oil City Blues," a nine-minute lovelorn ode lamenting the frustrations of boomtown life.

The song implies a nostalgic familiarity with the "city of derricks" in Caddo Parish. But there is also a longing; Moore's narrator is perpetually traveling—on the corner, on the road—and never seems to settle or succeed. The song points to the very different experience that black oil workers endured in an industry designed to both exclude and exploit them. But it also points to the fact that men such as Moore were able to carve out an identity for themselves as oilmen. The very existence of a black music indigenous to Louisiana's oil boom reveals a community unwilling to be silent participants.

Dr. Henry Wiencek is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He was awarded a Ph.D. from UT Austin in 2017. In 2014–15 his doctoral research was supported by a Briscoe Center fellowship.