Cover Story

The Ugly Secret at Little Bayou

by Patrick Flanagan

Robbie Carrier Bethel is a Southern black woman, born and raised in the West End community of New Iberia. Her relationship with Jim Crow is complicated but real, and it all starts with a small slice of federal land granted to a freed slave (Bethel's great-grandfather) in 1855, followed 60 years later by rumors of oil, and the eventual forging of an ugly secret, which thanks to Jim Crow has been successfully kept under wraps for almost a century by several of New Iberia's oldest families.

The story of the Carrier family of New Iberia belongs in the history books of the American South. The Carriers represent a fusion of two worlds, a middle ground between black and white; they were Creole, they were landowners, but like other Southerners of color, they too lived by the rules of a white power world.

The significance of the family's story centers on a small strip of land in rural Iberia Parish and a freed slave named Antoine Joseph Carrier. Back in 1840 when Carrier, the son of a white slave owner, was granted his 23 acres of federal land, the swampy, flood-prone, basin-land property would not likely have been considered prime real estate, but for three generations of Carriers it was home.

Carrier died sometime around 1895, passing on the homestead to his son Alphonse Carrier. Like his father, Alphonse also raised a family on the property. Both of these men lived at critical junctures in America's history: a father who enters the world a slave but leaves a free man and a son born under the sufferings of Jim Crow's bigotry.

Alphonse Carrier, just before his death in 1945, made sure to impart the family's history to his oldest son, Murphy, who was 12 years old at the time. That same story would eventually be heard by a young Robbie Carrier Bethel, who now stands, like her relatives before her, at a crossroads in the history of the South - one that has yet to be fully realized.

New Iberia started changing with the arrival of the 20th century, when like much of the South, the small bayou community took ill with oil.

The Carrier property, according to the original land grant issued in 1855, encompasses Sections 71 and 59 of Township 12 South, Range 7 East, located smack dab in the middle of an area that would eventually come to be known as the Little Bayou Oil Field.

East Coast oil man John Sweeney, likely prompted by rumors that had started circulating several years before, paid a visit to New Iberia in February 1916. The reason for the visit, Sweeney told The Weekly Iberian, was to scout the area and report back to a group of Eastern capitalists wanting to invest millions of dollars in developing the area's mineral resources.

"This week opened with an increased interest in the oil prospects," The Weekly Iberian reported in November 1916. "It is one of the leading topics of conversation with all classes of people. There are many of our people who have grown optimistic and not only foresee the finding of oil in paying quantities, but a great era of prosperity coming to this town."

Oil was finally struck two months later on a well owned by the Schwing family of New Iberia, right near the home of Alphonse and Bertha Carrier, Bethel's grandparents. The discovery would forever change the area, prompting scores of prospectors and oil men to descend on the small community, all in hopes of buying up mineral options.

As the Little Bayou Oil Field continued booming on into the 1930s, the excitement was not lost on the Carrier family.

"The family always knew the land was ours, and we knew of all the drilling taking place on our land," says Bethel. "The oil companies would come out and drill, and the oil men would always tell the family no oil was found, but that when it was found, they'd be the first to know."

That news never came, despite the numerous successes on wells within walking distance of the Carrier family's home, making all the more important a discussion had sometime in 1945 between Alphonse, who would die not much later, and his eldest son Murphy, then 12 years old. Though there's no way of knowing exactly what was said, it is certain Alphonse passed on his knowledge of the family's land right. "They knew the stuff was being stolen, but they decided not to say anything or pursue it because of the people involved," says Bethel. "We're talking about older black people living in the days of Jim Crow."

For Bethel, who was born in 1960 and never lived on the property like her father and grandparents, the old stories of oil, though ingrained in her consciousness, would remain a distant memory for decades.

It wasn't until the end of her enlistment in the U.S. Army in 1987 that Bethel started questioning the past.

"I remember getting back and riding out to the property with my dad," recalls Bethel. "That's when I saw the first well they'd ever put out here."

That day, lying at the entrance to the property, waiting to be moved off, was an old-time oil derrick, the type used before the days of horizontal drilling. At the derrick's base, Bethel recalls, was a bronzed plaque bearing the name of the Texas Oil Company and the year 1934. "That stayed in my head," she says.

The significance of what she'd witnessed that day wouldn't ring true until years later, in November 1995, when her father, Melvin Carrier, was on his deathbed in an Alexandria hospital.

In what would be one of their final moments together, Bethel says her father told her to find out what really happened on the family's property, and to make sure the wrongs of the past were righted.

Knowing her dad's request would likely bring resistance, Bethel says she was initially hesitant at the thought of digging up old skeletons, especially those belonging to people she describes as "the powers that be" of New Iberia.

It took several years for Bethel to overcome her fears of backlash, but in 2003 she received the same request as the one made by her father - this time from her father's brother, Murphy Carrier, when he was on his deathbed.

So she started digging into courthouse records in ways that would have been forbidden to her father and uncle.

The tired growl of at least one decades-old oil pump can be heard droning off in the distance as Robbie Bethel steps out onto the backside of her family's property. The 23 acres are divided in half by Little Bayou. For the majority of her life, Bethel says the southern half, which is situated between Little Bayou and Old Jeanerette Road, was inaccessible to her family. For as long as she can remember, Bethel says the family was only allowed access to one half of the property - the portion located on the northern bank of Little Bayou, which is where the family home had been located until the death of her grandmother Bertha Carrier in 1965. Until recently, access to the portion lying on the southern bank of the bayou was restricted by a chained metal gate bearing the name J. Pauline Duhe.

The gate, says Bethel, was unlocked in 2007 after the family hired Lafayette lawyer Floyd Johnson, who has since been replaced as legal counsel.

"Floyd made a few phone calls one day, and when he took us out there, someone had already removed the locks," Bethel says.

With the gate opened, Bethel recalls that first trip down the gravel road, past the rows of sugar cane. "Back there, shielded from everyone's view, it was nothing but the oil wells. It looked like a little city back there. I'll never forget that day, the way it was pouring down raining. Some oil must have been spilling out, because the ground was just black everywhere you looked, like it was bleeding oil."

For Bethel, seeing the oil being drilled on her family's land first-hand was an emotional experience.

Bethel pulled more public records, and eventually came across a 1936 court notice that immediately conjured up the sight of the old Texas Oil Company's derrick she'd seen while visiting the property several years back with her father.

The 1936 court record essentially authorized the Texas Oil Company to purchase oil pumped from the Carrier land, listed on the document as Sections 59 and 71, Township 12 South, Range 7 East. But instead of naming the Carrier family as the party to be paid, the 1936 record names J. Pauline Duhe (remember the chained gate?), John Elmer Schwing, and several members of the Burke, Romero and Sorrel families - most of them still prominent Iberia Parish families.

In 1954, a suspicious fire forced the Carrier family to abandon their original home site on the property, located near Texas Oil's drilling site, and move to the other side of the bayou. That same year a second document dealing with mineral royalties from the Carrier property was filed in the courthouse. Unlike the purchase notice filed in 1936, the 1954 Royalty Deed actually names members of the Carrier family. Typed at the top, the document names Melvin Carrier, Bethel's father, as authorizing the sale of the family's cut of the oil royalties to nearby sugar cane farmer Mayo Romero for $10. The deed, however, was not signed by Melvin Carrier, but instead bears the handwritten signature of Murphy Carrier. One glance at that signature, though, raises suspicions, namely over who actually signed the document making Mayo Romero the sole recipient of royalties for minerals extracted from the Carrier land.

Bethel points out the signature used by her uncle Murphy Carrier on his marriage license, which bares little to no resemblance to the one he allegedly used to sign the 1954 Royalty Deed, as pictured in the left-hand corner above.

In fact, the signature on the Royalty Deed looks nothing like the signatures of Melvin and Murphy Carrier IND Monthly saw on their marriage certificates and on various receipts for purchases made by the brothers throughout the years.

For unknown reasons, Mayo Romero filed a second mineral release document in 1957, this time designating himself the "registered agent" between the Carrier family and the Olin Gas Transmission Company; that means he would be the one getting the royalty checks.

Unlike the 1954 royalty deed, the 1957 mineral release only named the Carrier family, but included no signatures.

Additional oil and gas leases were sold on the property in 1971, this time by the family of John Elmer Schwing, whose name was among the beneficiaries of Huey P. Long's Win or Lose Corporation - a sort of Ponzi scheme in which millions of dollars worth of mineral leases were stolen from poor farming families statewide, the majority of whom were driven from their lands after being forced to take payments worth only fractions of the actual value.

"I know people will say, If they knew this was going on then why didn't they do something about it back then?' But do you really think a black man is going to try and go down to the courthouse back in those days saying these white men are sugar caning and drilling on my property without my permission," says Bethel. "We're talking about the 1930s through the 1960s here."

Though J. Pauline Duhe, John Elmer Schwing and Mayo Romero - the men responsible for the alleged expropriation of the Carrier family's mineral rights - are now dead, their children still carry the torch, including Mayo Romero's son Glenn Romero, who farms sugar cane on the Carrier land and is a longtime member of the Iberia Parish Council. He received a $59,250 bonus in 1998 just for authorizing seismic exploration on the property by the SONAT Exploration Company.

Glenn Romero, who disputes Bethel's allegations of wrongdoing by his father, says his memory of how the mineral rights were signed over to his family is fuzzy at best, adding he was only a young boy at the time.

"I do remember Mr. Murphy sold that to my daddy," 63-year-old Romero tells IND Monthly.

What's bizarre is that in 1970, according to Iberia Parish conveyance records, Glenn Romero is listed as purchasing all 23 acres of the Carrier property. Yet it wasn't the Carriers Romero bought the land from; it was a man named Charley Jones, who the record shows received a check for $1,740. Bethel says she has not been able to determine who Charley Jones was, nor can she find any record of him ever having purchased her family's 23 acres.

Also bizarre are the property tax records for the land, which until 2009 showed the Carrier family had zero percent ownership yet it was still responsible for paying 100 percent of the property taxes. In fact, at some point, the actual tax papers stopped coming to the Carrier family and were instead being mailed to Atlanta, Ga., to the address of a woman with an unknown connection to the property named Gayle Lesser.

"I think whoever changed where the tax papers were going was thinking since the older generation was dying off, they could pay the taxes in our name and keep getting oil royalties by having those papers out of sight and out of mind," says Bethel. "They probably figured the younger generation didn't know anything about the property."

For Bethel, her hope is to shed light on the past, and through her family's story, expose New Iberia's ugly secret, one crafted without the foresight that one day the foundation established by Jim Crow would begin to crack.

The family has hired attorney Craig H. Stewart of Houma, and litigation should be forthcoming within the next year. Determining a dollar amount of oil royalties taken from the Carriers over the decades will be difficult, primarily because of Texas Oil's practice of secretly shipping oil in the middle of the night.

IND Monthly confirmed Texas Oil's shady practices during a recent interview with oil field veteran Ruffin Lowry. Lowry, who spent several decades working at Little Bayou, says it was pretty common knowledge that Texas Oil, under the cover of night, would ship out as much unaccounted-for oil as possible in the mid-1900s.

Bethel says it's not the money she really wants. Her ultimate objective, she maintains, is for the Romeros, the Duhes and the Schwings to come forward, admit to the wrongs of the past, and make them right going forward.