Q&A with Oil Cities author Henry Wiencek

Q&A with Oil Cities author Henry Wiencek

In 1904, prospectors discovered oil in the rural parishes of North Louisiana just outside Shreveport. As rural cotton fields gave way to dense, industrial centers of energy extraction, migrants from across the US—and the world—rushed to take a share of the boom. The resulting boomtowns, including the notorious Oil City, gained a reputation for violence and drinking. Oil Cities is the first monograph on North Louisiana’s dramatic oil boom, revealing a contested history in which the oil industry adapted its labor, tools, and investments to meet the region’s unique dynamics. Henry Wiencek uncovers what life was like in boomtowns, tracing the local experience of migrants, farmers, sex workers, and politicians as they navigated the dizzying changes to their communities.

Of Oil Cities, Senator Sherrod Brown says that it is “an essential history of the state’s decades-long capture by corporate interests, its race-fueled violence, its vicious attacks on unions, and its ravaging of the environment.” Read on to learn more about the contemporary issues that color this history, Wiencek’s reasons for writing about Louisiana in particular, and more.

Oil Cities comes out on May 7, and is available for preorder now! Preorder your copy here, and learn more about other history titles in our list here.

What drew you to research and document the history of Louisianan oil cities in particular?

I first became interested in the oil boomtowns of North Louisiana as a graduate student at the University of Texas. I was writing a research paper about the ExxonMobil collection at the Briscoe Center and came across a compelling set of documents about Standard Oil’s work in Louisiana during the first decades of the twentieth century. I found incredible promotional materials the company published highlighting how they were bringing “modernity to the swamp” and transforming cotton fields into refineries. Amongst those documents was an image of Black workers waist-deep in swamp retrofitting a pipeline as white managers watched from above.

Even though Standard Oil represented a completely new industrial economy for Louisiana, the outlines of the old plantation economy were still very evident. That really inspired me to understand how “modern” economic forces intersected with the “Old South”: to what degree did oil transform the economy and society of North Louisiana? And to what degree did the emerging oil industry incorporate the ideologies and methods of the old plantation economy? Oil Cities illuminates how both were very much true in North Louisiana’s boomtowns. Although the discovery of oil radically transformed much of the region’s farms and swamps into a highly industrial space, that new oil economy still very much expressed and incorporated the prejudices and violence of the old plantation world, albeit with a new, more “modern” sheen.

How did racialized violence and discrimination against Black workers factor into the creation and daily experience of oil cities in Louisiana during this period? Was that experience distinct from oil cities that preceded the ones you document, such as in Pennsylvania or Illinois?

One of the biggest dynamics I explore in Oil Cities is the collision of a new industrial oil economy with Louisiana’s longstanding plantation economy. Prior to the oil industry’s arrival, most of the region consisted of massive cotton plantations in which Black sharecroppers performed harsh, low-pay labor. Caddo Parish was also riven with racially motivated murder following the end of the Civil War. Anti-Black violence was so prevalent that newspapers dubbed the area “Bloody Caddo.” This historical intersection is very much unique to the Southwestern oil boom: Texas and Louisiana are the first places in which the modern US oil economy encountered what had been a plantation economy of largely Black workers.

Starting in 1904, oil production suddenly transformed North Louisiana’s rural plantation society into an industrial economy full of well-paying jobs. However, the white migrants who flooded into the oil fields actively sought to keep those positions—and their wages—all white. Local Black workers seeking to participate in the new economy were broadly unable to work; those who were able to secure positions became objects of threats and, in some instances, outright violence. Even Black landowners who sought to profit from oil production had to navigate a legal and political system which fundamentally distrusted their ability to responsibly manage oil wealth. Nonetheless, there were a variety of remarkable Black lease holders and entrepreneurs who still managed to succeed and acquire wealth within that environment—but certainly only a small fraction of North Louisiana’s massive Black populace.

In the prologue of your book, there are echoes of many issues that are still being widely discussed today—racism, wealth disparities, and poverty among them. What bearing does this history continue to have on the population of Louisiana today?

Louisiana’s oil industry has always created a paradoxical dynamic in which the biggest economic beneficiaries are not the people closest to the oil wells, but rather the white-collar professionals in nearby cities, such as Shreveport. Meanwhile, the communities adjacent to the oil fields function as “sacrifice zones” enduring the environmental burdens of fires, salt-water runoff, and toxic skies—among other things—for the sake of economic expansion.

The profits of North Louisiana’s oil fields could have provided generational uplift to its massive population of formerly enslaved, sharecropping Black citizens, but most of its wealth either went to white migrants from outside of the community or to Shreveport’s middle class, largely white communities. That dynamic of local oil field communities functioning as environmental “sacrifice zones” that retain very few economic profits remains salient today: much of the state’s petrochemical industry has become known as “Cancer Alley” for the largely Black communities adjacent to the refineries and plants. Some resources:

Did you unearth any surprising or unexpected facts about oil cities or the people in them in the process of your research? Is there something a reader might find in this book that they wouldn’t expect?

I was really surprised at how fondly many people who grew up in North Louisiana’s oil communities felt about their time in the boomtowns, even though they were incredibly primitive—and very often dangerous—tent cities with no running water and terrible roads. One Oil City local whose father was a driller happily remembered swimming in Caddo Lake and emerging from the waters covered in oil. Others recalled with a chuckle how the night sky was eternally orange from all the oil rigs constantly flaring toxic gas into the air.

I was also very struck by the number of immigrants from across the world who managed to arrive in such a remote corner of North Louisiana. Census records listed individuals from Ireland, Russia, Sweden, and other nations working the oil fields. Shreveport even attracted a large number of Eastern European Jewish arrivals. These boomtowns really became a fascinating conglomeration of European migrants working alongside local Black sharecroppers and white Southern farmers, which I think really underscores the tremendous economic pull that North Louisiana’s oil fields created.

Henry Alexander Wiencek, who received his PhD in history in 2017 from the University of Texas at Austin, was a postdoctoral fellow at UT’s Institute for Historical Studies.