Four Corners, Louisiana Raise High The Roof Beam

  • Share
  • Read Later
Josephine Roberson positions a chalk line along the top of a sheet of plywood as Nolan Derouen flicks the taut string and imprints a fuzzy red stripe across the board. They slice the wood to size, carry it into Betty Hines' living room and nail it to the ceiling. Hines works at the back of the room, straining from the rungs of a ladder as she attaches tiles to the plywood with the aid of one of Derouen's assistants. Heavy rains, excessive groundwater and years of neglect in southern Louisiana's sugarcane region have led to creeping decay in Hines' home. Now, instead of harsh sunshine peeking through rotting walls, daylight filters through brand-new window frames.

Through a mixture of sweat equity and private financing, the women of Four Corners are replacing old wood with fresh clapboards, drying up stagnant pools and sealing busted pipes. The homes are livable again, and the community has found a new pride and hope for a better future. "It is a hard job, but together we can do a lot," says Roberson in a soft, raspy voice. "What gives us so much courage and strength is that we have so many people standing behind us helping us build our community."

Roberson, 59, is one of a determined band of women in this small unincorporated hamlet 20 miles east of New Iberia. Most of the 150 houses have antiquated wiring and leaking roofs; few public services reach places like Four Corners. As the cane industry became mechanized, many people lost jobs that their families had held for generations. The average annual family income in this town of 400 is below $10,000.

Life appeared grim until March 1989, when the directors of the Southern Mutual Help Association, a New Iberia-based organization that has been working for 22 years to improve the lives of sugarcane workers, met with 15 of Four Corners' women and offered to help them help themselves. The women founded the Four Corners Self Help Housing Committee and pledged to work together to rebuild their lives. The five-year project has not only shored up the homes but has also created a sense of accomplishment among the residents. "We held up a mirror to them, so that they could see themselves," says Lorna Bourg, Southern Mutual's assistant executive director. "They are reflecting their sense of self-worth."

Since 1969, Southern Mutual has worked to improve the lives of those who toil in the fields. Back then, many farmworkers lived behind the "cane curtain" in self-contained plantations with names such as the Bottoms, Oxford and Dog Quarters, filled with rented shacks reminiscent of the tarnished side of the antebellum era. The field hands were paid with chits and exchanged the paper for goods at overpriced company stores. Since crops are seasonal, the field hands ran up large tabs, which were then deducted from their pay and resulted in a lifetime of indenture. Those who quit were ordered off the land. Virginia Sutton, 74, a graying yet dapper great-grandmother of 17 and co- chairwoman of the group, once labored in the sugarcane fields for 70 cents a day. "We used to work from can't to can't," she says, recalling the long days. "You go to work, it is so dark you can't see your hand, and when you finish, you still can't see your hand."

Southern Mutual was the first to document the number of farmworkers in Louisiana. It fought for their legal rights and helped them obtain more than $1.25 million in back pay. It established the first farmworkers' medical and dental clinics, gathered oral histories of life on the plantation, founded an adult-literacy program, set up a scholarship fund for the children, documented the use of pesticides and is currently fighting against the spraying of certain chemicals. "Four Corners' new motto is 'From can't to can,' " says Bourg. "From can't do to can do." Sutton now proudly shows off her refurbished home. "Southern Mutual opened up our understanding, so that we could know what we can do and can't do," says Sutton. "They came with good ideas about what we could do to help ourselves."

The organization came to Four Corners with years of rehab experience in other communities. Yet when its members arrived, the initial response of the local women was wariness. Says Mary Matthews, 55, Four Corners' other co- chairwoman: "At first, I didn't think it would work, but we then put our heads together and did it. Soon others heard about us and joined us. Now we don't want to quit. We want to finish."

Southern Mutual arranged for carpenters, plumbers and electricians to work alongside the women and teach them the necessary skills. "We won't get a carpenter or a plumber out here unless he shows the committee members as much as they can and want to learn," says Bourg. Much of the credit for the project's success belongs to the professionals, men like Derouen, 57, who have given more than just their time. Derouen, who just helped complete 11 houses and is ready to begin work on an additional 15, encourages the women, supplies materials at a discount and once even presented Southern Mutual with a laughable $12.50 bill for roof repairs and materials.

Initial work in Four Corners consisted of emergency repairs: some homes were in such poor shape there was no hope of restoration, so new ones were trucked in from nearby communities. Subsequent chores included rewiring, plumbing or simply applying a fresh coat of paint, which is generally done by Four Corners' star painter, Thelma Collins. The women raise money through bake sales, barbecue dinners, fish fries and a TV raffle that netted $1,345. All money is deposited in an account at Iberia Savings Bank, which, along with Southern Mutual and in conjunction with the Federal Affordable Housing Program, has set aside up to $250,000 to make 1% loans to the residents. "The people live in our community, and we have a responsibility to provide them with decent housing," says Larrey Mouton, president of Iberia Savings. "We want to teach them about financial affairs, so that they can pull themselves out of this cycle of poverty."

By year's end, the women hope to complete an additional six homes. They are forming a community-development corporation to rebuild the whole village, not just the housing, and have started to spread the do-it-yourself project to neighboring communities, like Sorrel. The work is not going unnoticed: Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer declared Oct. 24 Four Corners Community Day to celebrate the spirit of self-help.

Most days the nondescript, rain-soaked community is filled with the sounds of crowing blackbirds, howling dogs and squealing pigs, along with the pounding of hammers and the whining of electric saws. Women and a few men can be seen carrying beams, and newly dug ditches quickly fill with golden ragworts, fire-ant hills and crayfish chimneys. Groups of women gather lumber from demolished houses, stretch the long boards across sawhorses and pry out old nails. After the wood is cleaned, it is sorted and stored in a shed for later use or sale.

Priscilla Loston, 35, the group's feisty treasurer, is one of the nail pullers. She recently received a new home, a former country barroom that was transplanted to Four Corners to replace her tumbledown shack. She did much of the makeover, dividing the interior into separate rooms and installing paneling and electrical boxes. "This is Four Corners Self Help, not sit on your butt and get help," says Loston, as she yanks out a stubborn nail.

At the regular Monday evening planning session, 30 women meet at the local Catholic church and loosely follow Robert's Rules of Order. The minutes are read. Loston announces how much is in the bank and what donations have been sent in. The women discuss the work and announce upcoming projects. A few members ask to borrow $500 to $1,000 for paint or supplies. New members sign a pledge to help repair every house in the community, and the lax and lazy are goaded to work harder. When all is done, the women hold hands as Roberson leads them in an impassioned prayer thanking God for his help. They then wish each other good night and head out into the dark, back to their refurbished homes to prepare for another day of work, another day of change.