Slave descendants appeal to U.N. to halt St. John grain elevator

U.N. poses questions on Cancer Alley and racism

By: - August 16, 2022 9:51 am
Slave descendants testify at United Nations

The Descendants Project co-founders Joy Banner and Jo Banner testify at the United Nations Aug. 12, accompanied by other organizers from Louisiana to oppose industrial expansion in St. John the Baptist Parish on a site that could contain unmarked graves of slaves and slave descendants. (Photo courtesy of the Descendants Project)

Answers are expected Tuesday from the U.S. delegation to the United Nations about perceived environmental racism along the portion of the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley after a group of slave descendants testified about the risk industry poses to ancestral burial sites there.

The U.N.’s questions for American officials were shaped with input from members of the Descendants Project, a nonprofit group of Louisiana residents who have traced their lineage back to slaves who worked the plantations along the river. Today, refineries and chemical plants occupy the same land, and the descendants want to stop the encroachment. 

Cofounders of the group, twin sisters Joy and Jo Banner, spoke Thursday at the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva, Switzerland. They detailed how many of the possible burial sites in St. John the Baptist Parish, particularly a location in the Wallace community, have been destroyed or are at risk of destruction by the expansion of industrial facilities.

“Even after generations of enslaved family members left and plantation structures, such as the ‘big house,’ were gone, our ancestors’ remains are still in those grounds, watching, waiting for the protection of the only land they ever owned: their burial plots,” Jo Banner said. “What slavery didn’t destroy, these [industrial] organizations will, ancestor and descendant alike.”

The Descendants Project has taken aim at the proposed construction of a large grain elevator on a 248-acre tract of land along the Mississippi River in Wallace. The $400 million facility would include 54 grain silos, a conveyor belt, railroad infrastructure and a river dock.

The Colorado-based company proposing the project, Greenfield Louisiana LLC, signed an agreement with local governing authorities and the Port of South Louisiana to forgo paying property taxes worth more than $200 million, according to a report from The Lens. Under the agreement, Greenfield will transfer the land it purchased for $40 million to the port.

Wallace, population 755, covers an area of just 6.4 square miles. It is virtually surrounded by heavy industry. Just across the river is the third largest oil refinery in the nation. More petrochemical plants can be found nearby in Reserve and LaPlace

The Descendants Project filed a federal lawsuit against St. John the Baptist Parish in November, challenging a parish zoning ordinance that allowed industry to build on what was once a residential area. Greenfield intervened on the case and asked for a dismissal, which the district court rejected in May, prompting Greenfield to appeal. Joy Banner said she learned Monday that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Greenfield’s motion.

Greenfield spokesperson Angela Young said the decision was only procedural: “We will continue working with the St John the Baptist Parish community to bring good paying green jobs and economic revival to the West Bank. This decision was procedural, and we look forward to the ultimate dismissal of the plaintiffs’ case when the facts are heard.”

The Banner sisters told the United Nations convention about their concerns with the project, including its risk of destroying unmarked burial sites of slaves and their descendants.

Greenfield contends that there are no unmarked graves at the site. Reached by email, Young referred to a web page the company set up to address this issue and others residents have raised. A cultural research firm Greenfield hired detected no signs of ancestral burial sites while surveying and conducting shovel tests on the land, according to the company. 

“Surveys of the land have proven this is not true within the project boundaries,” the company said. “Greenfield has gone above and beyond what is required to ensure there are no ancestral burial grounds where the facility will be located…”

In May, ProPublica reported that an architectural historian who worked for a firm Greenfield hired said her bosses edited her initial work. Their changes removed her recommendations that the entire area should be listed as a national historic district, according to ProPublica

How many burial sites are on the land where Formosa Plastics plans to build?

The Greenfield grain elevator is not the first industrial project to come under scrutiny over alleged slave burial sites. The site of the Formosa Plastics facility in St. James Parish has been the subject of litigation between residents and the Taiwan-based company after unmarked graves were found on the land. 

RISE St. James, a group of residents opposing the Formosa Plastics plant, said the company never would have found the graves had it not been repeatedly forced to go back and look after initially concluding no burial sites were there. 

In several meetings with United Nations delegates, the Banner sisters said they asked the convention to request clarity from the U.S. government on the significance of Black descendant community burial grounds. They ultimately want the National Park Service to officially recognize all Black burial grounds in the River Parishes as a contiguous National Historic Landmarks site and included on the World Heritage List. Both designations could restrict certain types of development on the property. 

Joy Banner admits that the U.S. government is unlikely to declare a moratorium on industry in St. John. Such moratoriums are rare, typically issued at the local level and usually temporary. She said she knows of no similar moratorium ever being declared by the federal government but said the request itself has drawn attention to the situation in Wallace. 

“The attention that we were able to get from the U.S. delegation and the U.N. was significant,” Joy Banner said. “We were really excited and encouraged by the way the U.N. said the words ‘Cancer Alley.’”


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.