Slave descendant wants Louisiana lawmakers to probe tax incentive deals

By: - January 12, 2023 9:40 am
Louisiana State Capitol Building

The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

A descendant of slaves from St. John the Baptist Parish wants Louisiana legislators to take a more active role in auditing lucrative tax incentive deals between local governments and corporations. Her push comes after officials in St. John signed away millions in tax revenue to have a massive grain elevator built next to a historic Black community.

Joy Banner, a former business professor and the cofounder of the Descendants Project, addressed the issue Wednesday at a meeting of the House Ways and Means State Tax Structure Subcommittee. The Descendants Project is a nonprofit Banner formed with her sister in an effort to preserve the land where slaves once worked and their descendants now live.

Banner’s organization is spearheading a federal lawsuit that seeks to prevent an industrial company, Greenfield Louisiana, from building a $400 million grain elevator complex in her hometown of Wallace, a historic Black community built around the Whitney Plantation. Greefield wants to build 54 grain silos and a conveyor almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty less than a half-mile from the plantation.

Banner told lawmakers that many in the rural community of 1,200 people were shocked when they found out that the Port of South Louisiana cut a deal with Greenfield in which the company would transfer ownership of the land to the port, putting the grain elevator under the port’s tax-exempt umbrella. In exchange, the company would make annual payments to the port, which will feature a dock to load grain shipments onto massive bulk cargo ships that travel the Mississippi River and deliver grain across the globe.

Banner said the deal would deprive the community of an estimated $209 million in property tax revenue, but the Greenfield project has support from state and local officials who say the project will create jobs.

The Port of South Louisiana is essentially renting out its tax-exempt status in exchange for a fee, she told lawmakers. A port official did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“We were shocked and horrified to find that Greenfield grain terminal planned to locate its grain operation smack dab in the middle of our small community of Wallace right next to my neighborhood,” she said.

Banner said local officials approved the project very quietly with little notice to the public. NPR reported in July 2021 that the St. John Parish Council pledged its support for the project without holding a public meeting to listen to residents’ concerns.

State lawmakers are typically reluctant to meddle in the affairs of local governments, which have the constitutional authority to strike deals such as the one made with Greenfield. Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, asked Banner what precisely she wants the legislature to do, signaling it could be problematic for lawmakers to get involved in local tax negotiations.

Banner said she would like to see lawmakers engage in more oversight, particularly in regards to the lack of transparency surrounding the deals. St. John officials left a scant paper trail documenting their approval of the project, she said.

“Oversight and auditing would be a great start,” Banner said.

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

The Whitney Plantation Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. The complex features more than a dozen historic buildings, a museum, numerous slave memorials and three archaeological dig sites in various stages of exploration. Whitney’s displays are focused largely on the slave’s experience at the plantation.

Some residents are worried about the environmental impact of the project, which would add another sprawling industrial complex along the heavily polluted Mississippi River corridor environmentalists refer to as Cancer Alley. Several studies have shown dust from grain elevators is often mixed with bacteria, animal droppings, insect parts and endotoxins that can cause a variety of health problems.

However, according to a company fact sheet, the grain elevator will be a “green low emission site used solely for storage and river transport.” There will be no on-site production, refining or manufacturing, and the company will fully enclose its conveyor systems, install dust-collection devices and minimize emissions during loading and unloading.

Also, the site will be surrounded by a 450-foot buffer of trees and greenery to keep the facility’s structures out of view from the public.

The Descendants Project worries the site of the proposed grain elevator could include unmarked slave burial grounds. The company hired a cultural research firm that claimed it found no evidence of ancestral burial sites on the land. Since then, one of the researchers who conducted the study came forward as a whistleblower and said Greenfield pressured the firm to alter its true findings. Evidence of possible unmarked graves does exist, according to a ProPublica investigation.

Greenfield states that “in the unlikely event cultural resources are discovered,” the company will cease all construction in that area and immediately notify all appropriate agencies to responsibly address the discovery.

“In the event an unmarked burial site is discovered, Greenfield will also work with interested parties to manage any unmarked burial in a way that respects and honors the legacy and memory of that person and the thousands of enslaved people forced to work in these fields and their descendants,” the company fact sheet states.

The Descendants Project has so far successfully delayed the project. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the company’s appeal in August and found the plaintiffs have cause to continue the lawsuit.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to review the company’s construction permit. It has since rejected the findings from the cultural research firm Greenfield hired and expressed concerns about the project’s environmental impact.

Both the lawsuit and the Corps of Engineers’ review remain pending. 

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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.