Archeology Firm Identifies Five Additional Possible Cemeteries, Concludes Formosa’s Consultants Repeatedly Looked in Wrong Place for One of Them
March 11, 2020, St. James Parish – Today, community members of RISE St. James submitted an expert report to the St. James Parish Council that shows as many as seven cemeteries likely containing the remains of enslaved people may exist on property slated for development of a massive plastics facility by FG LA, LLC, also known as Formosa Plastics. The comprehensive and detailed report was prepared by Coastal Environments, Inc., (CEI) a firm specializing in a range of environmental and archeological services.
It was archeologists from CEI, working on their own and behind the scenes, who first alerted the Louisiana Division of Archaeology to the existence of two of the cemeteries on the Formosa site, which led to further site investigations by Formosa’s consultants and confirmation of one of the cemeteries on the former Buena Vista Plantation. Using detailed maps from 1877 and 1878 combined with a process known as cartographic regression, CEI was able to identify the likely location of three cemeteries shown on those maps on former plantations, as well as four other possible cemeteries that did not appear on the historic maps. They also concluded that Formosa’s consultants looked in the wrong place each time they searched for a cemetery on the former Acadia Plantation. They included a series of recommendations for additional search methods.
“The enslaved people in these gravesites had no choice in where they lived, where they worked, where they died, and where they were buried,” said Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James. “Our ancestors are crying out to us from their graves—they are telling us to not let industry disturb their burial sites. Formosa Plastics did not inform the citizens of St. James or the parish council of the existence of the graves when they knew—they don’t care, they just want to profit from St. James parish.”
Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics is preparing to begin construction of its facility in the middle of a historic African American community in the heart of what is already known as “Cancer Alley.” The facility would double the level of toxic emissions in St. James, which already has among the highest in the country.
Formosa Plastics officials knew of the graves in the summer of 2018. The land use approval was granted in January 2019 after a month of negotiations between the parish council and Formosa representatives. RISE St. James and their supporters are asking the parish council to rescind the land use permit the council granted because the company failed to inform the parish of the cemeteries despite repeated opportunities to do so.
Research conducted by CEI confirms that hundreds of enslaved people were forced to live on the plantations that once existed on the Formosa site. Their research adds to that by Formosa’s own consultants, who initially concluded that the burial site on the Buena Vista Plantation was likely a “slave cemetery,” as people enslaved on these plantations had no choice in where they were buried.
“I am so proud to hear that they have found gravesites on these plantations,” said RISE St. James member Milton A. Cayette, Jr. “In my lifetime, I never thought I’d be able to visit those sites, and I’m so excited to know where they are.”
“The significance of this discovery for descendants, and for history, cannot be overstated,” said Pam Spees, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “All cemeteries are important; and even more so when the graves of people enslaved here were once believed lost to history. Now they may be found. This land has a value and meaning that should be honored and protected against this kind of harmful development that will only serve to destroy rather than help build the community of descendants of those from whom so much was taken.”
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
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The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.