Advocates for Descendants of Enslaved People are Trying to Prevent Construction of Massive Grain Terminal
April 28, 2022, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana – Today, a district court judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an organization that advocates for descendants of enslaved people. The Descendants Project is challenging a corrupt decades-old rezoning ordinance as it seeks to prevent construction of a massive grain terminal in Wallace, a historic Black community in the heart of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.
Today’s hearing clears the way for the judge to rule on the merits of the case. At issue is the ordinance, which remains on the books even though the official who pushed it through the parish council in 1990 went to prison for crimes directly related to the rezoning.
Now San Francisco-based investor Christopher James, hailed elsewhere for environmentalism and “impact investing,” is leading an effort to build the terminal using the ordinance. Wallace residents view the project as a grave danger to both the health and heritage of a community that contains two landmarked former plantations and possible burial sites of enslaved people.
“Today was a win for our community, one that proves the strength of our case,” said Jo Banner, who founded the Descendants Project with her sister Joy. “We’re looking forward to getting information that has been withheld from us for many years.”
The lawsuit, Descendants Project v. St. John the Baptist Parish, filed by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and local counsel Bill Quigley, stems from the corrupt dealings of Lester Millet Jr., a former parish president who engineered an ordinance that rezoned a large tract of rural land for heavy industrial use. He engaged in money laundering, extortion, and threats of expropriation to coerce residents into selling land to Formosa, a Taiwanese company that sought to build a factory on the site. Millet Jr., who died last year, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Despite Millet Jr.'s conviction, the illegal ordinance is still on the books thirty-two years later, providing an opening to Greenfield Louisiana, which drew up plans to build a 50-silo, 246-acre, 300-foot-tall grain terminal on the land in question. During the height of the pandemic, when St. John Parish was enduring the highest Covid death rates in the country, Greenfield was busy securing support for the project from public officials.
Mr. James, who made millions selling tech stocks, is the principal of the investment company that owns Greenfield. Aside from a few stories in local outlets, he has largely escaped notice for his central role in the proposed grain terminal. He has thus managed to maintain his national image as an eco-friendly, socially conscious entrepreneur.
Joy and Jo Banner, sisters who are themselves descendants of people enslaved in Louisiana, grew up in Wallace and now own and operate a cafe that uses the recipes of their ancestors and presents the Afro-Creole history of the region through the lens of their own family’s story. Children at the time of the corrupt rezoning, they remember the anxiety that gripped their community and the resistance that forced Formosa to abandon the project. (Formosa is now attempting to build a plastics factory in nearby St. James Parish on land containing graves of enslaved people.)
The targets of the lawsuit are the parish, the parish council, the parish planning commission, and the parish department of planning and zoning; the named defendants are Parish President Jaclyn Hotard and Director of Planning and Zoning Rene Pastorek Greenfield Louisiana sued to intervene and join the case.
In today’s hearing on procedural motions, Judge J. Sterling Snowdy considered and rejected three arguments put forward by the defense: that Mr. Millet Jr.’s criminality should not invalidate the ordinance, that The Descendants Project lacks standing to bring suit because it does not own the property in question, and that the statute of limitations on a challenge to the ordinance has run out.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing. That’s what this case has always been about,” said Pam Spees, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The court’s ruling today is an important first step in righting an old wrong.”
In an area already heavily polluted by factories, the grain terminal would make air quality even worse for residents, whose houses would be as close as 300 feet from the complex. Grain dust, which often contains insect parts, rodent feces, bacteria, and pesticides, is proven to cause and exacerbate health problems, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and recurrent conjunctivitis.
But the dangers to the community go far beyond those related to physical health, residents say. Numerous gravesites of people once enslaved in Louisiana have been discovered in recent years, and Forensic Architecture, an internationally respected agency, has examined the Wallace site and identified archeological abnormalities that suggest the presence of unmarked graves.
In addition, just to the east of the site is the Whitney Plantation and Museum, a national landmark recognized for its mission to educate visitors and the public at large about slavery. The Louisiana State Preservation Officer has expressed concern about the impact of the terminal on the Whitney, citing the height of the towers and the odors. Likewise endangered is another national landmark adjacent to the Wallace tract, the Evergreen Plantation.
The Descendants Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization established to support descendant communities in the river parishes working together to dismantle the legacies of slavery and to achieve a healed and liberated future. Learn more at https://www.thedescendantsproject.com/.
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.