Descendants in Cancer Alley brought suit to protect historic Black community and ancestral gravesites from massive grain elevator
August 4, 2023, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana – Today, a state court judge ruled a 1990 zoning ordinance null and void, granting a resounding victory to an organization that advocates for descendants of enslaved people. The Descendants Project filed a lawsuit to prevent construction of a massive grain elevator that threatened the health and heritage of Wallace, a historic Black community in the heart of Cancer Alley.
With quiet backing from “green” investor Chris James, Denver-based Greenfield Louisiana was attempting to use the zoning ordinance to build a 36-silo, 246-acre, 300-feet-tall terminal close to residential neighborhoods. The land also abuts two former plantations and likely contains burial sites of enslaved people. The ordinance remained on the books even though the official who pushed it through the parish council went to prison for crimes directly related to the rezoning.
While today’s decision concerns a technical legal question, it emerges from a grassroots movement resisting further industrialization of an area where numerous pollution-producing facilities disproportionately harm Black communities.
“We are elated that this 30-year crime has finally been corrected,” said Joy Banner, who co-founded the Descendants Project with her sister Jo Banner. “We are gratified by the court's important decision.”
Descendants Project v. St. John the Baptist Parish, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and local counsel Bill Quigley, took aim at the serious procedural irregularities in the passage of the ordinance and the corrupt dealings of former Parish Council President Lester Millet Jr., who pushed through the ordinance, rezoning 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 corporation seeking to build a factory on the site. Millet Jr., who died in 2021, was sentenced to five years in prison at the time.
Today’s ruling deals a major blow to Greenfield and to James, who, despite backing the project, has managed to maintain a glowing reputation for socially conscious investing. The land in question is part of an 11-mile stretch along the Mississippi River in Cancer Alley that the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently listed as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States. The National Trust also launched a petition calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the permit Greenfield is seeking from the agency.
“Were it not for the fierce and determined leadership of Jo and Joy Banner who decided to stand and fight for Wallace, the massive grain elevator would likely be built and the town’s days would be numbered,” said Pam Spees, Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney. “Against all odds, they decided to challenge the old corruption and illegality that laid the groundwork for more injustice to follow, and today’s ruling vindicates their long, hard, committed struggle.”
During the height of Covid, when St. John Parish was enduring the highest per capita death rates in the country, Greenfield was busy securing support for the project from public officials. But the project has faced strong community resistance led by the Banners, who, like many people in the area, are descendants of enslaved people. They own and operate a cafe that sells goods made from the recipes of their ancestors and presents the Afro-Creole history of the region through the lens of their own family’s oral histories.
Throughout the legal fight, the Banners cited the many ways that the terminal would imperil their community, from the noise pollution to the noxious fumes to the grain dust known to cause respiratory problems. In addition, the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Officer has expressed concern about the impact on the Whitney Plantation and Museum, a national landmark recognized for its mission to educate visitors and the public at large about slavery. Likewise endangered is another former site of slavery, the Evergreen Plantation.
Given the presence of the former plantations, it is probable that the land contains burial sites of enslaved people. Indeed, Forensic Architecture, an internationally recognized agency headquartered in London, has examined the site and identified a series of archeological abnormalities that suggest the presence of unmarked graves.
While celebrating the victory, the Banners will, they say, remain vigilant, having seen repeated attempts to develop the land where their ancestors were forced to toil. Children at the time of the corrupt zoning, they remember both 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 on land containing burial grounds of enslaved people in nearby St. James.)
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.