Whistleblower Warns Development Threatens Louisiana’s Sacred Black History Sites

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Erin Edwards, a professional architect historian, presented what she believed would be the nearly-final draft for a report about a disputed area of sugarcane plantation land in Louisiana. It was delivered to her bosses in July 2021. Her bosses at a consulting company wanted her to conduct a meticulous survey to identify historic site harms so that developers could prevent or minimize them.

Edwards’ report detailed how a proposed $400 million grain elevator, almost the height of the Statue of Liberty, would disrupt sites that are both sacred and dedicated to educating people about slavery and its aftermath. These included the homes of the 750-member community of Wallace, an African American cemetery, and the Whitney Plantation Museum, which is a memorial to generations who were forced to work the fields against the will of their will. The draft stated that vermin, loud noises, and ground vibrations could invade the museum’s quiet space. This museum attracts tens to thousands of visitors each annual.

Many residents of Wallace and the nearby communities in St. John the Baptist Parish hold deeper meanings for the site. They are the descendants of people who’d once been enslaved there.

Greenfield, an agricultural company, had purchased the land in 2021 for $40 million. They are now seeking a permit from Army Corps of Engineers to construct a huge industrial operation with 54 grain silos. From ships on the river, a long conveyor would transport millions upon millions of tonnes of wheat, soy, and other crops to this facility. Edwards was employed by Gulf South Research Corporation to help Greenfield meet a section of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act Federal agencies must grant permits to development projects that are funded or granted permits to document important sites and to devise a plan to minimize damage. If a proposed project is not able to be modified to protect historic sites, Corps and other federal agencies have the authority to deny permits.

The draft report by Edwards and a co-author concluded that the grain elevator would have “an adverse effect on historic properties.” The authors said they had determined that the entire area should be listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government’s roster of sites deemed worthy of preservation.

Edwards had included a sentence she believed to be suggestive, if not definitive, about an underexamined part of the land: the possibility it contained as-yet unknown graves. “Thus far, no enslaved cemeteries have been found for either Whitney or Evergreen Plantations,” another nearby and unusually intact plantation where the movie “Django Unchained” was filmed, “despite hundreds of enslaved people being kept there for over 155 years.”

Three months after Edwards had submitted her report to the state, Gulf South filed a document to the state in October 2021 with the same title, but with some notable edits.

The historic district was determined, the findings about Whitney and the community, and the single sentence about unknown burials were all removed. The report now concluded that “the project would not result in an adverse effect.”

According to emails obtained by ProPublica, the rewrite occurred after Greenfield, a contractor who was hired to handle the permit process, put pressure on Gulf South. Gulf South was warned that if the firm didn’t take out Edwards’ key finding — that the entire area was a historic district — it would lose the contract.

“They are refusing to accept it,” Gulf South’s head of cultural resources, Mike Renacker, wrote about Edwards’ report in an email to an internal team. “They are willing to tear up the contract and fire us.” As written, the report “has the potential to not only cost us our contract and future work, but might end the overall project as well.”

Edwards was shocked. “It is unethical for a client to tell us what our findings are,” she replied in an email. “They came to us for our expertise, and they got a professional report that is factual.”

“Our reputation will be that we can be bought,” she added.

Renacker replied: “I’m not suggesting, nor would I ever suggest that we do something unethical. I’m not questioning your methods or even the recommendation. What I am doing is laying out the problem we are having and asking for help to find a solution.”

After Edwards’ bosses changed her report, she resigned from her job of seven years.

Gulf South wrote in response to questions from ProPublica that it “was not required by Greenfield or anyone else for that matter to make changes that GSRC does not support.” What Edwards submitted, the company said, was a draft, and it’s not uncommon for drafts to change after clients review them and offer new relevant information.

The company says it asked Edwards to provide additional evidence to support her conclusion that the area should be considered an historic district, but she “was unable to provide data needed to meet the referenced listing criteria.” Edwards, who has a master’s degree in preservation from Tulane, said that she was confident her report was comprehensive and that the state’s historic preservation office would have agreed, had that agency been sent the complete report.

Greenfield did not respond to a lot of questions about the Gulf South surveys. However, he stated that its priority is the preservation of historic sites and that it would stop any construction in areas where it discovers cultural resources.

Ramboll Group was the contractor Greenfield hired to manage the permit process. They declined to answer questions and stated that media requests should be directed at Greenfield and Gulf South.

Experts in cultural resource management claim that companies can look away from their findings or are sometimes asked to modify them to please their developers bosses. For-profit firms such as Gulf South are now dominating the field. These firms are hired by developers to comply with federal law. These firms can be used not as preservation gatekeepers, but as lock-pickers by private industry that is interested in development.

“There is little incentive for companies to find anything,” explained Tom King, who during the 80s was the director of the federal Office of Cultural Resource Preservation, under the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “They’re not hired to find things. If they make construction impossible, they are not going to get more work.”

The community of Wallace, which is almost entirely Black, sits along a rare stretch of undeveloped riverbank south of Baton Rouge that’s not been transformed by polluting petrochemical plants and other heavy industry. Clementine Grows, an 83 year old woman, sat on the porch her small cottage. It was still covered with blue tarps from Hurricane Ida’s severe damage. On this May morning, before the midday heat set in, she explained that she’d spent some of her childhood on the Whitney Plantation. Grows can see the plantation property from her home, which is several hundred yards away.

Her grandparents had worked and lived on Whitney, where wage workers were tied through credit to plantation store. This was nearly a century after Civil War. After her mother was burned in a canefire, they cared for Grows. Wallace was where she and her husband raised their children. Grows was a local cook. Her husband worked in a grain elevator across from her. Her son, who was at Grows that May morning on that May morning recalled how he came home from school many years ago to pick vegetables and earn pocket change.

Grows said that she didn’t know what the grain elevator would do for her and her house. She’s heard some people in her community say that the project would make it difficult to remain in these houses. “A lot of people say it’s going to cause all sorts of problems.”

A similar plant was almost built by another company three decades ago. She’d prepared to leave. But she was forced to abandon her plans. “If we had to move all of a sudden that would be something. I’ve been here. My daddy was living right there,” Grows said. “All these people on this little land are kinfolk.”

Edwards had listed Grows’ house among several in a small enclave in Wallace called Willow Grove that should be considered part of a larger rural historic district, “as it was built for and used by the descendants of freed plantation workers.” At the end of Grows’ dead-end road, beyond a cleared grassy plot and adjacent to the planned grain elevator, a cemetery with about 50 stones bears names of people who died here, including Grows’ mother, Lorenza Poche, born in 1910, and her husband, Melvin Grows, an Army veteran, as well as one of her sons, four siblings and a grandson.

Grows recalls that in the past, people would request to bury their loved ones in areas close to existing graves. Grows said that all her neighbors who managed the burials would tell her that there were spaces that were closed to new interments. “When someone would come to bury someone there, they would say, ‘You can’t bury them there because someone’s been buried there already.’ And they’d find another place to bury them.”

She understood that there had been no headstones for burials.

These or any other unmarked burials are not mentioned in the report Gulf South sent to state.

Shortly after Gulf South changed Edwards’ report, University of New Orleans professor Ryan Gray sent a letter to the Corps detailing a list of ways that Gulf South’s methodology for locating unknown cemetery sites was “completely inadequate.”

Gray, who worked in Louisiana for eight years before he earned a doctorate of archaeology at Chicago University, concluded that Willow Grove Cemetery extends well beyond what is visible. The land around it, he wrote, is “almost positively the location” of “unmarked enslaved or nineteenth-century post-Emancipation burials.”

Greenfield did not respond to questions about potential burial sites, but on its website the company says it “has gone above and beyond what is required to ensure there are no ancestral burial grounds where the facility will be located.”

There have been instances when cultural resource management firms were criticized for not including historic sites in their reports. A few years back, a firm was hired by a petrochemical corporation. initially failed to document Researchers and activists discovered burial locations by comparing aerial photos from 1940s that might still show the contours of those plots to 19th-century maps that showed the locations of cemeteries. After an outside archaeologist alerted state to the possibility of gravesites being present, the petrochemical company which owned the land agreed that at least one of those cemeteries would be cordoned off.

Gulf South submitted its first report to the state’s historic preservation officer in December 2020. After reviewing the work, state asked Gulf South to extend the radius of its study to include all Whitney and Evergreen plantsations and nearby communities. It also requested that other potential impacts be considered. This is Edwards’s work.

Edwards stated that she raised the question of unknown graves in hopes that it would encourage the Division of Historic Preservation, to require Greenfield to conduct a more thorough search for unmarked burial locations, including those near Willow Grove Cemetery. (Edwards’ co-author has recently taken a job as a compliance officer with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, overseeing cultural resource management reports. She declined to interview because she is not authorized by Louisiana to speak to journalists.

“If there might be burials,” Edwards said, “why not look harder?”

Last year, the Whitney Plantation Museum, which decades ago was added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, put up a new plaque on the museum premises. “It is a major threat to the slave-decsendant community in Wallace,” the plaque reads, referring to Greenfield’s plans. The display is visible before visitors reach the memorial to the men who executed Greenfield after staging the German Coast Uprising, which was the largest rebellion of enslaved persons before the Civil War.

“This grain elevator would take up hundreds of acres of the fields around you that once formed Whitney Plantation, potentially destroying unknown burial sites,” the plaque says. “It will contribute to the existing toxic burden with the grain dust pollution, and permanently change the landscape of West St. John Parish.”

The grain elevator would be visible in certain areas of the plantation memorial. It would rise above a small restaurant located on River Road, on a tree-shaded, verdant plot.

Joy and Jo Banner are twin sisters from Wallace in their mid-40s. They run the restaurant on the same road as their family house. They are also cofounders of Descendants Project, which is a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of the history and heritage of Black people in the region, including ancestors of enslaved persons in the river parish plantations.

After both sisters left Wallace for college and graduate school, and in Joy’s case to get a doctorate and then teach at a university in Texas, they returned to work in this small community. They are like many others in the area and trace their ancestry back to slaves on these plantations, including Whitney.

The Descendants Project is a project that the Banner sisters have worked hard to build. This will allow Grows to have some influence over how their communities change. For the last year, that has meant fighting Greenfield’s plans. Along with other advocates, they’ve alleged that the industrial facility will lead to the kind of harm that Edwards was independently documenting, entirely unbeknownst to them, because the report as she wrote it has never been released.

“If they build this, this community will not survive,” said Joy Banner, whose day job is communications director of the Whitney Plantation Museum.

The Banner sisters heard reverberating screams coming from several hundred yards away from their home in May 2021. This was on the same land Greenfield owned that would house the elevator. According to Greenfield to determine the feasibility of building, large metal beams were being driven into the ground by builders. “If you didn’t know what was going on, you would think that there’s nothing you can do to stop it,” Jo Banner said, pointing into the field, just past their family home, where Greenfield placed a “No Trespassing Private Property” sign.

Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights representing Descendants Project wrote to both the Louisiana Division of Archaeology (the Louisiana attorney general) and the Louisiana Division of Archaeology to request that the activity be stopped after the beams were driven into the ground.

The letter cited work by a research firm called Forensic Architecture, based at Goldsmiths’ College at the University of London, that had been investigating the location of historic cemeteries in Cancer Alley, the predominantly African American region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s packed with dozens of petrochemical plants and refineries. Using historic maps and aerial photographs, they’ve identified geological anomalies that could indicate burial sites, including trees growing in otherwise-cultivated fields. Some of these anomalies were caused by plows and planters who had long ignored the suspected or known locations of graves.

“If you are genuinely interested in finding antebellum or other historic sites, you want to find the earliest possible view of the land,” said Imani Jaqueline Brown, the researcher with Forensic Architecture who spent a year studying the geography, architecture and cartography of the region and constructed the maps of the anomalies in Wallace. Brown indicated that two sites are more likely to be burial locations based on their relative proximity to plantation architecture.

Gulf South said that it “did review historic maps and aerial imagery and considered the potential for burial locations” and “found no evidence of potential burial locations within the footprint of potential ground disturbance resulting from the project.”

The attorney general’s office replied to the letter from the Descendants Projects’ lawyers. “While some of the anomalies identified in your letter may represent unmarked burial sites,” it said, “so long as they are undisturbed we cannot take action under the existing laws.” Unless bones were dug up, in other words, under Louisiana’s cemetery laws, the state could not stop the work.

Another group of lawyers was also involved with the Descendants Project and tried to stop the federal permit. They argued that grain dust could leak into air and cause respiratory irritations.

Greenfield disputes that the grain elevator would cause such problems, adding that “it will be one of the safest and cleanest facilities in North America. Greenfield is engineered to outperform all current and anticipated EPA standards.”

The Descendants Project sued St. John the Baptist Parish in November to stop the project. In that suit, the Descendants Project presented evidence to show that the grain elevator land had been zoned fraudulently for industrial use. Three decades ago, a corrupt land deal had landed the former parish President in federal prison. In April, a judge ruled that the case could continue. Greenfield, which was allowed by the court to become a party in the case, indicated that it would likely appeal. It argued in court filings that the St. John Parish Council approved the 30-year-old zoning decisions regardless of their origins.

Among the claims in the suit, the Descendants Project says that the sprawling operation could pose a risk to their own ancestors’ graves. The sisters want to preserve the land for Black communities that have lived here for hundreds and years, but have been denied their claim by those who control it.