February 26, 2024

Beyond the Briar Patch: Preserving St. John the Baptist Parish

Joy Banner is the 2023 recipient of the Emerging Leaders in Historic Preservation Award, which recognizes an emerging leader in the preservation field who has made significant achievements in preservation. Award recipients reflect the promise and potential of the preservation field.

As a little girl growing up in Wallace, a small village an hour west of New Orleans, my Grandmother Grace told us folktales about Compair Lapin, the predecessor of Br’er Rabbit. After being caught stealing a farmer’s vegetables, Compair Lapin begs the farmer to burn him or drown him as punishment, but the farmer aiming to cause the rabbit the most amount of pain for his actions, throws him into the briar patch. Compair Lapin hops up from the patch and runs away shouting “You thought I was afraid of the briar patch, but this is where I was born.”

As an adult, I realize that these stories were more than just cute tales. They contained lessons of perseverance in the face of threats, encouraged cleverness when dealing with challenges, and reminded us to never lose spirit even in the heat of battle. Compair Lapin is my favorite folk hero and one that I invoke often. Although these tales are hundreds of years old, they are current lessons for the challenges we face in my community in Louisiana.

Fighting Erasure at St. John the Baptist Parish

My village of Wallace is located in St. John the Baptist Parish along the banks of the Mississippi River. My family has been here for over 300 years and I descend from both the Africans forced here for labor on plantations and the Germans who immigrated to St. John Parish in the 1700’s. Hundreds of plantations lined the Mississippi river where over 300,000 people were enslaved prior to the Civil War. Today, about two dozen of those plantations are tourist attractions that draw visitors from all parts of the world. Preserving 19th century plantation homes gets wide support, while Black descendant communities like mine are targeted by industry, development, and other forms of erasure.

Two little girls standing next to an older woman in light pink and white dresses.

photo by: Joy Banner

Joy and Jo Banner and grandmother, Grace Alexis.

It’s no coincidence that the same region known as “plantation country” is identical to “cancer alley.” Industries drawn by access to the Mississippi River and the ability to buy thousands of acres of lands from the descendants of plantation owners have built hundreds of plants between the 183 mile stretch of river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Black descendant communities who often settled around the former plantation sites, are now on the “fenceline” of polluting factories. Residents now experience cancer risks that are higher than 95% of the US, hence the name “Cancer Alley.” Communities like mine are sacrificed for the promise of “jobs’ and economic development. In reality, recent studies have shown that local community members do not get the jobs and the supposed community benefits are offset by hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives.

It was almost exactly three years ago that we learned that a grain terminal and depot was planning to develop directly adjacent to my neighborhood. Grain production evokes a pastoral, old-fashioned, American farmer connotation that seems harmless. In reality, grain terminals are more explosive than dynamite factories. The Greenfield grain terminal would pump over 100 tons of pollution into the air annually. Residents would be forced to breathe grain dust that contains everything from metal fragments, fertilizers and pesticides, dead bird parts, and rodent excrement.

The 250-acre facility would contain 50 grain silos as tall as the Statue of Liberty that would block out the morning sun in my community. The grain terminal is on the former grounds of Whitney Plantation, making it a likely site of unmarked burial grounds for the enslaved. In other words, our community would be permanently and irrevocably changed for the worse if this development would occur. Despite these dire consequences, the development had the support of local and state leaders and we were on our own…but not really.

In these toughest times, I remembered the evenings spent outside with my elders as they told stories about life along the Mississippi River. I could still hear my Grandma relay the folktales of Compair Lapin in Creole French.

I remembered my ancestors who were enslaved at the plantations that surrounded me, and the Black Union soldiers who self-emancipated, fought for their freedom, and then returned to start “Freetowns.” Mostly, I thought of my parents who worked in dangerous industries to provide for their families for decades and were now enjoying their peaceful retirement in the community and home that they loved.

A view of a town on the edge of a river bank.

photo by: Brian M. Davis/Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation

Aerial view of the West Bank of St. John the Baptist Parish.

I realized that this fight wasn’t just about harmful development, it was about our rights as descendants, property owners, and American citizens to have a quality of life free from extraction and exploitation.

We had two aces in our pockets: historic preservation laws and zoning.

First, we realized that it was time to correct the decades old crime that left us vulnerable to industry in the first place. Thirty years ago, the zoning of the Greenfield site was changed to industrial for Formosa Plastics. I was only 10 years old, but I remember the industry representatives convincing us to work with them so that we could at least get the best payoff on the houses we were being forced to leave.

In these toughest times, I remembered the evenings spent outside with my elders as they told stories about life along the Mississippi River.

Part of the argument focused on the abundant historic and cultural resources, including the burial grounds of the enslaved that would be adversely impacted by the development. The sustainability of Whitney Plantation, a museum focused on the legacies of slavery that attracts tens of thousands of people, would be threatened, with an additional impact on Evergreen Plantation, a National Historic Landmark with 22 original slave cabins. Most importantly, we argued that the living descendant communities, whose ancestors built the historic plantations, would be destroyed and displaced.

While the parish president was ultimately convicted of taking a bribe to push through the industrial zoning and Formosa didn’t build, the illegal zoning remained on the books making way for companies like Greenfield. We challenged the zoning and began a two-year legal battle.

Joy Banner standing in front of fall foliage and a historic building.

photo by: Joy Banner

Joy Banner (pictured here) along with her sister Jo Banner are the co-founder and co-director's of The Descendants Project.

Increasing Protections and Visibility

Meanwhile, the Greenfield site is part of an 11-mile stretch of Mississippi River Road that was listed by the National Trust in 2023 as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. A context study has begun for the designation of this site as a National Historic Landmark, and the town of Wallace is in consideration as a potential National Register Historic District. Our efforts have brought national attention to the rights of descendant communities and the importance of their history.

As a united front with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, and other preservation advocates, we are also currently included in the Army Corps of Engineers review of Greenfield Terminal’s permit application. The Corp’s review includes an analysis of impacts to historic resources through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Through our combined efforts we have unveiled and amplified the historic resources of the Black descendant community.

In the meantime, we successfully overturned the Greenfield site’s industrial zoning. The grain terminal cannot be built without it. While I expect our fight to continue either with Greenfield or some other form of development, I am confident that we are fighting from a position of strength, intelligence, and commitment. And while corporations use tactics designed to diminish our resistance, cause us fear, and sow seeds of doubt in our ability to fight back, all I have to do is think of my old friend Compair Lapin in his briar patch who was able to outwit the farmer because he had the confidence to believe he could and the home field advantage and so do we.

As Compair Lapin, said “You think we are afraid, but this is where we were born.” We know our community better than any outsider ever could and we’re using that knowledge to protect ourselves.

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Joy Banner standing in front of fall foliage and a historic building.

Joy Banner is the co-founder & co-director of The Descendants Project. In 2023 she was awarded the Emerging Leaders in Historic Preservation Award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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