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Descendants Of Enslaved People Ask Louisiana Court To Stop ‘Pre-Construction’ On Land Likely Containing Ancestral Graves – OpEd

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An organization that advocates for descendants of enslaved people filed a motion requesting a temporary restraining order yesterday  to prevent “ground-penetrating activities” on land likely containing ancestral graves. A Denver-based company, Greenfield Louisiana, is seeking to build a massive grain terminal in Wallace, a historic Black community in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” The Descendants Project is challenging the decades-old corrupt rezoning ordinance that Greenfield is using. 

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Over the weekend, less than three weeks after the court refused to dismiss the lawsuit, people who live next to the site received notices warning of “pre-construction activity” that would produce “hammering noise.” Greenfield did not notify the Descendants Project of its decision to begin operations on the land, which abuts two landmarked former plantations.  

“People who live several streets away from the site received a notice of construction, but those of us who live right next door to the site did not. Again, Greenfield is erasing our historic Black and descendant community and the possible sacred burial grounds of our ancestors,” said Joy Banner, who founded the Descendants Project with her sister, Jo.

The lawsuit, Descendants Project v. St. John the Baptist Parish, stems from the corrupt dealings of Lester Millet Jr., a former parish president who, in 1990, 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. Yet the illegal ordinance remains on the books, providing an opening to Greenfield and San Francisco-based investor, Christopher James, who is backing the project despite his ballyhooed environmentalism.  

From the first filing in its lawsuit, the Descendants Project has expressed concern that the grain elevator would threaten not only the health of residents but also the graves of enslaved people, which are frequently discovered in this area. Recently, a researcher from Forensic Architecture, an internationally recognized agency based in London, identified a series of archaeological anomalies on the land that, they say, point to the presence of unmarked burial sites. 

Greenfield hired a different architectural firm to assess the site, but an ex-employee of the company has challenged the validity of its findings. According to this ex-employee, Greenfield heavily influenced the firm’s final report. In an email to the state Division of Architecture, the ex-employee wrote that “the report was written by the project manager and the client, playing architectural historian, and they have made eligibility determinations and conclusions in the report that I absolutely do not agree with.” 

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In their motion, submitted by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and local counsel Bill Quigley, advocates at the Descendants Project are seeking a temporary restraining order under Louisiana’s cemetery dedication law, an article in the state constitution that protects the right to “preserve, foster, and promote” one’s cultural and historic origins, and the First Amendment, which guarantees the free exercise of religion. 

“Greenfield’s actions reveal its utter lack of regard for the community most at risk from this project, for the ancestral graves experts believe exist on the site, and even for the court,” said Pam Spees, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The judge recently ruled that if everything the Descendants Project have alleged in their case is true, the ordinance Greenfield is relying on is null and void. By continuing with its ground-disturbing testing, Greenfield is proceeding as if this case and the court’s ruling ultimately mean nothing.” 

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.  

Last month’s hearing cleared the way for the judge to rule on the merits of the case. The Banners, who grew up in Wallace and now own and operate a cafe that uses the recipes of their ancestors, were preparing for their next hearing when they learned from their neighbors of Greenfield’s plans. 

*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. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media:Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook,@theCCR on Twitter, andccrjustice on Instagram.

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