The life stories of enslaved people are crucial to a legal battle over a Louisiana petrochemical facility that could triple residents’ exposure to carcinogens
At the age of nine, Rachel was one of many forced to live in enslavement on a plantation in southern Louisiana. As well as dozens of adults, there were other children, such as Susanne, age three, and Reuben, age 11.
The details of Rachel’s existence have been lost to time. But historians say that even at that young age, enslaved children likely would have been expected to work in some capacity, possibly weeding, looking after chickens or bringing food and water to adults in the fields.
It’s also likely that enslaved children such as Rachel would have lived in a small shack with a dozen other enslaved people and faced the constant threat of disease, insufficient food and rampant abuse, researchers with organizations such as Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation Museum explain.
What we do know for certain is that Rachel passed away before her 10th birthday, thanks to a sobering document uncovered not long ago at a Louisiana archive. It lists Rachel among many others who died while enslaved.
Nearly 190 years later, community members living near the same area where the Buena Vista plantation was once located are fighting the construction of a $9.4bn (£8.2bn) petrochemical plant proposed by Taiwanese industrial giant Formosa – and the document on Rachel is an important find.
It is part of an effort to piece together the life story of Rachel and other enslaved people, and with that information, to strengthen a political and legal case for preventing the facility, named the Sunshine Project, from being built.
A key figure in this fight is Lenora Gobert. She is the in-house genealogy expert for a local environmental justice group known as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Gobert scours 19th-century archives trying to put faces and names to the gravesites where Formosa wants to build.
“The more information that we uncover about the actual people who were a part of this plantation, the more we can help build out the story for why this plot of land should be preserved,” she said.
Arguments of this kind are already having an impact. Last week a Louisiana district court revoked air permits for the project, a major setback for its developer. Judge Trudy M White cited the history of slavery in her ruling, arguing that Black people living near the proposed project “are descendants of men and women who were kidnapped from Africa; who survived the Middle Passage; who were transported to a foreign land; and then sold on auction blocks and enslaved”.
Gobert found the document indicating Rachel’s 1832 death in a collection of mortgage records at Louisiana State University. Enslaved people were often used as collateral to obtain plantation-financing loans. “I’ve almost become a little desensitized to seeing the lists of enslaved people,” Gobert said. “You’re not going to cry every time. But when I saw Rachel and [the word] ‘dead’ next to her name, that gave me a jolt.”
Janile Parks, a spokesperson for the project’s developer, FG LA LLC, a member of Formosa Plastics Group, said it “will always be respectful of the burial remains discovered on its property and remains committed to the St James community, and to preserving its rich history and cultural resources”.
Yet by linking Formosa in such a visceral way to the dark history of slavery, Gobert hopes to bring more people and attention to the fight against the company’s petrochemical facility. It has been paused for the past several years as it undergoes stringent environmental review due partly to regulators worrying about gravesite desecration.
Various laws, such as the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, prohibit projects that disturb historic sites, and activists believe that evidence of slavery-era cemeteries can potentially stop the plant’s construction in a predominately Black area.
“The spiritual and religious significance of gravesites has been upheld by courts of law in the United States and in other countries over and over again,” said Jane Patton, a campaign manager with a Washington DC group known as the Center for International Environmental Law. “So is it a good strategy in a legal sense? I absolutely think it is.”
Patton pointed to a just-released report from a United Nations body called the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which urged the US government to “protect historical sites of cultural significance” in areas like Louisiana from petrochemical expansion.
But Gobert’s work has a broader meaning. She is also admired for giving humanity back to people who had their identities stripped away by slavery.
“Lenora’s work is beautiful, essential and revolutionary,” said Imani Jacqueline Brown, who led a project with the organization Forensic Architecture identifying gravesites in the petrochemical corridor of Louisiana. “It’s starting to unravel these very long legacies of colonialism and slavery.”
‘It’s like Sherlock Holmes’
Gobert’s interest in genealogy was kindled when she was living in Oakland, California. Her mom wanted help learning more about their family history, and Gobert traced their last name to a French man who came to Louisiana in the early 1800s and married a local woman of color, something that was illegal at the time.
But Gobert found it difficult to access the documents she needed to fully piece together the story of her ancestors, so she decided to move to New Orleans. “The repositories here for family research are phenomenal,” she said. The area was once a Catholic colony, and administrators kept careful records on both the enslaved and non-enslaved. “There’s an amazing amount of information that’s available to a researcher,” she said.
Gobert never received formal training in genealogy. She learned mostly through trial and error, and by getting to know other researchers who gathered in places like the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library. “Most of us are self-taught,” she said of her Black genealogy community. “We learn from each other.”
When the pandemic hit, Gobert grew bored and restless. She took a part-time job with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots organization she’d long admired that helps communities fight oil refineries and chemical plants in an area of the lower Mississippi with the most toxic air in America. “People are dying from pollution and no one seems to care,” she said.
Genealogy had exposed her to the cruel administrative apparatus of slavery, and she perceived its legacy in the dozens of petrochemical facilities occupying sites that used to be sugarcane plantations. She wanted to deploy the specialized skills she’d acquired in search of her own family history to help reverse some of the damage.
Locals fear that if Formosa’s Sunshine Project, equivalent in size to 80 football fields, goes ahead, the petrochemical facility could potentially triple their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in an area so polluted it’s already known as “cancer alley”.
Sunshine Project spokesperson Janile Parks contested the modeling behind that estimate, writing in an email that the “facility would not increase toxic air pollutants in the area”.
But White, the Louisiana judge, disagreed, ruling in response to a legal challenge brought by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Rise St James and other groups that the release of potentially harmful chemicals into a predominantly Black area raised serious “environmental justice” concerns.
Formosa is still attempting to move forward with the project; however, the work of Gobert and other historical researchers is creating additional hurdles for the company.
By 2020, local environmental groups and archeological consultants had used historic maps to locate two potential gravesites on property that Formosa wanted to turn into a manufacturing facility for the chemicals used in products such as single-use plastics, N95 masks and drainage pipes.
Researchers also identified five other “anomalies” in the terrain that might indicate gravesites. When enslaved people died on plantations, loved ones would sometimes plant magnolia and willow trees to mark the graves, resulting in clusters of vegetation or other visual disturbances on otherwise flat and cultivated land.
Gobert uses evidence of those gravesites as a starting point, but her job is to dig deeper. “Right now it’s dates and geographic places,” she said. “But this is more than just a place that’s being desecrated. This was a place that people’s ancestors were buried in.”
Gobert is trying to find documented evidence linking a local resident named Garry Winchester to the Buena Vista plantation, where, according to family lore, his great-grandfather’s parents may be buried. This would help establish him as Buena Vista’s first living descendant – an important goal, says Gobert, because it brings events from the 1800s firmly into the present.
“It does make it a lot more real for people,” Patton said. She noted that Louisiana is heavily Catholic, where local communities take their obligations to the dead very seriously. “It’s a good strategy in a public opinion sense.”
But Gobert hasn’t discovered definitive proof. “It’s like Sherlock Holmes. You’re trying to solve a big puzzle by constantly pulling together little bits of information,” she said.
There is a long tradition of Black people and communities using the deep investigative techniques of family research to reclaim and assert their identities, said Nicka Sewell-Smith, an experienced genealogist who’s helped coach Gobert. “This is our way of giving voice to ancestors who were denied the ability to have their own voice,” she said.
With public awareness growing around the dangers of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and an ongoing national reckoning around racial inequality, Sewell-Smith expects the type of work Gobert is doing to proliferate. “You’re going to start seeing it more and more,” she said.
In the meantime, Gobert is still searching for answers about nine-year-old Rachel. According to the documents she found, Gobert believes that the owner of the plantation where Rachel lived was attempting to get $31,700 (£27,761) in finance from a bank by mortgaging 28 men, 21 women and 26 children. The document says Rachel would have been worth $250 (£219).
“Winchester wanted to mortgage her. He’d already drawn up the papers, but Rachel died so he had to write ‘dead’ next to her name,” Gobert said. “Logic tells you she’s buried there on that Buena Vista site.”