Jazmin Miller: There's a saying that land is power. And it's interesting, because I feel that at 35 years old, I've just come to terms, I've just felt the impact for myself of what that means. It feels like a prophecy has been spoken over a place that is already spiritual, but it's..but it's dark, it's heavy. And it's something that we didn't decide.
Jameela Hammond: Hey, it’s Jameela. Over the course of ten episodes I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S., as we pull back the curtain to look at how our history with land has shaped every aspect of our lives. It's a tricky thing, land. Our very existence is critically tied to it. And yet, we don't all get equal access. Why? How exactly did we get to this moment in time? We’ll break down how race, class, and power have been used to build and maintain unfair systems that determine how land is used. These systems harm nearly everyone, and create so many inequities that they might seem normal, unavoidable, or even natural. But these are the products of deliberate choices made by real people. It's time to reckon with these decisions. It’s time to understand this history so we can help build a just future for everybody. This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Jameela Hammond and this is Plot of Land.
In our last episode, we looked at how disinvestment impacts an economically and racially diverse neighborhood on Roosevelt Island in New York City. And before that we explored the virtual worlds of land in the metaverse, the speculative worlds of private equity and tenants rights, the plains and ranches of Oklahoma, and the pipelines and community organizing of Los Angeles. Now, we want to look at Louisiana, at a 66-acre piece of family land called Jonesland. There, a movement of historically Black communities is fighting for survival against some of the most powerful and wealthy petrochemical plants. And that family land, Jonesland, it belongs to Jazmin Miller’s family.
Jazmin: My name is Jazmin Miller. In the theater world, people call me Jazzy. So, Jazzy Miller is my most common name, because I'm a theater director in Memphis, Tennessee where I work for Crosstown Arts. Born and raised in Memphis. But, of course, my mother's family's roots are here in St. James, Louisiana.
Jameela: St. James Parish is 258 square miles and, since its founding in 1807, has seen extractive industries exploit the lives of millions. In 2020 Jazzy began making a documentary film there, taking trips back to her family’s homeplace; Jonesland.
Jonesland is unusual. Jazzy’s family has raised generations of children on the same piece of land for more than a century. Through slavery and Reconstruction, through an oil boom, and an onslaught of petrochemical refining and manufacturing. Jazzy’s family has persisted—finding joy and spirituality in the land and each other—even as their very existence is regularly threatened.
And in America, centuries of discriminatory land use and lending practices have left Black people owning just half a percent of farmland across the country. So how did the Jones family, who have worked their land for generations, come to own 66 acres in part of a country notorious for exploiting and displacing Black people? And how did they manage to hold onto it?
Jazmin: But I'm a storyteller. I just want to tell the story, but I have to know the story first, right?...Where are we in this history?
Jameela: Here’s Plot of Land reporter Anya Groner in Louisiana.
[sounds of walking, birds]
Anya Groner: Jonesland is a long narrow plot of land. It starts at the Mississippi River and runs straight back for 66 acres. Houses give way to gardens which turn to fields and then forest and eventually swamp. Jazzy’s extended family has lived here since the 1800s.
[sounds of setting up recording equipment, adjusting mic, etc.]
Anya: I think our levels are just right.
Anya: Since she began making regular trips to Jonesland, Jazzy’s had a persistent tickle in her throat.
Jazmin: [cough] I will cough every once in a while. It’s not COVID…It's my asthma. Around this time of year… my bronchial tubes are…trying to get adjusted so it’s a lot worse at night. I’m an old lady.
Anya: Jazzy’s actually 36. And she’s tall, which, she says hasn’t been ideal for theater.
Jazmin: I'm Black. I'm six foot one. When you grow up in the theater in 2004 5, 6, 7, 8, what roles are there for you?
Anya: But her height hasn’t stopped her. She’s toured her one-woman play, Journey of Truth, about the life of Sojourner Truth, in four different countries. We meet at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where Jazzy’s uncle, Reverend Samuel Jones, who we’ll meet later, has preached since 1996. Jazzy’s been attending services for as long as she can remember. She’s sung, and prayed, and testified here. She’s witnessed baptisms and weddings and a whole lot of funerals.
Jazmin: I'd spend the summer with an aunt, two weeks, you know, with my Aunt Cora in Lemanville. We'd go out to the Jones land for a Sunday afternoon. We'd walk. We’d hop in the back of a pickup truck and ride back on the land. And it felt like we were going into this, you know, mystical Louisiana forest.
Anya: Like a lot of people during the pandemic, Jazzy tells me she found herself in these moments of deep reflection, mulling over the stories that get told and the stories that don’t, how stories are purposefully hidden or get lost across generations. Again and again her attention returned to Jonesland.
Jazmin: As the saying goes, land is the one thing that God is not making any more of.
Anya: In the 80 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, more than a dozen former plantations operate as tourist sites. On a map, they look a lot like Jonesland. Long, skinny plots extending back from the Mississippi. But only one of those tourist sites focuses on the lives of enslaved Black people.
Joy Banner: The truth of plantations, and I say this ad nauseum, plantations are Black spaces.
Anya: When I spoke to Dr. Joy Banner, she was serving as the communications director at the Whitney Museum in Louisiana.
Banner: Whitney is the only plantation that uplifts the fact that it is a Black space. At any plantation, despite how they decide to market themselves, you would have gone to a plantation, it would have been majority African American, African Louisianians.
Anya: Dr. Banner traces her ancestry back to two riverside plantations that sit eight miles apart on Louisiana’s winding River Road; the Laura and the Whitney. Jazzy recently took a tour at the Whitney and it fundamentally shifted how she thought about her family’s history.
Jazmin: Something was said on one of those tours; that almost every inch of land along the River Road was a plantation of some sort, and most of it was sugar. And I'm thinking we own land along the River Road. Was that a sugar plantation?
Anya: Jonesland is about 20 miles away from the Whitney, but Jazzy didn’t recall anybody in her family ever talking about their land being a former plantation. So she started conducting oral histories with family members.
Jazmin: … Aunt Laverne, do you know? Papa, do you know? Everybody's got a nickname, you know. Mom, do you know? Aunt Betty, do you know? Aunt Cora, do you know? And they're all going No, this was never a plantation.
Anya: The more she asked, the less sense it made. So Jazzy started digging up marriage certificates, affidavits, anything to help her piece together her family’s story.
Jazmin: I'm knocking on doors; Excuse me, if I want to find a land deed, where do I go…
Anya: She went to the St. James Parish courthouse, looking for the original deed to her family’s property.
Jazmin: I go back into the office and knock on the door. Everyone looks up from their computers. Excuse me, if I'm looking for a deed, let's say 1920s, would it be on that computer?
Anya: The record-keeper walked Jazzy over to a wall of books, which she called ‘conveyances’.
Jazmin: So I asked her, What is that? And she says, Those are your property books. You want to go to the blue ones. Open it up; that's your vendor. That's your Vendee. Find the book that the deed would be in. Go to the book number. It's just a whole process. It’s like a library that I’ve never been to. And I’m like, Yeah, I’m going to get lost in this.
Anya: Jazzy pulled out a random book. In her mind, she’s asking this innocuous paper-worky kind of question about land ownership. But the book she opened dates back to before the Civil War, when property didn’t just refer to land and houses.
Jazmin: And when I saw sale of property, land acquisition deed, sale of slave, sale of slave, sale of slave, sale of slave, land acquisition, sale of slave in multiple books…You have property and people wrapped up into one word - conveyance - which is the transaction of property that transitions from one person to another.
Anya: So there Jazzy is. Her family’s oral history makes no mention of slavery. But she thinks back to what Joy Banner said at the Whitney, that plantations lined both sides of the Mississippi River. And there, in the courthouse, she’s holding actual documentation of slave sales.
Jazmin: The first thing I did, I went back into the office and I knocked on the door. Yeah, I’m knocking, I’m like Excuse me? Do you all know what's in those books? You know. And they are so unfazed, because I'm sure they're busy with you know, whatever is happening in court…but to me, it was like it, you know, it's...it was like, Jumanji…the world just starts shaking a little bit and the past is turning over in its grave. And coming alive again.
And things just start clicking. Oh. It's been in the family for 100 years. This is what we look like, this is what this region used to be.
Anya: Still, when she started talking to family members about the possibility that their ancestors were enslaved, they weren't all convinced.
Jazmin: Even saying that this is the land that our ancestors, that they were enslaved on...it's like I sort of have..Well, prove it to me, then. This has to be proven. You have to make me believe this. That's sort of the approach that my family has.
Anya: So Jazzy focused her research on one person, who everybody either knew or knew about. The family matriarch; her great-great-grandmother, Sedonia Dennis.
Jazmin: Sedonia Dennis, who everyone calls Ma Sook. There's no mention of her in writing. But in the oral histories, she is the one who lived in the house to the front. In every story, no matter who thinks that they own this property, her name comes up first. Well, Ma Sook's desire. Well, Ma Sook's wishes. Well, Ma Sook's orders were that X,Y,Z. Ma Sook was the orchestrator of all of this, that we have this land and that we kept this land. And that is a refrain that has echoed through the decades, through the Civil Rights Movement. And today.
Anya: So Jazzy reached out to local genealogist Brianna Raleigh-Brown, who immediately recognized the name Sedonia Dennis. Not only had Jazzy’s great-great-grandmother been enslaved, she’d been enslaved at the very same plantation as Ms. Brianna’s relatives. Within ten minutes of saying Hello, Ms. Brianna starts passing Jazzy documents.
Jazmin: The first time I looked at that 1865 census-taker’s report and I saw my great-great-grandmother's name and the way that it would have been pronounced because, right, they spell it the way that they would have pronounced it. To see all those names…you know. Edmond, would have been Sedonia's father. His name’s on there. It was just, I mean, it was a really emotional moment, obviously. I felt, I felt like I'd found her. I feel like I got to meet her for the first time.
Anya: At this point, Jazzy was looking for information everywhere she could. She’d always heard about how much Black history has been lost, but very quickly, she was discovering that records are everywhere, you just have to know where to look.
Jazmin: You've got to find all these ways through like Catholic Church records and courthouse records and runaway records and you name it.
Anya: For Jazzy, finding this history became about more than just making a documentary.
Jazmin: It's my legacy. It's our story. It is. We're unearthing things that we didn't have to dig that deep to find. That they've just been there waiting to be found. And it's, it's awesome.
Anya: Pretty soon, family members who’d at first been skeptical became invested in Jazzy’s research.
Jazmin: It is like magic; watching those pieces come together, watching my family connect the dots.
Anya: Jazzy learned that Sedonia Dennis was born and raised less than a mile down the road from where her descendents live now. It was a plantation called Welcome Plantation. And there, the Garnier family had legal ownership of both the land and the people.
Jazmin: Prosper Garnier, Maurice, Jules and, I believe, François Garnier were the brothers who inherited this property. And they grew sugar cane.
Anya: Sedonia Dennis was three years old when the Civil War ended. Her mother, Henrietta, was a domestic worker and her father, Edmund, labored in the canebrakes and rice fields. Like the majority of newly-freed people, they stayed put. While Sedonia Dennis was technically free, her day-to-day life as she grew older wasn’t that different from her parents. As a sharecropper, she worked the same fields her father had. In exchange, she likely received a small wage and a place to stay.
But the profitability of the Garniers’ entire 220-acre plantation business had relied on the abundant forced labor of enslaved people.
Jazmin: Of course after the Civil War, that family kind of, like, crumbled, tried to keep the land, tried to repurpose it, sold it off in parcels to siblings who eventually sold it off. So the land just naturally got divided up over time.
Anya: Eventually the Garniers moved away, but Sedonia Dennis stayed. She moved to a neighboring plantation, called New Hope, to live with her husband, who’d also been enslaved. Jazzy believes Sedonia Dennis was biding her time.
Jazmin: I can't help but think, as strong-willed as she was, that it must have always been her intention to somehow acquire this piece of property.
Anya: Like Welcome Plantation, New Hope repeatedly changed hands after the Civil War, transferring from the Bergeron family to the Berthelots. Eventually a man named Armise Luke sold 66 acres to Sedonia Dennis. Even though her name isn’t on the deed, it’s clear from family stories that she’s the one who negotiated for the property. As Jazzy puts it, her fingerprints are all over it.
Jazmin: I believe, and I don't think that anybody would disagree with me here, that her heart's desire was for that land to be a homestead for infinite generations to come.
Anya: For Jazzy, learning this history was profound. Her relationship with the land, with her family, started to change.
Jazmin: When the past comes alive like that, it is like a sketch becoming three-dimensional that makes you scoot closer to the relationship you have with that thing. It's holy.
Jameela: Jazzy’s just peeling back layer after layer, isn’t she?
Anya: Yeah. It’s been so moving to witness. Her understanding of the land keeps growing deeper and more complex. But as she’s unearthing the past, something has started to trouble her.
Jameela: Yeah, the Jones family’s been on this land since slavery. That means they not only survived Jim Crow, but also Louisiana’s oil boom, and the ongoing proliferation of petrochemical plants and oil refineries. That must be all around them.
Anya: Exactly. They’re surrounded by extraction.
Jazmin: There is something about extraction... like once it's done, it can't be undone. It's gone after that. I'm still sifting through how to feel about that.
Anya: The more she researches, the more Jazzy learns about how extraction in this region dovetails with her family’s history, with their land. Jonesland, and the autonomy it has given them for so long, is the very reason her family has endured. But that security the land once provided? It’s slipping away.
Jazmin: Like we've been given this gift of a thing and powers that be are stomping out the fragrance of what is, and what could potentially be.
Anya: Slowly, the focus of her inquiry, the focus of the documentary, shifts.
Jazmin: It's about survival. It's about surviving slavery. It's about surviving Jim Crow. It's about surviving sharecropping. And it's about keeping a legacy and surviving everything being thrown at this family, even in 2022. It's about survival.
Jameela: When I hear the word ‘extraction’ the first thing that comes to mind is oil or natural gas, like fossil fuels being extracted from the ground. But it sounds like extraction is much more than that.
Anya: Yeah, Imani Brown told me that drilling for fossil fuels is only one form of extraction. Imani Brown is an artist, activist and researcher who works for Forensic Architecture, a London-based research group that investigates state violence, including in Louisiana. She actually studies extraction.
Imani Brown: There are many different forms of extraction; extraction of oil, extraction of labor, extraction of life, extraction of value. So extraction can mean the very material removal of a substance from the ground of value, from an object of life, from a person.
Anya: From a person. An extractive economy depletes resources for profit without replenishing what they take.
Jameela: So, basically, capitalism?
Anya: Yeah, but like capitalism on steroids. Extractive economies are extreme. Think about Louisiana’s sugar plantations. The sugar itself depletes the soil.
Anya: And then during harvest that cane is cut and processed for sale.
Jameela: Another kind of extraction. And then of course the labor was extracted, too.
Anya: Exactly, 12-and-a-half-million African people were captured–or extracted–from their homes and forced across the Atlantic Ocean.
Jameela: And in the decades before the Civil War, 125,000 enslaved Black people were sold south to work sugar and cotton plantations.
Jameela: And once they were there, their lives were extracted by plantation owners. After working in the canebrakes, an enslaved person’s average lifespan was drastically reduced.
Anya: Yeah, extractive economies are ruthless. They’re all about the bottom line, where the ends justify the means, which allows for a lot of cruelty. If enslaved labor, or another form of exploitation, is good for profits, then an extractive economy is going to condone it.
Jameela: So even though slavery ended with emancipation, extractive economies never went away. They just shifted.
[ambient sounds of bike touring]
Anya: Downriver from Jonesland is a small town called Norco. Norco got its name from the New Orleans Refinery Company, the corporation that bought the land from a plantation over a hundred years ago. Jazzy and I went there on a bike tour.
Anya: The tour is run by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. And the tour manager, Sheila Tahir, is about to lead us through St. Charles Parish.
Sheila Tahir: So, to orient ourselves, we’re in the town of Norco, Louisiana. Norco’s population is a little under 3,000 since Hurricane Katrina…and Norco is one of the really old, like, some of the oldest oil and gas companies here. It was the company that was there before Shell bought the land.
Anya: Sheila calls the tour “Down by the River” and advertises it as a group ride that brings you face-to-face with two powerful forces in Louisiana: the environmental justice movement and local African American history. Jazzy’s aunt, Ms. Laverne Jones is here, too. She drives alongside us carrying Jazzy’s big camera, which is too unwieldy and expensive to mount on a bike. Like many family members in her generation, Ms. Laverne spent her entire career working in petrochemical plants.
Laverne Jones: Roundup. So, I'm pretty sure you know what Roundup is. So, we actually made the Roundup. And from there, I moved to the lab and worked in the main lab.
Anya: Roundup is a toxic herbicide, distributed by the company Monsanto. It’s been the subject of numerous lawsuits and environmental investigations. Ms. Laverne tells me that while she worked at the plant, no one warned her about the hazards of chemical exposure.
Sheila waves in our direction and then points to the skyline.
Tahir: If you look there, you can see, like, a giant fire spurting from, you know, spurting in the distance. And does anyone know what that's called? So that is a flare, and you probably notice them...
Anya: There are more than 150 petrochemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Tens of thousands of miles of pipeline pump oil and liquid natural gas into gargantuan facilities. Inside, fossil fuels are pressurized, heated, reduced, and refined to make plastics, fertilizers, cleaning supplies, and pesticides. Though Texas has a few more facilities than Louisiana, nowhere else in the country, and likely the world, has such a high concentration of plants. A quarter of the nation’s petrochemical industries are housed here in Louisiana.
Tahir: The companies release flares when a dangerous level of chemical or whatever product is at the facility has been reached. And in order to avoid an explosion, what they do is they start flaring the chemical and releasing it into the air. And, of course, this is devastating in terms of whoever's breathing in that air, right? But it's also extremely wasteful when it comes to our natural resources; they're just spewing the excess toxin into the air.
Anya: Communities like Norco are exposed to intense pollution, not only through flares, but also via toxic spills, fires, leaks, and even explosions. Chemicals, including the known and suspected carcinogens benzene and chloroprene, leak from raw materials like crude oil and liquified natural gas into the nearby atmosphere, water, and land. And a portion of those toxins enter human bodies.
Tahir: It's been shown that if you're exposed to some of these chemicals at a young age--and not just lead–but it leads to learning disabilities, it leads to increased aggression.
Anya: Just coming here a few times a month for the last two years, Jazzy’s developed asthma.
Jazmin: I was probably in high school when my mom had medical, like, concerns for family members and friends. Oh, so-and-so has bone cancer? So-and-so has brain cancer? So that conversation was happening way too often.
Anya: Back in 1987, residents of the primarily Black St. Gabriel began documenting high cancer rates and miscarriages in their community. After publicizing their findings, they marched to Baton Rouge to demand the government do more to protect them. Since then, the region’s been dubbed Cancer Alley. But besides creating a statewide cancer registry, little has changed. In fact, there are even more petrochemical plants there today than in 1987.
Anne Rolfes: Well, Louisiana…has more than our fair share of oil and gas companies, I guess for many of the same reasons that we had so many plantations.
Anya: Anne Rolfes is the founder and director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which has monitored industry in the state since 2000.
Rolfes: We work with people who live next to oil refineries, chemical plants, some sort of oil or gas infrastructure and help them achieve their goals, whether it's to prevent something from being constructed or to somehow mitigate the harms of pollution that's already occurring.
Anya: The Bucket Brigade is so-named because it arms residents who live near industry with the power to take their own air quality measurements. Everything they need is in a bucket.
Tahir: It's a ten gallon sampling device that has a plastic bag inside that kind of works like a lung. So whenever residents smell something in the air or there's a flare or something, they can take the bucket out and they can capture that air. The bag gets it like a lung. And then it's shipped off to a facility in California and it's tested for whatever is inside that dirty air. We then read those facts and data and we bring it with us to our court cases.
Anya: To stop toxic air pollution, residents first have to prove it exists.
Tahir: Now, we took the bucket here once and we sampled the air and we found a chemical called methyl ethyl ketone. That is a developmental toxin. If you're a pregnant mama or if you're a baby or a toddler or a young child and you inhale that, it's going to have an effect on you. It will lead to learning disabilities. It's really, really, really toxic.
Anya: The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality - LDEQ - is tasked with setting and enforcing limits on toxins and industrial air and water emissions. Yet environmental experts say the department is failing.
Rolfes: The state requires so little of these facilities. Our state should not be called the Department of Environmental Quality, right? It's the Department of Permitting.
Anya: Louisiana has much higher emission caps than most other states and plants here are often not even fined when they go past those limits. Louisiana has also long been a tax haven for refineries and manufacturers. A community group called Together Louisiana recently studied the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Policy. They found that over nearly two decades, the government denied just 8 of approximately 17,000 corporate tax exemptions. These exemptions cost state parishes about $1.9 billion a year; money that could have been used to repair and maintain failing public infrastructure. In the American Society for Civil Engineers’s most recent assessment, the state’s bridges, roads, and drinking water infrastructure all received ‘D’ letter grades.
Rolfes: So our state has just rubber-stamped with a few exceptions…There's never been anybody who truly wanted to hold the companies accountable. And, you know, what's good for the oil business is good for Louisiana - that's been the mindset. But of course, that's not true.
Anya: The federal Environmental Protection Agency monitors pollution across the country. In 2022, the Agency began investigating whether Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality had perpetuated environmental injustices by issuing so many permits in majority Black communities. If you ask Anne Rolfes, and many residents in the area, the evidence is clear.
Rolfes: The state is a handmaiden to industry. That's all there is to it.
Anya: This is heavy stuff, so I wanted to check in with Jazzy’s aunt, Ms. Laverne, to see how she’s doing—what it feels like to be back here after spending a career in the surrounding industry.
Laverne Jones: It's almost like bittersweet. Like I have to convince myself, don't feel guilty. Don't, you know, don't feel guilty. Because, at that time, all you're thinking about is your family and making a living. But now you see, you know, that it really wasn't living.
Anya: Growing up, Ms. Laverne said the message was clear. The petrochemical plants were coming. If she did well in school, there’d be a good job waiting for her. So she trained to become an engineer and back then, no one talked about health or environmental dangers associated with the work.
Laverne Jones: I feel like government fails you; state and local, parish. I just feel it, feel that they failed the people in this area by allowing these plants to come in. And they're not gaining. The people in the area is not gaining. They're not gaining from the plants being in the area.
Anya: She says the government should work with the community more, to protect them.
Laverne Jones: You know, I always believe that if you're going to build a plant here, the people who's here should dictate whether or not you want it in your area. But that's not, the last people to know are the people in this area.
Anya: Sheila tells us that some of the biggest environmental advocates work in industry, which makes sense. They’re the most at risk. When there’s an explosion or an industrial spill or a hurricane, they’re on the frontlines. Beside me, Ms. Laverne nods. In 2021, Hurricane Ida destroyed her house. She’s been staying in New Orleans until it’s repaired. Sheila reminds us that these industrial polluters are directly responsible for worsening climate and weather patterns. What’s more, she says, the state of Louisiana doesn’t require petrochemical plants and refineries to submit hurricane safety plans.
Tahir: When a hurricane hits these regions, these plants are in the right in the line of attack. So, for example, in Lake Charles, when Hurricane Laura hit a chlorine plant caught on fire, and it shows how these disasters are connected and compounding and how really vulnerable we are in this part of the world.
Anya: Sheila pauses, and says that while her tour is intended to focus on the history of Black land, it’s imperative to know that all of this land was in fact stolen. That for more than ten thousand years before European settlers arrived, Native Americans lived here.
Tahir: We have the Houma. We have the Chitimacha. We have the Choctaw. The Atakapa Ishak. But there were numerous tribes…
Anya: Today about 17,000 enrolled Houma citizens remain in Louisiana, along with 1,250 Chitimacha members, a little more than 300 Choctaw, and a small group of Atakapa Ishak. Only one Louisiana tribe, the Chitimacha, occupies a portion of their original homeland.
Most Native communities were forced from their lands. Some by European colonizers and white vigilante groups. Others through President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy of 1830. Of course, some stayed, relocating to coastal marshes and islands where they’re now facing the most rapid land-loss in the world.
Anya: The tour takes us by the historically Black neighborhood of Diamond, little of which remains today. What used to be Diamond is now a grid of grassy lots; the people are long gone and most of the houses have been torn down. Jazzy and I park our bikes beneath a giant oak tree.
Tahir: Every vacant lot around here that you see used to have a home and family. This was a very, very historical community, a loving community.
Anya: To our right, an oil refinery chuffs and chugs, producing the chemical components of house paint and plastics. To our left, the machinery of Shell Chemical towers overhead. The air smells like a mixture of rotten eggs and gasoline.
Tahir: It's hard to imagine that this land was once covered with different fruit trees…. It had beautiful gardens that people tended to with butter beans and okra. People used to fish in the Mississippi River. They had a full bounty that came from the land. That all has been destroyed now. This is some of the most toxic land in the country.
Anya: Like many Black freetowns along the Mississippi River, Diamond sits on former plantation land. Diamond was founded by descendants of people enslaved on the Trepagnier Plantation, where, after emancipation, they worked as sharecroppers. Before the Civil War, Louisiana produced the vast majority of the nation’s sugar. But producing it was extremely labor-intensive. In fact, without chattel slavery, sugar was considered too difficult to produce in quantity and was used more as a medicinal plant or exotic spice.
Banner: Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans had to be brought into Louisiana in order to grow and harvest this crop.
Anya: Sugar cane is native to the tropical climate of Papua New Guinea, and Dr. Banner says that farmers in the U.S. had to create hybrid varieties for it to succeed here. They also needed land.
Banner: Millions of acres of wetlands had to be destroyed in order to plant sugar cane crops.
Anya: And Louisiana’s wetlands are filled with alligators, water moccasins, and swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Banner: And it was decided pretty early on that that labor was going to come from the extractions, the death, the brutalization of enslaved Africans. That was considered the ‘best’ - quote, unquote - ‘best’ way, most expedient way, to do it.
Anya: Sheila says word of this brutality spread throughout the nation.
Tahir: Up North, often plantation owners would tell their slaves, If you misbehave, I'm going to sell you down South. I'm going to sell you downriver. And they're referring to this stretch of land.
Anya: There was also an urgency to harvest cane quickly. In the winter months, Louisiana experienced sudden freezes, which could instantly ruin a crop. In the weeks before Christmas, it was often all hands on deck. Enslaved people, adults and children alike, were forced to work 18-to-20-hour shifts.
Banner: And so this is known that people, animals, land, the landscape is going to be eaten up and spit out, right. And it's going to be destroyed in this process of getting wealthy. And that was the bargain that other people decided to make, for people that were stolen and brought here and their labor was stolen.
Anya: Sugar was so lucrative it was nicknamed ‘white gold.’ The planter class built opulent mansions, or ‘big houses,’ as they were called. They looked out toward the docks on the Mississippi River where ships would carry sugar to distant markets.
Jameela: Hey, it’s Jameela again. Anya, this bike tour is incredible. Seriously, just eye-opening and powerful. But can we pause for a minute? I’m just trying to wrap my head around how we get to multi-billion-dollar oil and petrochemical plants from sugar cane plantations.
Anya: So, after the Civil War, without enslaved labor, some sugar cane plantations folded. Others developed new systems for exploiting Black laborers, namely debt peonage and sharecropping. Newly-emancipated people, including Sedonia Dennis, continued to live on the plantations where they’d been enslaved. And occasionally, through the Freedmen’s Bureau and other land grant opportunities, families obtained deeds to pieces of land on those plantations.
Tahir: And so up and down the river, we'd have plantations, and then these historic African American communities right next door.
Anya: And by the late 1860s, Black people in Louisiana had gained significant political power, and sugar parishes became home to African American legislators and sheriffs. Black volunteer militias drilled and trained there. And by the early 1870s Black sugar workers were unionizing to demand higher wages and safer working conditions.
Jameela: Is this when white plantation owners recruited thousands of Chinese men to work the canebrakes?
Anya: Exactly, but they didn’t like the conditions or pay any more than Black sharecroppers. And soon enough they too demanded higher wages.
Jameela: And this was Reconstruction right, so the violent whitelash must’ve been bubbling too.
Anya: Yeah, definitely. Groups like the White Man’s League, a white paramilitary terrorist organization, tried to restore the Confederacy and the power they’d lost. And when that didn’t work, the government legislated poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements to prevent Black men from exercising their Fifteenth Amendment right to vote.
Jameela: And by 1872, wasn’t the federal government basically granting amnesty to Confederate leaders?
Anya: Yeah, former Confederate officers, actual traitors to the Union, were once again able to run for office. The Confederacy wasn’t officially restored, but many of its leaders were back in power. And by 1877, the conflict between Black union members and Confederate leaders came to a head.
Jameela: Oh right, this is the Thibodaux Massacre. When an integrated union went on strike during peak harvest. Their goal was fair wages, but instead, a parish judge declared martial law and volunteer militias murdered as many as a hundred African American farm workers.
Anya: Yeah, today some historians refer to the Thibodaux Massacre as the final battle of the Civil War. It ended organized labor among Black sharecroppers and ushered in Jim Crow. Throughout Louisiana, the threat of racial violence loomed large and many Black people, like the Bradford family we met, fled the region.
Jameela: So, by the early 20th century, sugar cane’s hold over the state’s economy was starting to slip and in 1901, roughnecks struck oil in southwest Louisiana.
Anya: Yeah; speculators began drilling across the state. Whenever they struck oil, competitors rushed to build more derricks in a battle to extract the most oil the fastest. At times, the oil spewed out so fast that workers found themselves frantically digging ponds to contain it all.
Jameela: And that’s wild to think about. I remember hearing that owners even had men row boats through crude oil to shoot down ducks, which could land on the oil ponds and clog up the pipes.
Anya: So by the 1930s, oil had replaced sugar as Louisiana’s biggest money maker, and everybody, especially the planter class, wanted in. Many, including the owners of both Welcome and Trepagnier Plantation, subdivided their land, more often than not selling it to oil companies for refineries.
Tahir: The plantation sold all those lands to petrochemical industries. So now where the plantation used to be, there's a petrochemical company. And in-between, firmly sandwiched between, are all these historic communities.
Anya: Today, historic Black communities line the banks of the lower Mississippi River. Places like Welcome, Moonshine, Wallace, Lemanville, Donaldsonville, St Rose. And until 2001, Diamond.
Rolfes: People fought for and won emancipation. They survived the brutality for the next 150 years, the lynchings and, and outright theft of property, the Jim Crow era, the brutality of civil rights and of integration. I mean, think about American history since 1865…People managed to buy land to begin with. They managed to hang on to it - Black families. I find that miraculous. And yet now what threatens people? The petrochemical industry, with the help of local and state governments.
Anya: Back on the tour, Sheila tells us that Louisiana’s petrochemical industries and plantations have a lot in common: they both require vast swaths of land, access to shipping channels, and a political system willing to facilitate the exploitation and abuse of residents. In 1929, near where we are in Diamond, Shell Oil bought the New Orleans Refinery, Norco, and built an additional chemical plant a few blocks away, leaving Diamond sandwiched in-between.
A warning to listeners: the story you’re about to hear is graphic.
Tahir: The reason that we stand here underneath this tree is significant because in 1973, there was a boy named Leroy Jones. He was 17 years old and he was mowing the lawn of an elderly resident named Helen Washington.
Anya: As Leroy mowed the lawn, gas was leaking from the nearby plant, filling the neighborhood.
Tahir: So when his lawnmower interacted at ankle level with those gasses, he instantly started an explosion. Miss Helen's house immediately exploded and she was incinerated like that…Leroy started running down the street. His entire body was on fire… Leroy ran here, and they covered him with a blanket and he was then medevaced to a hospital where sadly he succumbed to his burns. It was just too intense. And Shell never formally apologized or said anything about the fact that two residents were killed, murdered by their facility.
Anya: There were other explosions too. In 1988, a spark ignited inside the plant, killing six workers and injuring 42 others. The blast shattered windows 30 miles away and residents said the whole town was blanketed in thick black smoke. And then ten years later…
Tahir: In 1998 there was a storage tank that was over-pressurized and the roof blew onto this playground. The kids thought it was a flying saucer.
Anya: Jazzy’s heard stories, too.
Jazmin: Yeah, your kid goes to school up the road from a plant and some nasty spill happens. And they're coming home with a waiver; Sign here to receive a sum of this amount of money, essentially pay them off for poisoning their children during school hours.
Anya: People lived in fear. But it wasn’t just explosions and spills harming residents.
Tahir: People started noticing just how many folks were dying of cancer, of strange diseases that were rare, of respiratory illnesses. How many women were having miscarriages. How many children were being born with asthma and learning disabilities. And they drew the connection. They knew it’s because of this chemical plant.
Anya: Anne Rolfes says people nearby were contracting respiratory diseases they’d never heard of, like scleroderma.
Rolfes: Sure enough it's a horrible disease that a lot of women in Norco, Louisiana, and actually New Sarpy, Louisiana, had and it causes hardening of the organs, including your skin, and it's more prevalent in women. And you can tell somebody who has scleroderma because their eyes start to narrow, because their skin is actually tightening.
Anya: Another lung disease spreading in Diamond was sarcoidosis.
Tahir: Sarcoidosis is a super-rare disease. It inflames your body tissues, often your lungs, and it will sprout small clusters, small lumps, and it affects less than one out of a thousand people nationally. But here in Norco, there were at least five known cases and fewer than 500 Black folks.
Anya: By the time the Louisiana Bucket Brigade started working in Diamond, residents were already leaving. But the decision to go wasn’t easy. Because of the pollution, the land had little value, which made it hard to come up with the cash to buy a house elsewhere.
Tahir: Now Shell had piecemeal for years been buying folks out for severely, severely depressed prices. And the reason for that was like they'd say, Oh, well, you're too close to the plants. Whose fault is that, right?
Anya: But things changed when a local woman named Margie Richard began talking about what happened after Leroy’s death.
Tahir: At the time of Leroy's funeral, a Shell representative went to his funeral and, mind you now, they never publicly apologized or issued any formal, you know, declaration or anything. But at Leroy's funeral, that Shell representative handed his mother $500.
Anya: Thirty years after Leroy’s death, residents couldn’t believe it. $500 for a human life? The community started organizing and, under the leadership of Margie Richard, demanded a community buyout at a fair price.
Tahir: So it kind of gave them the last impetus they needed to keep the fight going so that they would not give up. Leroy's death reinvigorated them. After years of protesting and fighting, finally Shell agreed to a historic buyout of the community. And this was really, really, really radical in the sense that they'd never done this before.
Anya: Shell spent an estimated twelve million dollars purchasing over 60 homes. Residents were offered 30 percent above market value, which meant they could afford a house elsewhere. And Margie Richard won the Goldman Prize, often called the Nobel Prize for environmental justice. But it was a bittersweet time.
Tahir: But people had to make that horrible choice between their ancestral land, and their history, and the bonds of community and fellowship or their health.
Anya: Environmentalists worried it created a dangerous precedent. Instead of changing their practices or shutting down, plants could simply pay to relocate whole neighborhoods. For petrol corporations, buyouts were just another cost of doing business.
Tahir: Norco and Diamond are ‘sacrifice zones.’ Indeed, entire Louisiana might be considered a sacrifice zone where certain people have, are concentrated, more effects of toxic pollution so the rest of the nation can benefit economically.
Anya: The concept of a sacrifice zone dates back to the 1970s, when the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering looked at how the stripmining industry in the West was harming nearby communities. Since then, a sacrifice zone has come to describe any geographic area subjected to heavy industrial pollution. Often, they’re located in low-income Black and brown communities.
Tahir: I want you to think about who exactly we are sacrificing, and I want to be very specific about that. And how do systems such as the oil and gas industry, how are they perpetuating white supremacy? And how, how is it that we are sacrificing repeatedly throughout United States history, it's Black folks, it's brown folks, it's Indigenous folks, and it's working class folks, too.
JAZZY WELCOMES US TO JONESLAND
Jameela: I feel like Sheila’s tour makes us look really hard at who we are and what we value. The idea that we’re okay with these communities being sacrificed. Imagine what it must feel like to know that the air you breathe is toxic, and that your own poor health is in service to someone else’s prosperity. What’s Jazzy make of all of this?
Anya: Jazzy’s family property, Jonesland, is on the west bank of the river, about 40 miles from where we are in Norco. And the way she tells it, the place is blessed.
Jazmin: I'd hear stories, Oh this is where your mom grew up. That piece of property is where your grandfather built his house. And so, the older I got, the more fairytale-like that became. I’d ask her questions, What was it like? And she’d describe it, and it just sounded like, you know, Can we go there? Can we move there? Can we like, can we revitalize that sort of– it was just, it was a, it was a fictional story, to me. It was something that you'd watch in a Disney movie or hear about…
Jameela: Wait, this is still Cancer Alley right?
Anya: Yeah, it’s hard to believe. Over the six generations Jazzy’s family has been there, they’ve fostered an intimate relationship with the land. Her relatives talk about eating figs off communally-owned trees, harvesting blackberries, fishing for shrimp in the river and crawfish in the swamp, getting baptized in the Mississippi while a jubilee choir sings from the levee.
[sounds of driving, turn signal use]
Anya: . On a breezy Saturday, Jazzy and I meet in Jonesland. As I drive up the gravel road, I see a couple dozen houses, a few trailers, and a goat grazing on a lawn.
[sounds of exiting car, walking on gravel; neighbors greeting]
Jazmin: So the Jones land is very narrow, but very, very, very long strip of 66 acres, and on that first acre of land right to the front..that's what they called, and still do ‘til this day call, the Jones Yard.
Anya: Jazzy’s uncles wait for us on a porch in the Jones Yard. They’re both pastors. Reverend Joseph Jones goes by the nickname ‘LJ,’ and everyone calls Reverend Samuel Jones ‘Papa.’
Reverend Joseph Jones: This used to be a house. The next brother used to live in that house. Nobody lives in there, it’s just going down.
Reverend Samuel Jones: We used to play baseball every evening. Every evening, we would play ball, all in this lot.
Anya: What kind of ball?
Reverend Samuel Jones: Baseball.
Reverend Samuel Jones: Yeah, we would play baseball in this lot.
Anya: A few minutes later, Ms. Laverne, who is LJ’s sister, arrives from New Orleans.
Laverne Jones: I can remember the flower gardens, you know, the, the, the women they just had a competition, just with the flower gardens, you know, so. And we didn't have to worry about, I mean, all of the industries. We didn't have all of that, you know, as far as - the air was clean. Everything just was, it was just a nice place to grow up in.
Anya: We walk past an empty foundation with a lone-standing chimney.
Jazmin: After the very last house, that's where everybody, as they would say, ‘made garden.’
Anya: A flock of red-winged blackbirds rise from a field. Then the road curves and we arrive at a clearing.
Jazmin: To see how fruitful that land is, it's like you if you so much as drop a banana seed a banana trees gonna grow.
Anya: Jazzy’s cousin, Wjuankeil, is working his way down a long, furrowed row. He works at a nearby plant, Rubicon, that makes methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, the stuffing that goes inside couches and car seat cushions. But today’s Saturday, he’s got on his John Deere hat and is out sowing vegetables seeds.
Wjuankeil Jones: And I like, pretty much grew up with Reverend Jones, my grandfather, up in the garden, riding on the tractor on his lap. And we used to be out there carrying the buckets of water to like water ‘em. But he showed me everything about a garden; to keep it fertilized. And, and like, to grow crops, you know, to feed our family. We had okra, we had mustard. Had sweet potatoes - the sweet potato was about this big.
Anya: Like as big as a watermelon?
Wjuankeil Jones: Big as a watermelon.
Anya: Oh my God.
Wjuankeil Jones: And Reverend Jones, he liked to give it out to everybody.
Anya: What are you planting today?
Wjuankeil Jones: Corn. Corn, like whole corn. Whole corn…So, like, in order to plant this, like, you have to put it like about two inches apart. So that's what I'm a do.
Anya: This lifestyle is his heritage, and he learned it from his elders.
Wjuankeil Jones: Like, you want to, like look at the calendar. So the full moon, like you got to really plant it like, with the full moon. So it could have more sunlight throughout the night, like, just to get it started, start it up.
Anya: Wjuankeil also keeps animals—chickens, hogs, hunting dogs…
Wjuankeil Jones: Like, these right here is the deer dogs, and these right here’s the rabbits…
Anya: Few in Wjuankeil’s generation tend the land, but back when Ms. Laverne was a kid, she says everyone made garden.
Laverne Jones: I can tell you, it was…it was wonderful, because everybody on the land pretty much helped each other out, and, no, we weren't rich. But we had such richness in the bond that we had. We had gardens, and we weren't rich that way, but we didn't have to worry about food, or anything like that. And when one didn’t have, it wasn’t nothing to expect one of the other family members just to come and help you out.
Anya: On another visit, Jazzy took me to see her Aunt Cora who was baking pies, which she sells out of her house.
Jazmin: My Aunt Cora, who is the pie plug of St. James.
Anya: Can you tell me what kinds of pies you make?
Cora Jones Ross: Oh, sweet potato. Lemon, apple, coconut. Sweet potato. Lemon, Apple. Coconut, peach. Pecan.
Jazmin: So, I should tell you Aunt Cora is my aunt. She's my mom's sister. And she grew up in the Jones Yard as well, and I got to interview her.
Cora Jones Ross: That really was a place of unity. It really was a place of unity in the Jones Yard. Really, like, you know, everybody was together. When one had, the other one had. If I had salt, you have the egg. I’ll go get the egg and put it with my salt. My daddy would get paid every two weeks. And that person who got paid that week, that person would help the other person whatever they need until they make their paycheck. So that's how it was in the Jones Yard.
Jazmin: They didn't have everything that they wanted, but they had everything they needed because everyone provided, everyone looked out for one another. It was very community-oriented. They had one another's backs, you know?
Anya: And that communal way of life was rooted in the land, and it connected them to each other as well.
Laverne Jones: Whether it was in food, or if you needed a ride somewhere. Or if you needed a place to stay, you know, their doors were open. The land became the family. Whoever occupied that land, you were automatically family.
Anya: In the 1970s, when Jazzy’s aunts and uncles were teenagers the petrochemical plants began moving in nearby. At first they were excited.
Jazmin: When petrochemical came and they offered the promise of, right, the American Dream, like this grandiose expectation of something else, we're going to bring jobs, we're going to bring this we're going to bring that, because no one was thinking that they were coming here to poison us. We were just looking forward to all of the good things that we were gonna get.
Anya: But instead of hiring community members, the plants hired workers from out of town. And those coveted jobs? Ms. Laverne said they rarely materialized, at least not for the Black community.
Laverne Jones: ….And so once we found out that the opportunities weren't there, well, you have families, and we have to go elsewhere, wherever we can go to obtain, you know, a decent way of living that we can live comfortably on.
Anya: Much of Ms. Laverne’s generation has left the land they grew up on, left the way of life they’d built over generations. And that changed things at Jonesland.
Jazmin: You know, more people grew up and moved away, the stories kind of started to disintegrate, and the legacies weren't passed down as much.
Laverne Jones: It was, hmm..almost like make me kinda emotional, because it's, you know, it's it's when I think about what's going on now, and the, just the closeness, you just don't even, the families now, we have to make an effort to be close. But back then you didn't have to make an effort. It was just…known.
Anya: Ms. Laverne sees a clear connection between the government, the petrochemical industry, and her family’s dispersal.
Laverne Jones: I see this being greed of the government, of industries that can just wipe out the ability to have a beautiful life. Greed can do that. That is so disheartening. It's not, not a good story.
[ambient sound from Jonesland]
Anya: We circle back towards the Jones Yard at the front of the property. More family members have joined us and talk turns to the weather, how it’s changed in recent years. Wjuankeil’s mother, Ms. Anissa says plants are behaving differently than they used to, like the seasons are mixed up.
Anissa Jones: Behind my house is a fig tree. The fig leaves started to bloom on there. But when I look at the pear tree, which is in my front yard, the newness on it is dying because of the cold, because the weather is crossed. The seasons look like - it's off. The pecan trees, and we got like over 40-some pecan trees, they're not even budding.
Anya: She points to the horizon.
Anissa Jones: When you see the clouds like this here? Bad weather is gonna be coming.
Anya: Papa says the storms have been getting worse.
Reverend Samuel Jones: I never seen it like this. I done saw bad weather, but not like this. Every time I turn around, the weather is getting bad.
Anya: He says the strange weather is a sign from God.
Reverend Samuel Jones: And He about to do something; trying to get folks' attention. Trying to get folk to see. It’s time now for us to get our little house in order. Because some dark days, some weary days, gonna come.
[music, walking sounds]
Anya: We’ve almost reached our cars, when Jazzy asks her uncle about Sedonia Dennis.
Reverend Samuel Jones: And if you take sick, she would go and make something and come in and give it to you. The next day, you'd be running around [laughs] Look - I ain’t know what it was! She had every animal that you mostly could think about, she had turkey, she had duck. She had chicken. She had just about everything. Goose. She had all of that…And they would hatch underneath the house. And she would call and she would say, Alright Papa. C'mon here. Go underneath there. If I’m going underneath there, boy, and them chicken and them things just flapping at me like that. I say Lord, please save my eye. Go down, boy - you're too scary! I say, Lord have Mercy!
Anya: Jazzy smiles, and asks about Ma Sook’s house.
Jazmin: So where was that house that Sedonia, Ma Sook, had geese in?
Reverend Samuel Jones: Right there, where the dog at. Right there in that lot, of the big old double-house.
Anya: Papa points to the front of the property, by the river.
Reverend Samuel Jones: On the evening, my great-grandmother--because they had a big old house…and she would be on the porch and she would walk from one end to the other end, praying to God, just praying to God, and I couldn’t understand it because I was young, but I can see her now, walking, praying to God.
Anya: No photos remain of Sedonia Dennis, but as Papa describes her, I can see her, on her porch, gazing out at her land, her property, where her children’s children’s grandchildren still live. There she is, listening to the wind and the river and the chickens, thanking God.
And I think about what it must’ve taken to get that 66 acres during the height of Jim Crow.
Jazmin: She had to have lived in a world that was dominated not only by men, but by white men.
Anya: Jazzy’s family has at least three different stories about how the land transferred to the Joneses. The names of two of Sedonia Dennis’s sons are on the deed, which some relatives believe was gotten by bartering their future labor. Others say all nine of her sons worked the land, but the courthouse only allowed for the names of two grantees on the actual paperwork. And others still think she and her sons paid for the land outright.
Jazmin: If I were to surmise how this happened, she told her sons what to do. She told the oldest ones, whether they'd collectively come up with cash, or two of them agreed, three of them agreed, Hey, let's put our money together and buy this piece of property, and they put a down payment on it.
Anya: However it happened, the land kept the family together.
Jazmin: That's why Ma Sook was such a genius. The payment on the land was $54 a month, plus taxes. She said, as the story goes, We've all got to move on this property and do this together and pay this together. So they all pitched in and helped to pay those notes. And they had to have stayed on every single one. Since 1923.
Anya: One historian I talked to said that for Black people the opposite of slavery wasn’t freedom, it was kinship. The ability to stay with your people.
Jazmin: She had over 1,000 grandchildren. I mean, you know, children, then you have your grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren. Every single oral history lines up that Sedonia Dennis said, The land is ours now. Everybody lives here. Everyone comes and lives here. We do know that she orchestrated that. And success looks like something, and having something that is mine, that I can love, that I can nurture, that I can take care of. And I imagine for her, because she was born into slavery, and became a sharecropper, and played the long game for decades, she did love and nurture that land. She knew where to get whatever herbs she needed to get to cure a cold, or to cure whatever she needed to cure. She knew where the well was. She knew the paths. She knew. She knew it. That was her life. That is where she lived. This is where her feet trod and to say It's mine. You know, part of me believes it was hers before anybody ever signed a deed
The point of all this too, the heart matter for me in this is we as a family need to foster our relationship with this legacy and this thing that our great-great-grandmother, and in some cases, great-great-great-grandmother, and in some cases grandmother, left for us.
Jameela: To see Jazzy honoring and fostering that legacy by unearthing the past, deed by deed, interview by interview, piece by piece. She’s discovering so much—the way that land has changed hands, the traditions that get passed through those hands, entrusted with time and wisdom. But there’s something else that she learned over these past few years. It’s really big. She learned that Jonesland has a secret.
Stay tuned for more Plot of Land as we stay in Jonesland for Episode 9. Plot of Land is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. And please—share these stories—and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Jameela Hammond and thank you for listening to Plot of Land.