Jameela: Hey, it’s Jameela Hammond, your host at Plot of Land. I want to start this episode picking back up in Jonesland, Louisiana. That’s where Jazmin Miller’s family is from.
Over the last several years Jazzy, as everyone calls her, has been documenting her family; creating a film, as she digs into their history, and really, the broader history of the southeast Louisiana, trying to look at how oil and petrochemical plants have harmed communities with deep roots along the Mississippi River.
See, not too long ago Jazzy found out that there may be oil under their land, the land that’s been in the family for more than a century. So I want to start this episode by playing a short clip from Jazzy’s film. It’s still in process, she’s still making it, but she let us hear a bit of what she’s been working on.
[film clip begins] Singing (0528_JazzyClip): To be on the journey that you have created all over again for us. Lord, we want to say thank you. Jazzy (0528_JazzyClip): So in 2014, the story supposedly goes that an oil company out of Texas comes to the Jones Yard, knocking on the doors of my family members still living there. We were talking about a main vein, a pocket, a reservoir, whatever you want to call it. And my cousins and I, you know, we all thought… we're going to be rich. Papa (0528_JazzyClip): We're going to get them, because I really believe that they tried in other places. But see God is so awesome. They can keep it right there. Singing (0528_JazzyClip): We may have the right, Lord, to the Tree of Life once more again, Lord. Lord, we thank you. Lord, for providing everything for us. Lord.
Plot of Land theme music
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.
So far on Plot of Land, we’ve looked at how disinvestment impacts an economically and racially diverse neighborhood on Roosevelt Island in New York City. And we’ve 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. But in this episode we want to continue the story we began last time on Plot of Land.
We want to stay in Louisiana, to look 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’s belonged to Jazmin Miller’s family for more than 150 years. They’ve lived on, worked on, and prayed on this land.
It sits on the Mississippi River in an area widely known as Cancer Alley. It’s surrounded by more petrochemical plants and oil refineries than almost anywhere else in the country. And now, Jazzy’s family has learned that their land actually sits on an oil reserve. Here’s Plot of Land reporter Anya Groner.
Anya: To put the Jonesland oil into context, I spoke with Imani Brown. She’s an artist, activist, and researcher who’s studied Louisiana’s oil wells extensively.
Imani Brown: So there are over 89,000 wells in Louisiana's coastal wetlands that have been producing for around 90 years. I looked at just 250 wells and calculated the dollar value of oil extracted over a 20 year period and came to a figure of $27 billion adjusted for inflation. So just to reiterate, $27 billion worth of oil, this is not profit, right? This is the dollar value of oil extracted from 250 out of 89,000 wells over 20 out of 90 years.
Anya: Every well doesn’t produce equally of course. Some wells don’t produce oil at all. They were put in the wrong spots. But, Imani Brown’s calculations average out to about $100 million per well. And the Jones family could have a few different wells on their property.
Of course, most of that money would’ve gone to the oil companies, but the Joneses would’ve gotten a percentage.
Jameela: What do you mean, would’ve? They haven’t drilled yet?
Anya: The family’s still figuring that out. Oil prices dropped. And there are thousands of people connected to that land. That’s a lot of people making a joint decision.
Jameela: So is this what Jazzy’s documentary is really about? Whether or not to drill?
Anya: It was at first, but Jazzy’s learned that this question about the possibility of oil isn’t even new. Here’s another clip from the film.
[Film clip: 0528_5_JazzyClip_AG] Singing (0528_JazzyClip): Lord. Oh gracious, master Lord, let me call upon your name, Lord. We're within our spirits, Lord. Jazzy (0528_JazzyClip): But it wasn't long before we all found out that our aunts, our uncles, our great aunts, great uncles, cousins three times removed, their parents and so on, they already knew about it. They already knew about oil on the property and they had for nearly 100 years.
Anya: Jazzy’s Aunt Cora recalls how as a kid in order to get clean buckets of water from their well, she had to pull it across the top of the water to move the oil aside. Another aunt, Ms. Laverne, remembers finding black stuff on her shoes after working in her father’s garden. Her mother told her—this oil, it was a secret.
Jazzy (0528_JazzyClip): So this is why I'm documenting these stories, because my family, this black community, where anyone else would have blurted from the mountaintops what great value they potentially had beneath the soil. They kept it a secret. They kept it a secret.
Laverne (0528_JazzyClip): Because they had the fear back then that if if there was any resources on their land, there would be, of value, that it would be taken from them. And as I said, I think they value more family and having a place to stay than the value of money.
Singing (0528_JazzyClip): Oh, my father, Stop by here oh Lord… [fade]
Jameela: They knew…and they didn’t cash in?!
Anya: Yeah, it’s a lot to think through. And that history, that decision, has become a driving question for Jazzy. Why keep the oil a secret?
Jameela: I mean it makes sense right? This is the Jim Crow south. Churches, schools, restaurants, and even cemeteries, they were all segregated. Intermarriage was illegal. The political, economic, and social systems were all designed to benefit white people.
Jazmin: It's 1930 something, you can't be a Black family who owns property in southern Louisiana and talk about oil and not get that land taken away from you.
Anya: Between 1877 and 1950, there were over 549 documented lynchings in Louisiana, not to mention the under-documented sexual violence. But ,Ms. Laverne said, the land protected them.
Ms. Laverne: It definitely isolated us from a lot of racial, you know, terror because, you know, the brothers…they were self-sufficient, they had their own equipment, so…and from what I'm told, at one time, they even had machinery that they loaned out to some of the white farmers. So…very self sufficient.
Jameela: But that racial violence and those racist systems were still all around them, right?
Anya: One of the first questions Jazzy asks family members in interviews is about racism. The older generation says they didn’t encounter it much. But even if it wasn’t in their face, Jazzy says, that doesn’t mean white supremacy hasn’t played a massive role in their lives.
Jazmin: If I were to give it a metaphor, it's got to be like being born in the Atlanta airport, and growing up there. And someone walks up to you and they say, “hey, can you tell me where the Atlanta Airport is?” And you're like, “Well, I don’t know,” because like, you're in it.
Jameela: So Jazzy’s family felt relatively safe on Jonesland, but they still didn’t say anything about the oil.
Jazzy: The wisdom of those people said, “this is not the time for that.” What we have on this first acre is so much more important than what could be under that ground right now, which we're not going to enjoy, whether it comes out or not. That's not how that goes. So we keep it a secret, and all of the adults, all of the children, they kept that in the family. They kept that quiet.
Anya: And while keeping it quiet protected them, it came at a cost.
In 2019, the median Black household in America had 12.7 percent of the wealth of the median white household. In other words, a median Black family has about $165,000 less than a median white family. That’s a direct result of being able to pass wealth down through generations, or not.
Jameela: Today, the Jones family has 66 acres of land, land which has kept the family intact. And they likely have oil. But the reality of extractive industries in the U.S. is that they force Black people to make trade-offs. Always this or that, one thing or the other.
Anya: And missed opportunities don’t always return. Jazzy told me that Jonesland was appraised recently.
Jazmin: I think it's like, in the 40 thousands for all of Jonesland.
Anya: For 66 acres?
Jazmin: For 66 acres. Oil or no. Natural resources or no… I mean, I'm like, hmm, what can I get for $40,000 today? Not 66 acres!
Anya: And if they sold it, that $40,000 would be split among thousands of descendents.
So right now the family’s in a kind of limbo. The descendents don’t agree on how any oil money would be split up. The more relatives get included, the more each person’s shares decrease. Ms. Laverne says they’re certain about one thing: they don’t want the oil to divide them.
Ms. Laverne: Our fathers, you know, they worked too hard. And they took too much pride in what they had to just let it, just waste away.
Anya: After that initial drilling inquiry in 2014, the Joneses formed a family corporation, so that they could make decisions together.
Ms. Laverne: You know, when we formed the corporation, there wasn't any organization as far as the land usage…And at that point, we realized we really didn't have any, like, solid representation from the family. And so we decided, you know what, we need to do that. We need to bond together.
Anya: But then oil prices dropped and the oil speculators who’d approached them in 2014 lost interest. With the war in Ukraine, gas prices are going up again, and it’s possible another company might come knocking. Only now, some family members are once again questioning the wisdom of drilling.
Jazmin: There's a part of me that wishes that oil was never introduced, because it may not come out of the ground anyway…but we're talking about, you know, we've got family members who, who just don't even, they don't even want to talk about it without bringing up a lawsuit.
Anya: Two years into working on her documentary, Jazzy’s grown wary.
Jazmin: Now I really wrestle with thinking about, would we have and will we benefit monetarily, really, if it did come out of the ground? Who really wins here?
Anya: Imani Brown says that in an extractive economy, division is par for the course.
Imani Brown: Segregation is the driving force of extraction and the driving force of extractivism. So we've elevated this vision of the world as something that can be turned into profit, that can be parceled out and consumed and owned. That’s our, we see this as, as good and natural, when in order to achieve that, we have to segregate beings, and peoples, and environments from each other.
Anya: Instead of working as an integrated ecosystem, extractive economies create relationships of opposition between land, minerals, air, water, and inhabitants. Family members question whether oil is more valuable than land, whether family is more valuable than oil. Jazzy’s uncle LJ told me, he worries about how this dispute will impact future generations.
Joseph Jones (LJ): I don't think it'll ever be resolved. If you ask me, it'll get worse.
Anya: And if you consider the history here, the stakes are so high. The family culture, their communal way of living, their connection to place, they’re all in jeopardy.
Jazmin: When I think of the River Road, not just this land, but the River Road in general, I think, I have this picture in my head of all of these seedlings of the rarest plants that you can't find anywhere else in the world, just budding out of the ground and being stomped out. And no one ever knows that they exist.
Anya: Remember those trade-offs—Safety or oil? Family or wealth? This language of trade-offs dates back 400 years. Plantation owners said slavery was “the cost” of having an efficient and lucrative agricultural economy. But history shows us again and again that these trade-offs are only beneficial if you’re already at the top of the “social pyramid,” if you’re already white, and wealthy.
Brown: We wind up with these situations where human bodies are segregated from their wider ecology and then Black bodies are segregated from the body of humanity.
Anya: Today those trade-offs are constantly popping up in political and corporate messaging throughout Louisiana. Poor air quality is the cost of creating jobs, they say. Or, in the case of Diamond, displacing an entire Black neighborhood is the cost of doing business. But that scarcity model, the either/or way of seeing life, has huge repercussions.
Brown: I have a great deal of—I'm already like–I feel like now… I'm on the verge of tears thinking about it. I have so much love for this place and it just pains me so much what people are doing to it.
Anya: One Saturday, Jazzy invites me to Buena Vista Church, where Sedonia Dennis used to pray. To get there from Jonesland, we pass the local elementary school, Mt Calvary Church where Papa was baptized and now preaches, a dirt road lined with houses and trailers, and rows upon rows of knee-high sugar cane. A massive river barge looms above the levee, waiting to load or unload cargo bins of polymers or resins or some other petro product from a nearby plant. Before we get to the church, Jazzy pulls over and points out an enormous tree, the only one in a large cane field.
Jazmin: So here you have it, this very well cultivated field, and there's an oak tree in the middle of it. It is believed, and I'm willing to bet true, this community knows that space to be as a burial site.
Anya: Jazzy says her aunt suspects their ancestors are buried here.
Jazmin: There are burial sites up and down this River Road that stand apart from Catholic cemeteries. And I find that fascinating considering in a French territory, you were required to be Catholic.
Anya: Jazzy’s referring to Louisiana’s Code Noir. Until 1790, the law required anyone who was baptized, including enslaved people, to be buried on consecrated ground, but Dr. Joy Banner says slave owners rarely made room in their cemeteries for the enslaved. When we spoke, Dr. Banner was serving as the communications director at the Whitney Museum in Louisiana.
Joy Banner: Enslaved people, for their own burials, they weren't given land that could be, quote unquote, productive. They were given land, or they had to find land, to bury their loved ones in, land that was considered unusable.
Anya: Before building a new petrochemical plant, companies are required to conduct archeological surveys to ensure they’re not disrupting cultural sites. But Imani Brown says the archeologists hired by industry don’t always call attention to the possibility of lost gravesites.
Imani Brown: All of these plantations, all of these petrochemical plants are in private hands. And if you are trying to sell your land to a petrochemical company, or if you don't want to be bothered to stop your cultivation by the potential discovery of a cemetery, it's really not in your interest to find it.
Anya: For nearby residents, locating those burial sites has been critical. Just up the road from the burial tree, Jazzy points out the field where Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese corporation, has proposed building a $9.4 billion megaplex which they call the Sunshine Project. If built, 14 facilities would produce polyethylene, polypropylene, polymer and ethylene glycol; ingredients found in antifreeze, drainage pipes, and a bunch of single-use plastics.
Jazzy’s distant relative, Sharon Lavigne who lives a mile from Jonesland, has been mounting a campaign to stop Formosa and other petrochemical plants from building there.
Sharon Lavigne: And I thought I was going to die, because that was affecting my liver. And I kept going to the doctor, they kept drawing blood every two months and and I said, if I have to die, I'm going to see about all these industries. That was when the governor made the announcement and I, I connected the dots and I said, we're not going to let any more come into St James, because if my liver is bad, how many more people’s liver is bad. So you make your choice. You want to live or you want to die. It’s either/or. It's no in between. You're going to live or you're going to die. If the plants stay here and pollute us, we gonna die.
Anya: Already, twelve petrochemical plants operate in the fifth district of St James Parish, which is 92.4 square miles. That’s one plant about every seven and a half square miles.
Lavigne: We have uh, American Styrenics, we have Valero, we have Mosaic. Then we come on down a little bit further, we have NuStar, we have Argon, we have Low Cat Pipeline. We have Fabco.We have Plains. We have, we have 12.
Anya: According to an analysis by ProPublica, the Formosa plant could triple the concentration of carcinogens in the air of this primarily Black community.
In 2019, Sharon Lavigne’s non-profit organization, Rise St James, learned that two cemeteries had been identified on the grounds of Formosa’s $9.4 billion proposed megaplex, a fact the industry failed to share with the parish council. The following year, five more potential gravesites were discovered.
Lavigne: Formosa admitted that they found human skull and human bone. I don't know how many bones or was it one bone, but they, but they admitted to that. So they were gonna to plow over those gravesites and build their industry.
Anya: Outraged, Ms. Sharon spoke out at her parish council meeting.
Lavigne: On December 23rd. I'll never forget that because I read my paper. I'm not a public speaker so I wrote everything down and I read it to them…they didn't, they didn't even say a word. And I told them I said Formosa knew 17 months prior to me bringing this to you. Parish council didn't say a word, not one.
Anya: So Sharon Lavigne planned a Juneteenth event at the cemetery. She wanted to honor her ancestors, who she believes are buried there, and also to let the world know about Formosa Plastics. When Formosa refused them access to the cemetery, Rise St. James joined with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and took Formosa to court. Anne Rolfes, who directs the Bucket Brigade, said that in Louisiana descendents have a legal right to access to their ancestors’ gravesites. The judge sided with Rise St James.
Anne Rolfes: And what we found is that even conservative judges revere the burial sites, certainly in a way that industry does not and have, at least thus far, been willing to to make sure that they're protected.
Anya: The win in court, and the subsequent Juneteenth celebration, which was broadcast on Facebook Live, brought Rise St James international attention.
Lavigne: Oh that was so wonderful. That was the first Juneteenth we had in 2020. We had people from all over came. Somebody came from California, just to come to our Juneteenth. You could feel the vibrations of the ancestors. I know I felt it. Because the people, they were born there. They worked there. They died there. They were buried there. They couldn't even leave that plantation. They were there. So it's like a part of us is there…and I think our ancestors were so happy that we remembered them.
Anya: Working for Forensic Architecture, activist, artist, and researcher Imani Brown has been using old plantation maps and satellite imagery to locate other possible gravesites along the Mississippi River.
Imani Brown: We found maps that date to the postbellum period, and they delineate in immense amount of detail, the property borders, the structures on those properties, the river, the back swamps, the types of crops that were grown on those plantations at that time. And on rare occasion, it actually mapped cemeteries of historically enslaved people.
Anya: Imani has taken those original plantation maps and digitally layered over top decades of satellite imagery and more contemporary maps.
Brown: We could then travel back and forth in time. And we identified over 1,100 of these groves of trees in the 1940s aerial images.
Anya: Those groves of trees are most likely burial sites. Anne Rolfes says these maps have become critical for community advocates throughout the region as new industries try to break ground.
Rolfes: But for me, it's a really good counterbalance to industry because it shows that people are here and have been here for generations. It underscores people's ties to the land in a really unique way.
Brown: This entire landscape is a historical site of immense cultural value. Some might call it a sacred space. And it needs to be protected.
Anya: With increased international attention, Formosa Plastics paused their project. A year later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered an updated environmental review, a process that could take years.
Then, experts hired by the UN’s Human Rights Council called for the Formosa project to be shut down entirely, recommending that the U.S. and St. James Parish, quote, “recognize and pay reparations for the centuries of harm.”
Still, with $9.4 billion on the line, most people thought Formosa was stalled but not stopped.
Jazmin: I'll tell you, a David and Goliath situation is Sharon Lavigne, Rise St. James, and Formosa. She said repeatedly in interviews that I had with her, “they're not coming. They're not coming. That plant's not coming. They're just not coming.”
And in the back of my mind. I thought I've heard from like three people that they've gotten all the permits they need. It's fascinating that she's saying they're not coming. And somehow I believe her, you know, I just believe somehow this Red Sea’s gonna part. I don't know how. I don't know why. But she says they're not coming. And there's so much conviction there. They're not going to. And it looks like, so far, they're not coming.
Anya: Then, in 2022, in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups including Rise St James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Formosa Plastics’ air permits were revoked. The judge ruled that the permits, which had been issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, were based on selective and incomplete data that failed to consider the safety of the primarily Black community.
For her advocacy, Sharon Lavigne won the Goldman prize, the award nicknamed “the Nobel prize for environmental justice.”
Jameela: Isn’t that the same award Margie Richard won 20 years earlier when she fought Shell to get a buyout for her community of Diamond?
Anya: That’s the one. It’s such a remarkable acknowledgment.
Jameela: But isn’t there something insidious at play here, too? I mean, if the state had taken Margie Richard seriously when she warned of industry hazards twenty years ago, then Formosa never would’ve gotten the go-ahead in the first place.
Anya: Totally. It isn’t random that Louisiana, that Cancer Alley, has two Goldman award winners. All their work wouldn’t be necessary if the state wasn’t so welcoming to oil and gas, if industry stopped building in Black communities, if permitting laws were strictly enforced, if local parishes didn’t court these businesses.
Anya: Farther up the road, Jazzy points out two more petrochemical plants. AmSty Chemical makes resin for home appliances, cups, and luggage, and is the largest polystyrene producer in North America. Beside it, the rusted smoke stacks and flaring towers of the Mosaic Faustina Ammonia Plant stripe the sky like a dystopian city. A few months ago, Jazzy tried to shoot documentary footage of the plant from the levee across the road but security told her to leave.
Jazmin: That was when I knew: something's up with this. What are they protecting? What are they hiding? What’s… I pulled over at 7:30am on a Sunday morning and 37 seconds later, I'm being shooed off the property.
Anya: We continue driving, beneath the Sunshine Bridge that connects the East and West riverbanks and carries rows of pipes to river docks. We pass a turnoff that leads to extended stay hotels where out of town workers who staff these plants stay. A road sign points to the nearest plantations open to tourists: Oak Alley, Laura, the Whitney, Evergreen. The link between old and new, plantation and plant, is all around us.
Jazmin: There's an old system that is still there. And that is a system that petrochemical undeniably uses. To get what they want.
Anya: Finally we turn down a gravel road that takes us to Lemanville. We park outside an old brick church not far from the house where Jazzy’s Aunt Cora sells pies from her kitchen.
[Sounds of getting out of car]
Anya: Jazzy tells me Buena Vista Church dates back to 1866, just a year after the Civil War ended. It’s a seven mile walk along the levee from Jonesland to the church and Jazzy believes Sedonia Dennis made this 14-mile trek several times a week.
Jazmin: So it's just, it's interesting to me, my roots, start at that church, Buena Vista, because that's where my great great-grandmother shortly after she was married, that's where she became a member. And that's where she got baptized. So she had to have made some sort of decision to not be Catholic. I believe that it was a power move to take ownership over her identity, over her spirituality.
Anya: Buena Vista is one of ten Black churches along the river founded after emancipation. In addition to services, these churches functioned as benevolent societies, providing financial and social support to congregants.
Jazmin: If you could give five cents a month, if you could give 10 cents a month, 25 cents, and… put it in the offering, that is where someone who had a medical need, or if you needed food, or if you needed shelter, they would band together and provide that for you.
Anya: Jazzy’s uncle, Papa, says this was one of the first churches on this side of the river to baptize Black people outside of the Catholic Church.
Samuel Jones/Papa: Back in them times, they had the baptisms in the river. You know what I mean? That's what they used to do. Well, they do it once a year and folks would come from all over the place just to see that.
Jazmin: So the Mississippi River would, would flow and the current was strong, but off to the, closer to the levee, you had stiller water that you could walk into, step into and baptize. And it was an occasion. You'd have people up on the levee. You'd have a jubilee choir. I mean it was a process. It took weeks.
Anya: In the 1950s, Jazzy said the river’s current got stronger and it started rising.
Jazmin: There are stories of, you know, family members who drowned in the river; the nature of it changed so much. It made me beg the question, well, why did the river change? Why did the river rise? Why did the current speed up? Why did it get wilder?
Anya: I ask around, and the last river baptism anyone can remember was Papa’s in 1977.
Samuel Jones/Papa: I might have been the last crew that got baptized in the river. And so, you know, that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. God changed things. You know, I mean, the river started getting bad, you know, so folks start to changing and put a pool inside of the church.
Anya: No one knows for sure why the current changed. It could've been the 1963 completion of the Old River Control Structure, designed to prevent the Mississippi River from rerouting into the Atchafalaya distributary. Or perhaps the cause was natural, the result of steady erosion or an increase in water volume.
But for Jazzy, the cause is less important than the result.
Jazmin: Once again, you have a group of people who just want to go fish, want to go crawfishing, you know, want to baptize, want to worship there. It wasn't decided for them. But the nature of that thing changed. And they couldn't have the same relationship with it anymore.
Anya: Professor Justin Hosbey teaches anthropology and African-American Studies at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on Black social and cultural life in the U.S. Gulf Coast and Mississippi Delta regions. Hosbey says that Black people’s relationship to baptisms, and water in general, is complicated by white supremacy.
Justin Hosbey: Water is a site of kind of like rejuvenation, and renewal, and like spiritual renewal, but also thinking about how in many ways because of slavery, the slave trade, water became a site of terror.
Anya: Over the past two decades, the family is again grappling with the brutal power of water. As climate change warms the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes are getting stronger and slower, said Imani Brown.
Imani Brown: These increasingly frequent and powerful storms that are just barreling into coastal communities because the wetlands that should protect us, that should provide a buffer, have eroded away.
Anya: The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that between 1932 and 2016, Louisiana lost more than 2,000 square miles of its coast, an area larger than the entire state of Delaware. Another report by Climate Central predicted that by 2050, as much as 8.7 percent of the entire state will be below the tidal boundary.
Brown: We always say, okay, we lost this land, but the question is, who lost it?
Anya: As early as the 1720s, loggers dug canals in Louisiana’s swamps to haul cypress trees to market. But dredging swamps really took off in the 1930s when oil companies began drilling in Louisiana’s wetlands. To access derricks and make way for pipelines, companies dredged over 10,000 miles of canals. Those channels pushed saltwater into the swamps and marshes, which ultimately killed the grasses and trees that once thrived there. Without root systems to hold the land together, Louisiana’s coast began washing away.
Jazmin: I looked at a map of Louisiana maybe, 100 years ago, maybe 200 and so much of what used to be is underwater and it, like, ooh it struck me for the first time, and I did what anyone else would do in my position is go find--where's our land, where, you know, where where are we?
Anya: As the crow flies, Jonesland is roughly 48 miles from the coast, closer than it used to be. The coast is vanishing at a rate of about a football field every 100 minutes. I ask Jazzy what Jonesland might look like a century from now. She says, she hopes it’s not underwater. That’s a real possibility. The back acres of the Jonesland have already turned to swamp. And the closer the coast gets, the more dangerous hurricanes become. Here’s Imani Brown, again.
Brown: When you look from a satellite image or if you go up in a small plane, you suddenly realize how fragile these communities are and how urgent it is that we not only stop the bleeding, that, you know, we do what scientist say need to be done and actually plug up these old canals, that we put the onus on the fossil fuel corporations to do so, make them pay for it, make them pay for whatever aspects of the Master Plan are ecologically viable and less harmful.
Anya: That Master Plan is a $50 billion, statewide geoengineering strategy to protect and restore the coast. That includes restoring barrier islands, creating oyster reefs, building levees, and even rerouting distributaries of the Mississippi River to allow sediment to collect and create new land. But with sea levels rising, it’s unclear how much those efforts will accomplish. Like all of south Louisiana, Jonesland has been pummeled in recent years by hurricanes and floods, including Hurricane Ida in 2021.
Anya: Tell me again the story of Hurricane Ida. How did your family fare during Hurricane Ida?
Jazmin: I can’t remember if I told you this story, maybe I did tell you this story, my family has this very unique thing…everybody kind of has this gift of dreaming. Everybody was very prayerful and intuitive, and having all these dreams about something coming where we needed to store up water, and cans of food, and flour, and things like that. So my Aunt Betty, my Aunt Laverne, my Aunt Doris, like everybody just started storing. And this was months, and months, and months before Ida. So by the time the hurricane hit, everybody had a mini market in their house…and not only enough for themselves, but enough to share, to go around. Because, you know, people were without power for weeks.
Anya: Outside of Jonesland, Jazzy’s family didn’t do as well. Ms. Laverne lost her house. Other relatives, including Sharon Lavigne, had major roof damage. And everyone I talked to is worried about future storms. Joy Banner lives 24 miles downriver from Jonesland. For her, Hurricane Ida, exposed just how vulnerable the region is.
Joy Banner: And I realize now, even if you think that you can survive the storm, you have to take into consideration all the industry that's around us, particularly all of the barges that are lined up along the levee. After the storm, we had a barge that was completely flipped over and up against the levee. And so you have to imagine those barges, there's so many of them, they're all, they become unmoored. They crash into the levee and break the levee. That's it. Nobody is surviving.
Anya: Professor Justin Hosbey says that when hurricanes hit, they don’t impact every community the same way.
Justin Hosbey: The storms don’t bring inequality to the landscape, the storms expose to the world, because of course when a disaster happens, everybody with resources leaves and those who can't are left behind. So in many ways, the storms don't really induce inequality, they expose inequality.
Anya: One inequality that hurricanes expose are evacuation routes. When storms hit, not everybody has a way out.
Joy Banner: During Hurricane Ida..the major highway collapsed and the road was closed for four weeks. We are in a community where we don't have many options or alternate routes. So to have the River Road on the east bank shut down for four weeks, speaks to how dangerous it is to have industries so close around us in the event of major storms.
Anya: In so-called Sacrifice Zones, like Cancer Alley, the concentration of petrochemical plants next to residential areas creates additional hazards. Here’s Anne Rolfes.
Anne Rolfes: You’d think one of the bare minimums that a company operating in south Louisiana would have would be a hurricane plan. And yet when you ask them, you know, what, what winds are you prepared for? What's your blast radius? They don't answer.
Anya: Even plants that don’t take a direct hit release additional pollution before and after a storm.
Joy Banner: So they have to, again, burn off all of the chemicals that they can't stabilize or they can't contain because they're in an emergency situation. So there's more pollution that gets in the air after these major storms happen.
Jazmin: We're in a season now, again, where we have to be concerned with survival.
[walking, birds chirping]
Anya: On a day like today when the wind is gentle and the sky is clear, storms feel almost theoretical, as distant as the land’s plantation roots. And yet, as Jazzy’s research shows, the past is closer than we think and, in many ways, the future is already here.
A goat ambles across the church parking lot and a flock of white ibis lift into a V overhead. Jazzy tells me that until recently, she didn’t know where Ma Sook was buried.
Jazmin: I'd kind of given up because I'd asked all the older people where they thought she was and no one could really say.
Anya: But just last year, Jazzy was lamenting to her Aunt Cora that no one had hung onto this information, when another aunt, Claudette, interrupted.
Jazmin: I was telling Claudette, you know, it's really too bad that nobody knows where Ma Sook is buried. Because I've asked everyone, and everyone's sort of confused. She says, “What do you mean, everyone doesn't know? She's buried right out there.” And she points out the window. And I was like, “Wait! What?!” She was like, “You see that cemetery back there. She's buried right back there. In fact, let's go. Here. I'll walk you over.” And so like, so like, you know, I sheepishly grabbed my camera, I'm flustered, and we're walking back there. And she kind of taught me a way to always be able to find her grave.
Anya: Crawfish mounds jut up like tiny smokestacks along the road that leads to the graveyard. Beyond them, acres of cane whisper in the breeze. We pass a mammoth oak tree and I wonder aloud if it marks a burial site. Looking around, you wouldn’t know that the future of this place was the subject of hot debate. In 2014, the St James Parish council changed the zoning for the entire district from “Residential” to quote “Residential/Future Industrial.”
Zoning is typically meant to protect residents from industry, but the people building the plants don’t live here, and aren’t subject to the consequences of heavy industry, said Joy Banner’s twin sister Jo, who co-founded the The Descendents Project, a non-profit that aims to dismantle the legacies of slavery in river parish communities.
Jo Banner: Zoning can be your best friend and zoning can be your worst enemy. So many things are snuck by…But we see those rules being broken all the time because of the zoning and wanting to push a certain zone to accommodate industry, which is what happened to us.
Anya: When it comes to the St. James Parish land use plan, Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said that at first the public process was inclusive and transparent. The parish council held meetings at senior centers and churches, and participation was high. Residents showed up in high numbers to say they wanted the land in the two majority-Black districts to stay residential.
Anne Rolfes: I think the process happened and maybe 2010, 2011, Then in 2014, suddenly there's a land use plan that goes before the parish council and they claim it's based on their whole process. Well, no, it wasn't based on the process, because in the land use plan that they created, they label the two highest majority-black districts this crazy category called residential slash future industrial. That's actually a zoning category that the parish of St. James made. Residential, future industrial. And where is that completely insane category applied? Only to the two highest majority black districts. I mean, what? Isn't the whole point of zoning to prevent Industry from going on top of people?
Anya: As we walk, Jazzy tells me she sees this zoning as a part of a much longer history.
Jazmin: Even if it's not coming out of the mouths of white people, it's coming from a legacy of white supremacy that I can determine your future for you. Doesn't matter how much you've invested. It doesn't matter how much blood, sweat, and tears have gone into not only purchasing this, and maintaining this, and keeping this and dreaming this up for your future generations, we see this as future industry. So, sorry about you.
Anya: Imani Brown agrees and says the parish land use plan is a blatant example of environmental racism.
Brown: We also know that there have been two attempts to construct petrochemical plants in majority white communities in St. James Parish, and these attempts have been blocked, successfully blocked. And yet plants continued to come up in majority Black communities such as Welcome, where Formosa is planned; Burton Lane, where South Louisiana Methanol is planned.
Anya: Parish officials blocked petrochemical plants from building in white communities while approving proposals for new industry, including Formosa’s Sunshine Project, within Black communities.
Rolfes: So in this case…what the parish government of St. James Parish did, was actually create a land use plan that is a blueprint for industrializing the Black districts and driving people off their land.
Anya: One way they do that is by preventing residents from selling off small parcels of land.
Rolfes: You can't subdivide in those two districts. If you own land, you can only subdivide and sell it to a family member. If I wanted to subdivide it and sell it to a shoe store, I couldn't. So if you want to understand, oh, why is there no small business development? Why is there nothing new coming up in the Black districts? That's why. Because the parish made a land use plan that prevents it. Meanwhile, they closed the post office. They moved the high school. They choked off an evacuation route. They're doing everything they can to kill the parish…and then they're putting a bull's eye on them for industrial development.
Anya: In more recent years, the St James parish council has squashed and delayed proposals to develop cleaner jobs, including solar farms, citing concern for the environmental and economic damage they might cause, but that level of scrutiny is rarely applied to petrochemical plants.
When I explained the situation to Professor Hosbey, he recalled the abolitionist and geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who defined racism as state-sanctioned exposure to premature death.
Justin Hosbey: So for her, racism is about populations being exposed to premature death. That's how she defines racism, not about how you feel, how you think. It's about, no, you're kind of curating a social dynamic where certain populations are exposed to premature death. Even if it's not kind of like intentionally genocidal, it is genocidal in effect. That's what extraction really does, it puts us in environments where we're exposed to premature death through health disparities, through social marginalization, through food deserts, to all these things are compounding and just making the quality of our lives kind of really unlivable in some geographies.
Anya: Hosbey says extractive industries treat Black lives as commodities, and often ones that are expendable.
Hosbey: Where people would actually allow it to happen, there's a global grammar of Blackness that says that these people's lives don't really matter, and they only matter to the extent to which we can actually profit from them and commodify them.
Anya: In the case of the St. James Parish land use plan, the primarily Black, low-income fourth and fifth districts have been zoned for sacrifice.
Anne Rolfes: This is an intense thing to say, and I don't say it lightly, but it's true. The St. James Parish Land Use Plan is a racial cleansing document. If they succeed in enacting this land use plan, the Black population will plummet there.
Anya: Just downriver in Joy and Jo Banner’s community, a similar struggle with industrial zoning in a Black community is playing out. Greenfield Louisiana, LLC plans to construct a 250 acre grain terminal next to their ancestral community of Wallace. The Descendents Project is fighting to shut the project down.
Joy Banner: These structures are as tall as 300 feet, so as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Grain terminals will emit grain and dust and particulate matter. That 2.5 particulate matter, which means that it is inhalable. And so everything that's in that dust, everything from metal fragments, to the, to dead insect parts, dead bird parts, rodent feces, fungi, pesticides will be in that dust, that we will inhale.
Anya: Like Jonesland, the town of Wallace dates back more than 100 years. It was established after the Civil War by Black men who fought for the Union. Banner says, what’s happening here is indicative of a larger trend.
Joy Banner: So we have these descendant communities, these free towns and derivatives of free towns, that are being obliterated still by the plantation system.
Anya: And as happened in St James Parish, corrupt zoning laws changed a Black community from residential to industrial. Here’s Joy’s sister Jo Banner.
Jo Banner: That land was zoned, it was originally zoned residential. Now it's been switched to heavy industry. And that was done 30 years ago to support Formosa Plastics. We were the original location of Formosa, and the reason why the land was zoned heavy industry, was because of them, was to support them.
Anya: Thirty years ago, Formosa Plastic, the same corporation that’s currently trying to build the $9.4 billion mega complex in St James Parish, tried to build what would’ve been the world's largest wood pulp and rayon plant just 10 miles away. Just like in St James Parish, residential land was rezoned as industrial, and the parish president, Lester Millet Jr, promised Formosa that if it purchased the Whitney Plantation for their rayon facility, he would help push through the needed rezoning. Six years later, in 1997, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals convicted Millet of extortion.
Jo Banner: Our parish president went to jail because he coerced and corrupted people into switching the land into heavy industry for Formosa Plastic.
Anya: With Wallace residents loudly opposing Formosa’s proposed rayon plant, the project got shut down. But despite Millet getting prosecuted, his corrupt zoning plan remains on the books.
Jo Banner: Thankfully, he was found out. He went to jail, but the land, according to the parish, stayed heavy industry.
Anya: Today, the Banner sisters and their organization, The Descendents Project, are using every tool they have to stop the grain terminal. They’ve made visits to Congress and the United Nations, and they have new campaigns and lawsuits in the works. But they’re a tiny organization, up against massive corporate money and corruption.
Joy Banner: We have encountered situations that are fit for your best true crime podcast, because it has been pages ripped from books, maps have gone missing, one government official warning another government official that, you know, if I find out that you had something to do with this, you're going to jail.
Anya: Lately, the Descendents Project has been researching the Greenfield property. In 2022, an architectural historian named Erin Edwards said the historical survey she completed, which had been paid for by Greenfield LLC, had been rewritten. She found that the project would have “an adverse effect on historic properties” and that there were likely undiscovered gravesites. But when the final report was submitted, it said the exact opposite, that the grain terminals would cause no adverse impacts, and there was no mention of unmarked graves.
Joy Banner: We knew that this land where the grain terminal is proposed is problematic. But we didn't understand that there is a statewide and parish-wide effort to get this land.
Anya: Dr. Banner believes the Greenfield Grain terminal is evidence of an overall goal to destroy her community, to run them out. Yet, like Sharon Lavigne of Rise St James, she’s certain they’ll prevail.
Joy Banner: I believe that this is the case of public nuisance and land being weaponized against a community in such a harsh and brutal way that the government, or whatever entity would have to say, you have done wrong on all levels by the people of this community, and so you don't deserve it.
Anya: Imani Brown agrees.
Brown: There is a legal doctrine known as unjust enrichment, which says that if one entity, a person, a corporation, what have you makes a profit at the expense of another, profits through the impoverishment of another, that profit is unjust and needs to be restituted.
Joy Banner: I feel strongly that we can prove they should not have any ownership of that land, just like... if you have multiple instances of driving under the influence, what do they do? They take the license away. You know, they might even repossess your car. You know, you cannot drive that car. They essentially make it useless. They essentially make it worthless. And so if you keep terrorizing us like you have done than, you do not deserve to have control of that land.
Anya: For Dr. Banner, stopping Greenfield LLC is part of a much bigger project to uncover the past and seek restitution.
Joy Banner: I feel it's destiny that this fight is happening now in the way that it's happening. This is about so much more than this grain terminal, which, this is a lot. Don't get me wrong. I mean, this is us saving our community, but it is getting at all the layers of the way that the corruption works and how bad it can, it can be.
Anya: And are you hoping that land would go back to your community?
Joy Banner: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I not only am hoping, I'm preparing for it. So when we make the next stage of this fight, what do we need to do to make it a community inclusive? What do we have to do for a community land trust?
Anya: In their plan to get the land back, The Descendents Project is not only trying to stop industry from moving in, but the Banner sisters are doing something unprecedented, they’re pushing for reparations. For decades, residents of Cancer Alley refrained from speaking out against industry.
Jazmin: Some of us are afraid to speak out against it, because it is so big and so powerful. That how will, how will we survive if we don't sort of like, get in line and get it together? We won't get the donation from Formosa if we shout too loud.
Anya: But lately, more and more residents have been voicing their opposition, and the Banner sisters are counting on this grassroots groundswell to work in their favor.
Joy Banner: Yes, you can win in the court of law, but you also have to win in the court of public opinion. I can't see how Greenfield can get investors with this amount of negative publicity that's coming their way. In fact, we have heard that they’re, that they're losing investors.
[sounds of walking, birds]
Anya: In the cemetery by Buena Vista Church, Jazzy and I weave through rows of above ground tombs. It’s been awhile since Jazzy’s visited and she has to orient herself to find Sedonia Dennis’s grave.
Anya: Are we looking for a stone plaque?
Jazmin: It was after that turn, you follow the yellow flowers…which were not real.
Anya: There's yellow flowers right there…
Anya: As with so many enslaved people, Sedonia Dennis’s gravesite didn’t originally have a tombstone.
Jazmin: It was not originally marked. It wasn’t marked with a stone or anything, or cement or concrete. It was marked with, with the bush.
Anya: About a decade ago, the Jones family held a reunion. Some of Jazzy’s aunts pooled resources to put a proper marker on Ma Sook’s gravesite.
Jazmin: A few people got together and said, you know, because Sedonia sort of orchestrated all of this, we should go honor her.
Jazmin: So the tree stump that was over here is missing, and I guess the yellow flowers are gone. But this is Sedonia.
[sounds of birds]
Anya: The marker is simple, a concrete tomb with a rectangular stone at one end. An engraved line drawing depicts Jesus bearing the cross.
Anya: How did you feel the first time you saw this?
Jazmin: The first time I saw this, oh man,…the whole walk over here, I couldn't even get myself together. I just couldn't get myself. I was overwhelmed.
Anya: Will you read her gravestone?
Jazmin: Yup, it says, Sedonia Dennis Jones or Sedonia D. Jones. June 28th, 1862 to June 23rd, 1955. And then it says, I won't complain.
Anya: Do you know where that comes from? I won't complain.
Song, I won’t Complain, plays softly and swells after the end of the next quote
Jazmin: You know, there's a song that they sing in the Baptist church, called I Won't Complain…it goes He knows, as in God knows, what's best for me, more than my weary eyes can see. But I won't complain. Yeah…but what I do know is that it's a song about a lot of trials, and tribulations and that sometimes, even in spite of, you know, everything that we go through in life, that there is a higher power, and someone who's still in control, and still shows grace and mercy in spite of everything you've gone through. And because we know that that higher power is in control, I won't complain.
Jameela: More than 100 years separates them, but both Sedonia Dennis and Jazzy have done so much for their family, so much to hang onto their land. That lineage, the legacy between them is striking.
Anya: It reminds me of something Sheila Tahir said on the Down by the River bike tour, that Black women are at the forefront of the environmental justice movement in Louisiana.
Sheila Tahir: We see a lineage of women fighting here. For example, Jo Banner and her sister formed The Descendants Project! We also see it with Rise St. James with Ms. Sharon Lavigne. We see it with Inclusive Louisiana, which is helmed by three ladies Miss Gail, Miss Barbara and Miss Myrtle. And not only are these women, but these are Black women. And quite a few of them are elderly Black ladies as well.
Anya: Generations of Black women, protecting their families, their communities, their land, their water, their air.
Jameela: Personal stories, stories of survival, are so easily buried in an extractive economy. But Jazzy with her documentary, the Bucket Brigade with their Down by the River tour, The Descendents Project with their advocacy and storytelling; they’re doing so much to reveal the history of this region, to amplify the incredible lives of the residents who live here today.
Anya: With Sharon Lavigne, Rise St. James was powerful enough to halt a $9.4 billion plant. But what would Jonesland, what would Cancer Alley, look like today if Black women, matriarchs like Sedonia Dennis, hadn’t been there all along to fight for the land, for their people?
Jameela: 100 years from now what story will we be telling about this place? And who will be the storyteller?
Anya: From this vantage point, it can be hard to tell which way the balance of power is tipping. Industry’s grip on the land is strong, but so are the women fighting for this place.
Anne Rolfes: For the last several years, everything that the parish and industry have wanted to build, has been stopped. Right. Working with Inclusive Louisiana and Rise St. James and the Bucket Brigade has participated and other people, too. We've stopped everything they've wanted to build. There's no question that we're going to transition from fossil fuels. The question is, are we going to let these companies take us down with them?
Jameela: They’re up against so much. There are just so many moments when the community could’ve walked away, could’ve accepted that the air and water have been poisoned, that it’s already been sacrificed. They could’ve let the land go. What does it cost a community to keep fighting forces that are so much bigger than you?
Anya: The advocacy and love for this region is overwhelming, especially in light of what’s at stake. Family connections, gardens and foodways, clean air, the spirituality of land and water, physical health. And so much has already been lost. Here’s Ms Laverne.
Ms. Laverne: When I think of all the people that left. You know, when I, when I think about…can an area be rebuilt? Can the richness and the closeness, can that can that be recovered?
Jameela: And yet, when I hear the stories and the history and the love people still have for each other and the land, I feel as though they can’t possibly give it up.
Rolfes: It's easy to get cynical about this part of the world when you look for a minute at our politicians. But if you look the other way, and you see our food and traditions, it's pretty astonishing. And it's why I really love being here and being home.
Anya: Despite the hurricanes and petrochemical plants and corruption, people are planning for their future and for their children’s future, here. Remember Wjaunkeil, who we met on Jonesland planting corn? He expects his family will be here decades from now.
Anya: Do you think your kids are gonna end up living on Jonesland?
Wjuankeil: Oh yeah, most definitely, because the house up there, I had bought the house, and I had like refurbished the whole house myself. And I'm planning on building another house back here, like just try to set them up, you know, so they won't be in one house. So they'll have like two or three houses down here, that they could, in case I leave away from here early, from God's time.
Anya: Jazzy has plans for the land as well.
Jazmin: I would love to build, like, a little home on top of that porch, where we can stay. I would love to learn how to garden in that same spot, in that same area, where my ancestors have gardened for over 100 years.
Jameela: This feels like a pivotal moment. How would this place look if power worked differently, if the people who lived there made the decisions?
Sharon Lavigne: I feel like we ought to be the one to monitor the industries, not let some outsider that's going to come here and shake hands with them and drink coffee with them and give them a clean bill of health. I know that because I was told that, from people who work in the plant. So, train us on how to go in there to evaluate them. I'll be the first one to want to be trained, so I can see what they did wrong, and what they're doing, how much benzene they’re dumping in our drinking water, how much chemicals that's going into the air. I would like to be trained.
Joy Banner: We have an opportunity now to get together and get, get so much more oversight, and be able to get some reparative justice, right? And return, maybe even return of land. That is what I'm hoping for.
Imani Brown: I see the resistance movement against the fossil fuel industry, against the legacies of colonialism and slavery in Louisiana. And it's just really an act of love.
Lavigne: Bring back some of the homes that we had. Bring back some of the businesses that we had. Bring back another post office that they sold. And bring our young people back to St. James.
Joy Banner: Remind people, we call it Cancer Alley, we call it Plantation Country. But my first name for it is Home.
Laverne: There is a little light of hope…maybe we can, may not be able to get it the way it was. Or but, you know, maybe we can bring some of that pride back.
Jazmin: My greatest hope for this land, is that it's not only that the land is preserved, but the people, the legacies, the generations, the future generations are… preserved is not the right word. But that they flourish because of seeds that were planted over 100 years ago.
Jameela: The future of Cancer Alley and Jonesland is still being mapped out. And what happens here matters. In so many ways, the future of this region is the future of the nation, the future of the planet. Climate change has taught us that the impacts of industry, of extraction, are global.
Jameela: What future might exist in southeast Louisiana if the residents who’ve lived there for generations got to decide the future of the land, and water, and air around them? If they could construct and implement policy? What would it look like if the government and private industry actually repaired the harm it has enacted and overseen for generations?
Stay tuned for more Plot of Land as we join reporter Katherine Nagasawa in our last and final episode, where she’ll explore this issue of repair and what it means for people all across the U.S.
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.