Every summer, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade invites college students to participate in the Environmental Justice Corps fellowship program. Fellows take part in an intensive summer program with focuses on development, fundraising, community organizing, environmental law, African American history and more.
This summer, we welcomed Akasa Thomas from Xavier University in New Orleans (focus: public health) and Schree Greene from Bennett College in North Carolina (focus: development and fundraising).
Last week, their first week at LABB, featured a Hidden History Tour with local historian Leon Waters. Here are some of their initial impressions:
Akasa: This tour was very important to me, because it showed me the roles that African Americans played in the structural foundation of Louisiana. I learned about the daily struggle for freedom and independence African Americans endured during the heroic 1811 Slave Revolt and information about our ancestors that present-day society fails to mention in textbooks.
Schree: It just amazes me after having more than 12 years of history classes that the school system has never found it important enough to educate us thoroughly on African American history — we learned more about other individuals’ heritage than our own. I believe the thought of conditioning and molding the young African American mind scares the elite in society, in fear that these individuals will grow up and see how society does not embrace their heritage and try to achieve far more than what they are told they can.
And here’s their summary of experiences along the tour:
For far too many years our heritage has been thrown to the side. Mr. Waters’ tour allowed us to see how slavery is still apparent and very alive. Where, you might ask? At today’s petrochemical plants at the sites of plantations that once held our ancestors and still hold their bones and heritage underneath the facilities.
A great example of this is the Shell Motiva plant by the Bonnet Carre spillway in Norco. This facility lies next to a deserted area that used to be a neighborhood of African Americans, and now has very little community activity at all. In addition, there are very few animals around the empty lots, no birds in the sky, and no animals jumping from tree to tree — just an empty place with no heart.
We parked at a playground next to the facility — a playground that had no children or any activity at all for that matter. After maybe 5 minutes, we all began to smell this terrible odor that literally pulled the air from your lungs. We then got into the van and turned the air on, and the bad air begin to seep in and circulate. Looking back at the facility, we could see the plumes of smoke and chemicals emitting. Out of the neighborhood’s four streets next to the facility, only two still have a few homes.
So we may ask ourselves, why are these places important?
The African Americans who once lived here fought and gave their lives so that people like Akasa and I could have basic, everyday amenities and freedoms — things as simple as walking down a public street and eating in a public restaurant.
Speaking of restaurants, what was once the Ormond Plantation (that worked African American slaves till their death), is no longer a place to mark our history. The historical Ormond Plantation is now a bed and breakfast and restaurant. The histories that African Americans made on this plantation have now been erased.
The next part of the tour brought us to the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which seemed to be a very typical recreational area. What is the hidden history behind this seemingly normal place?
Underneath the waters rushing over the spillway from the river are the grave sites of many African American slaves. The Bonnet Carre Spillway, in reality, is home to hundreds of graves, unmarked and unnoticed, holding centuries of history yet to be revealed. The same place where residents of the New Orleans area fish, boat and even fly radio-controlled planes is actually a graveyard.
I find great disrespect in not acknowledging the African American history here. I could have a great, great grandfather buried under the spillway and I would never know it. Heartbreaking facts, but as the quote goes “the truth hurts.”
How does this relate to environmental justice?
The same plantations where African Americans worked (with the exception of the Ormond Plantation) are now the sites of petrochemical plants that poison Louisiana residents. The majority of the communities surrounding these petrochemical plants are African American. In many forms, we are still slaves bearing the brunt of these toxic plants. As citizens, we work to have a flexible lifestyle, but at the same time we are confined, much like slaves, to an unhealthy and miserable environment.
Thanks, Akasa and Schree for your insights! Each week, our Environmental Justice fellows will offer stories on their experiences with LABB, working with communities on the fenceline of the petrochemical industry.