They’re fighting polluters destroying historically Black towns – starting with their own

<span>Jo and Joy Banner beside a house that has been in their family for more than 100 years, in Wallace, Louisiana, on 23 November 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune</span>
Jo and Joy Banner beside a house that has been in their family for more than 100 years, in Wallace, Louisiana, on 23 November 2021.Photograph: Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune

When twin sisters Joy and Jo Banner founded their non-profit, the Descendants Project, in 2020, their goal was to protect the Black-founded “freetowns” in Louisiana’s river parishes. Like the Banners’ hometown of Wallace, many of the Black communities that abut the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans were founded after emancipation by people who’d once been enslaved.

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Today, decades of disinvestment have left freetowns vulnerable to predatory development, land theft and industrialization. The Banners hoped to reverse those trends. Yet within weeks of creating their organization, their purpose shifted dramatically. Instead of supporting other Black communities, the twins found themselves fighting for their own hometown’s survival. Wallace, population 1,240, was facing an existential threat in the form of the proposed construction of a gargantuan grain-export terminal, the latest in an onslaught of industrial growth along the lower Mississippi River. The terminal would “drain us of all of our resources and all of our quality of life”, Joy said. “The overall goal is to run all of us out.”

The overall goal is to run all of us out

Joy Banner

Across the South, freetowns – also called Black-founded towns or freedom colonies – are fighting similar kinds of encroachment. Helmed by Black men and women looking to escape slavery and white supremacy, freetowns functioned as autonomous communities, producing their own food and governance and even providing relative safety during the Jim Crow era. Now, many are in the untenable position of having to advocate for their right to have a future. Often, this means uncovering lost histories and genealogies, seeking protection through historic registries and battling local governments, developers and corporations in court. For advocates like the Banners, the effort to maintain a stable status quo can be exhausting.

‘A Black community being literally overshadowed’

Halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Wallace is a quiet community. Small houses line gravel streets that start at the Mississippi River and recede into the abundant farmland. Mammoth live oaks stretch across verdant lawns. The Whitney plantation – now a museum dedicated to educating the public about the institution and legacies of slavery – sits on one side and just upriver is Laura plantation, a tourist destination that bills itself as a “Creole heritage site”. The Banners’ ancestors were enslaved at both.

Since 2021, Greenfield Louisiana LLC has been pushing to construct a 250-acre grain terminal directly beside Wallace’s Black neighborhoods, with some buildings located well within the 2,000ft buffer zone meant to separate residential areas from industry. The facility, which would include a mammoth grain elevator and 54 storage silos as tall as the Statue of Liberty, would transfer and store grain from river barges and load it onto ocean tankers. According to an impact study the Banners commissioned, the proposed buildings are so tall that the neighborhood wouldn’t get morning sunlight until 11am at the earliest and, depending on the season, sometimes as late as 1pm. “[We are] a Black community being literally overshadowed,” said Joy.

Already, the region has the densest concentration of petrochemical plants in the nation, earning it the grim moniker “Cancer Alley”. St John the Baptist parish, where Wallace is located, has the most carcinogenic air in the nation. Just across the Mississippi River, in Revere (another historic freetown), the only neoprene plant in the nation emits known carcinogens: chloroprene and ethylene oxide. In some areas, the cancer risk is 50 times higher than the national average. While a grain terminal might sound benign in comparison, silos and grain elevators release dust, mold, bacteria, rodent feces, shredded metal and silica, all of which pose a significant risk to a community overburdened with respiratory illnesses and cancer.

Over the past three years, the Banner sisters have initiated numerous lawsuits as part of their sustained effort to stop Greenfield Louisiana from building. Their efforts have brought the company under significant public scrutiny. One proposed arrangement has Greenfield transferring ownership of its $479m grain elevator to the Port of South Louisiana and then leasing it back from the publicly owned port, effectively granting the company a $200m tax break. A whistleblower from Gulf South Research Corporation accused Greenfield of pressuring the cultural resource management firm to withhold the results of her survey, which found that proposed facilities would damage cultural resources and potentially disrupt unmarked graves of enslaved people.

The land Greenfield owns was zoned as industrial 33 years ago in a backroom deal that sent the parish president, Lester Millet, who brokered the deal, to prison. Last year, a judge struck down that zoning ordinance, but the parish council is already trying to reinstate it. “They just will not let up no matter what we do,” said Jo. “We went into court. We have lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit … They’re just coming here despite buffer zone requirements, despite ordinances that would protect us.”

They just will not let up. We went into court. We have lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit

Jo Banner

As the sisters continue to litigate to stop the grain terminal, they’ve faced increasingly personal threats both inside and outside of the courtroom. One parish council member told Joy she could be arrested for speaking up at a public meeting, intimidation that Joy believes violates her right to free speech (she’s suing). And this past August, a week after the state judge Nghana Lewis issued a restraining order preventing the parish council from rezoning Wallace as industrial, a 350-year-old oak tree in front of the Banner sisters’ Fee-Fo-Lay cafe caught fire.

“Either lightning hit the tree or it’s been really dry [and] someone threw a cigarette butt,” Joy said. “We were trying to convince ourselves … it’s just [the] drought.” But a fire investigator found evidence of an accelerant. The blaze had been started at the base of the tree with a protest sign the sisters displayed in front of their business. “That was a punch to the gut.”

Still, the Banner sisters aren’t letting up. Wallace isn’t just the place where they live. It’s where their ancestors – a group of Union soldiers and newly emancipated people – built a community in the wake of grave violence. And it’s where they and many of their neighbors hope their families will thrive for generations to come. If the grain terminal is built, Joy said: “We are obliterated. We’re gone. We can’t survive.”

‘Far away from whites’

Look for freetowns on most maps and you won’t have much luck, though researchers believe they were once abundant. “[Black] people wanted to come together as clusters of landowners for safety purposes,” said Andrea Roberts, a professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia who studies freetowns. “If they could find a somewhat secluded place, far away from whites, then they could be perceived as less of a threat, an economic threat.”

Black people wanted to come together as clusters of landowners for safety purposes

Andrea Roberts, University of Virginia

With a few exceptions, freetowns kept their populations small, settling on less desirable, and more affordable, land. This effectively pushed Black-founded communities into wetlands and floodplains, creating a racialized topography that exists to this day. Yet, location and size wasn’t always enough to protect communities from white violence. “We talk a lot about Tulsa, the 1921 massacre and Black Wall Street, but that kind of thing happened to Black places all across the country,” asid Danielle Purifoy, a geography professor at the University of North Carolina who studies environmental justice in the US South. “They were just burned to the ground.”

With local politicians often overlooking, and in some cases supporting, white supremacist violence, freetowns rarely pursued formal relationships with municipal governments. “They knew the state wouldn’t recognize them,” Purifoy said. “To recognize them would be to give them a particular status and political power in the state.” Instead, Black communities turned inward, creating their own businesses and systems of governance, often centered on the church. Inhabitants grew their own food, built their own schools and created safety-net programs like benevolent societies to provide various kinds of mutual aid. In the mid-20th century, many freetowns thrived.

Yet today, freetowns such as Wallace are once again in negotiation for their survival, as generations-old communities are shrinking. Africatown, Alabama, saw its population drop from 12,000 people in the 1970s to less than 2,000 today. Boley, Oklahoma, which was once the largest Black town in the nation, went from having 4,000 residents in 1911 to just over a thousand currently. The seclusion that once provided a level of safety no longer does.

In the South, more than a third of Black-owned land is considered heirs property, passed down through generations without a will or by going through probate court, making it jointly owned by all the descendents of the original landowner. In many states, if a single heir agrees to sell, the entire property can be forced into a sale without the consent of the other owners. Developers take advantage.

Vultures go into the county courthouse so they can buy land and property cheap

Andrea Roberts, University of Virginia

“Vultures … go into the county courthouse … and scout out these instances, so they can buy land and property cheap,” Roberts said. Surrounded by sprawl, some freetowns get annexed into larger cities, fading into the social and political fabric of a larger place, while others get rezoned as industrial and, in a few cases, bought out by polluting corporations. Those built on or near wetlands are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic storms and a few have been purposefully flooded to construct recreational lakes. “Even if they’re not being burned to the ground, they’re being bulldozed over,” Purifoy said, “essentially erased, as though they didn’t exist.”

‘Snake infested, mosquito infested, and not on high ground’

On Google Earth, Turkey Creek, Mississippi, is easy to miss: two splashes of green squished inside North Gulfport’s beige city grid. With US Route 49 to the west, Gulfport-Biloxi international airport to the south, and an international shipping channel to the east, the historic Black community is hemmed in. Airport storage, apartment complexes, warehouses and industrial sites – including a toxic Superfund site have taken hefty bites out of the formerly rural community. But the land in and around Turkey Creek hasn’t always been coveted.

“Snake infested, mosquito infested, and not on high ground” is how Derrick Evans, the great-great-grandson of Sam Evans, one of Turkey Creek’s founders, imagines the land in 1866, when four newly emancipated couples purchased eight 40-acre plots of swampland from the Arkansas Lumber Company. “It was a wilderness with nothing there, but wetlands and swamps and Black people. And because it was the least desirable land, it was the most affordable.”

Because it was the least desirable land, it was the most affordable

Derrick Evans, great-great-grandson of a Turkey Creek founder

Soon, additional Black settlers followed, founding neighboring freetowns: Carlton, Sidecamp, Hansboro, Happy Hollow and Magnolia Grove. “Turkey Creek was sort of the nexus community between them all,” Evans said. Black families from across north Harrison county worshiped at Mount Pleasant United Baptist church in Turkey Creek, sent their kids to Turkey Creek’s two-room consolidated school and worked at or adjacent to the freetown’s creosote and turpentine plant, the Phoenix naval yards. Turkey Creek was also a destination for recreation: banned from the white-only beaches, Black families swam in the Turkey Creek’s namesake waterway.

Today, Carlton is long gone. Taken over by eminent domain during the second world war, the land is now home to Bayou View, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Gulfport. As for the other nearby Black towns, Evans said: “They’re there, but [they’re] hard to discern.”

This past October, the Guardian talked to Evans’s childhood friend Patrick White on the porch of Turkey Creek’s newly restored naval stores paymaster’s office. The building is all that remains after the factory, which made turpentine and tar from longleaf pines and employed much of the community, shut down in 1958. Recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, it’s slated to become a museum and community center, a place to hold memories and memorabilia of the quickly shrinking town.

“This whole place was woods,” White said, looking out from the porch. “We were able to walk for miles and miles and miles and miles.” At age 60, White was soft-spoken, clad in wire-rim glasses, Timberland boots and a Negro Leagues baseball T-shirt. These days, the forest of his childhood is home to an auto parts store, storage facility, trampoline park, Dollar General, Walmart and the Ford dealership where White worked for 15 years. The white man who owned the dealership bought the land from White’s grandfather.

Farther down the road, the Gulfport-Biloxi international airport juts like an arrow through the remains of the community. In 1943, the military commandeered land using eminent domain. “They gave like $10 an acre and said the government needs this,” White said of the area, which used to be hopping with Black-owned nightclubs, bars, stores, laundromats and ice-cream parlors. “Every time a plane takes off, you got stuff falling on your head.”

Finally, White brought up Ashton Place, a brick apartment complex with a community pool. “It’s about four or 500 people buried back here,” he said. Beyond a chain-link fence, the forest was scraggly and thick. Between blades of saw palmettos and fringes of pine, a single gray headstone was visible. “How was y’all able to come here and acquire all this land and live like nothing else mattered?” White said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

‘We’re gonna keep enduring’

Underutilized. Depressed. Blighted. Overgrown. Empty. In planning documents, those words appear often describing Black-owned land. That language, said Purifoy, “makes it easy for folks, especially white folks … to characterize space as underdeveloped and out of use.” The Banners know this well. Not long ago, they had their house appraised. Their land, they learned, had very little monetary value, though nearby property had been sold to corporations for millions of dollars. “This land has been weaponized against us for centuries,” Joy told me. With valuations like that, she added, “it’s really easy for them strategically to come in and offer you a couple of dollars for your land. And take it and then turn it over for millions.”

They come in and offer you a couple of dollars for your land, then turn it over for millions

Joy Banner

For freetown residents, land is more than its monetary value. It’s a through-line connecting generations across time, a place for home-goings and centennial birthdays and, at times, even a refuge. “We’re gonna keep enduring,” White said. “I want to do a festival out here next year, like, a turkey leg festival. You know, Turkey Creek? Turkey legs?” This fall, he ran for local office, campaigning on the premise that their multinational, corporate neighbors needed to do more for the community. “Coca Cola? Home Depot? Lowe’s? They making millions out of this area. Airport makes billions. But they don’t give nothing back,” he said. He lost by 41 votes and plans to run again.

White and Evans, the descendant of one of Turkey Creek’s founders, are part of a multigenerational effort that goes back decades, to the founding of the community’s Mount Pleasant United Baptist church. Set back from the road, the church, which has long been a hub for community organizing, is nearly hidden by a grove of giant oak trees. White mentioned activists from the previous generation – Rev Calvin Jackson Sr and Merlon Hines – who fought against an airport expansion.

Local advocacy has scored major victories in recent years. Besides reopening the naval stores paymaster office as a museum, Turkey Creek locals have stopped the development of a 753-acre office park; rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina flooded numerous houses; put Turkey Creek on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007; and partnered with the Audubon Society to place more than 200 upstream acres into permanent conservation.

Yet those victories do little to alter the imbalance of power. Despite the vocal objections of residents, Turkey Creek was annexed in 1994 by the city of Gulfport. Instead of being its own place, it became a small portion of a bigger place. The residents who once constituted a majority found their ability to self-determine diminished. These days, Gulfport wants to build a thruway to connect the shipping port with the highway, slicing Turkey Creek in half again and increasing flooding risk for the already vulnerable creekside community.

We’ve come a long way, but it’s a constant fight

Evelyn Caldwell, step-sister of Derrick Evans

There’s also the matter of a proposed military storage facility that would house explosive ammunition. Residents of Turkey Creek have joined other Black neighborhoods across North Gulfport to oppose both projects. “We’ve come a long way, but it’s a constant fight,” Evans’ step-sister, Evelyn Caldwell, said. “You have to stay on top of things. You can close the front door, but they may try to come in the back door. So you have to close the back door, and then you have to check the front door again.”

‘I am here in the now, not just a placeholder’

Historians debate how many Black settlements once dotted the American landscape, which makes it impossible to know how many have been lost. The Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance posits that there were at least 1,200 Black towns in the United States. Andrea Roberts suspects there were many, many more. Through interviews and crowdsourced family histories, Roberts has mapped more than 500 freedom colonies in Texas alone. As co-director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Cultural Landscapes, she plans to move on to other states. She’s eyeing Canada, too, having recently visited Nova Scotia where “52 plus” freedom colonies were founded by Black loyalists who fought in the war of 1812. Their descendents, she said, are in the midst of “incredible revitalization.

Proactive visibility is a relatively new survival strategy for places that once found safety in seclusion. “Black towns are supposed to be relics of the past,” Purifoy said. “That’s something that these forms of extractive development really play into.” But for residents, digging into the past and sharing what they find can be incredibly empowering, especially as they fight for a future. Growing up, the Banners weren’t aware they lived in a freetown. They didn’t know their ancestors had been enslaved at the very plantations they drove past nearly every day on their way to school. They certainly didn’t know that their ancestors founded their town to ensure a future for their family. Learning that history has given them fuel.

Black towns are supposed to be relics of the past

Danielle Purifoy, University of North Carolina

“If I say ‘descendant’,” Joy said, in their Wallace office, “it means I’m a person that descends from ancestors that I love. I’m acknowledged in that rootedness. It also means that I am here, I am here in the now. I’m not just a placeholder.”

The Banner sisters can speak in litigious detail about backroom deals, corrupt zoning, negligent environmental reviews, industrial pollution and stolen land, but when they talk about Wallace, they light up. This past fall, Joy ran for parish council. Like Turkey Creek’s White, she lost the election, but her participation forced local politicians to finally acknowledge heavy industry’s disastrous impacts on local public health. The sisters’ efforts have paid off in other ways, too.

Last year, the Descendants Project won a Mellon grant to turn Many Waters, a Creole plantation house, into an interpretative public history museum with an African American genealogy center and a research station for ancestral archeology and burial grounds. And they just purchased the Woodlawn plantation, where the 1811 slave revolt, the largest insurgency of enslaved people in the US, began. They plan to open it as a tourist destination later this year.

Though their wins have been significant, the Banners still don’t have what they most want: to enjoy their land and community without fear of losing it. “Our ancestors said, give us the land, give us the land that we’ve been working for centuries,” Joy said. “And that’s what we’re saying: give us the land that our ancestors worked and died for, and we will show you how successful we can be.”