A Giant Plastics Company Tried to Halt a Juneteenth Ceremony for Buried Slaves

St. James Parish, Louisiana — Death Alley activists gathered near the hamlet of Welcome on Friday to celebrate Juneteenth, which observes the date when news of the end of slavery reached enslaved Black people in Texas. About 40 people danced, prayed and sang gospel songs at a cemetery of unmarked graves on the grounds of a former plantation where nearby residents firmly believe their Black ancestors were buried after working the land as slaves. The celebration paid homage to those who founded their rural community along the Mississippi River and lived through one of the nation’s darkest periods.

But had Formosa Plastics gotten its way, the ceremony would never have happened.

Formosa is a Taiwanese mega-corporation building a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex known as the Sunshine Project at the site, a swath of former plantation fields a couple miles from a church and elementary school on the outskirts of Welcome. The company’s attorneys were in court Thursday attempting to prevent residents from accessing the cemetery on land it now owns. A local judge rejected the company’s arguments and upheld a temporary restraining order allowing residents observe Juneteenth on the hallowed grounds. In a statement, the company cited concerns over “health and safety.”

The ruling comes as communities across the U.S. contend with the brutal reality of state violence against Black people, with waves of protest against ongoing police killings continuing in cities across the country.

“Formosa has a fight on its hands,” said Sharon Lavigne, the founder of the local, faith-based environmental justice group RISE St. James, during the ceremony.

Lavigne and other nearby residents are bitterly opposed to the Sunshine Project, which is slated to turn fossil fuels into the chemicals used to make plastics such as throwaway bottles and AstroTurf. They say St. James Parish and the heavily-industrialized river corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — long dubbed “Cancer Alley” — is already inundated with pollution. The Sunshine Project would significantly increase the concentration of cancer-causing chemicals and other harmful air pollutants in majority-Black neighborhoods located along the riverside, which are already surrounded by petrochemical facilities. Friends and neighbors have died of cancer, and activists have renamed the industrial corridor “Death Alley.”

Death Alley has become an internationally recognized landmark of environmental racism, and research shows that cancer rates are higher in lower-income, majority-Black neighborhoods than in higher-income, whiter areas of the region. In Death Alley and across the U.S., polluting industries are known to locate near to communities of color like Welcome. Nationally, Black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than the overall population.

“Formosa, you have been declared an enemy, because God said, ‘Let my people go,’” said Pastor Gregory Manning, an organizer with the Coalition Against Death Alley, during a roaring sermon at the gravesite.

Lavigne and members of RISE St. James say their neighborhoods would become unlivable due to high concentrations of pollution if the Sunshine Project is completed. With the discovery of the burial grounds during state-mandated archaeological survey last year, they are fighting not only their own displacement, but for the dignity of their ancestors. In Welcome, residents of Black neighborhoods trace their roots to the first people of color to settle as free citizens along the Mississippi.

During the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in southern Louisiana, St. James and surrounding parishes had some of the highest per capita death rates attributed to the virus in the U.S. A landmark Harvard study linked long-term exposure to air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates. Using similar models, researchers at Tulane University mapped the correlation between air pollution levels and the high death rates from the virus in Cancer Alley. In April, Black people accounted for 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Louisiana, though they compromise only 32 percent of the population. Temperatures were taken before the Juneteenth ceremony at the burial grounds, and everyone wore a mask.

After completing an initial, state-mandated archaeological survey of the Sunshine Project site, Formosa concluded that a suspected gravesite on one former plantation had likely been destroyed by a previous owner and there were no “cultural resources” in the area. However, an independent archaeological firm used 19th century maps to conclude that gravesites were present, and Black Americans were likely buried there, because the graves of whites and plantation owners are typically marked and recorded in historical records. State regulators asked Formosa to look again, and the discovery of graves on the property was confirmed in 2019.

Lavigne and other members of RISE St. James, who believe they are descendants of those buried here, have previously visited the site to lay flowers, pray, sing and share the cultural significance of the cemetery with their community. Despite state laws guaranteeing access to cemeteries, local law enforcement threatened Lavigne with arrest if she returned, according to Lavigne and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a legal aid group representing RISE St. James. Formosa does not plan on building on the area where the confirmed graves are located and erected a barbed wire fence around the cemetery.

“The audacity that you would keep us out,” Manning said, reflecting on the bondage that slaves endured during the plantation days. “The audacity that they would threaten us with barbed wire. God is on our side!”

Working with the independent archaeologists, RISE St. James and CCR released a report in March that shows as many as six cemeteries likely containing the remains of enslaved people may exist across the 2,400 acres of former plantation fields where Formosa is in the beginning stages of building the chemical and plastics complex. The plant would be one of the largest in the area and has received massive tax breaks from the state.

Formosa has repeatedly attempted to cast doubt on claims that enslaved ancestors of local residents are buried at the confirmed gravesite. In its most recent public statement, the company said that “despite assumptions” made about ancestral ties to the site, no archaeologist has confirmed the “identity or ethnicity” of the remains on its property. However, slaves were forced to bury their dead in the same fields where they worked without permanent stones or markings. Based on a review of maps drawn up in 1877 and 1878, the independent archeologists concluded that the people buried in these unmarked cemeteries are most likely Black, which suggests they either lived and died as slaves, were freed before their deaths, or are the descendants of survivors of slavery.

“We all know we have ancestors down there; we all know that, from St. James. I’m from St. James, I know my ancestors are from St. James,” Lavigne said in a previous interview with Truthout. “And I don’t think that Formosa should deny us from going to visit our ancestors. And the people in the public I talk to, they feel the same way, I am speaking myself and the community.”

CCR attorneys say they are deeply concerned about the police threatening Lavigne and others with arrest for visiting the cemetery because an underground pipeline runs through the grounds — and may have already disturbed some of the graves. Amid recent protests against oil pipelines, Louisiana passed an “anti-protest law” pushed by the fossil fuel industry that makes trespassing on so-called “critical infrastructure” a felony offense. The law applies to pipelines, refineries and other facilities privately owned by the industry. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed an amendment to the law last week that would have increased the penalty to a minimum of three years in prison. The existing law is currently being challenged on First Amendment grounds.

“On February 1, a police officer came to my house and told me Formosa said I could not come their property,” Lavigne said during the Juneteenth ceremony. “Well, I am here today. See what God can do?”