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Black History Month: Non-profit fighting industry expansion

3 months 5 days 22 hours ago Monday, February 19 2024 Feb 19, 2024 February 19, 2024 9:04 AM February 19, 2024 in Black History Month
Source: WBRZ

At the beginning of the month, we told you about how one of Southern University founders, Henry Demas, went from enslaved to prominent state politician.

His life and legacy is intricately part of a push to save land and preserve history in his home of St John the Baptist Parish.

Jo and Dr. Joy Banner have spent years researching and working to protect Henry Demas' legacy because it's directly tied to their own in Wallace, Louisiana.

At the Fifolet Cafe along River Road, Jo Banner is on a mission to preserve history, including Henry Demas.

“We're also researching his descendants and trying to find as many people as we can to show the validity of Wallace to agencies who would normally not see that. knowing that I can steward his history and put it on the books,” explained Banner.

The Descendants Project advocates for communities that descended from slaves in the river parishes—known as "freedom towns"—and dismantle the legacy of slavery.

“The community of Wallace was established by [...] self-emancipated enslaved to join the Union army encampment,” she continued.

After working in the tourism industry for years, their current mission is to protect their freedom town from heavy industry.

“So that was the Descendants Project, and that's still what the Descendants Project is. But being on that side and looking at the history, my sister and I cannot ignore our future and seeing the environmental battles that were happening along with us, how the system of enslavement is still over us today,” Banner said.

The Banners and their non-profit are in a legal battle against a 250-acre development under Greenfield that would place a grain terminal less than a football field away from the Banners' family land.

According to Greenfield, their plans in Wallace would not affect cultural resources in the area, and they would immediately stop construction if it did. A September report from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers disagrees with that assessment.

USACE says the Greenfield project would have adverse effects on 3 plantation sites and a historic cemetery in the majority Black community.

Banner says this is just one example of how remnants of the past still tower over Black communities today.

“We have that environmental battle going and Greenfield, Louisiana was the perfect example of how the system of slavery is still so much over communities like ours. You know, in an environmental justice world, it's always talked about as intersectional.

“There's so many different intersections and The Descendants Project lives in the middle of that. We just try to navigate all those worlds,” she continued.

“We're going into spaces where it is white men on the other side. Talk about a power dynamic, going into those spaces where Black women just really have sometimes have never been, and also speaking out in a way that's not been accepted,” she said.

Banner also says despite the ugly parts of the past, there is beauty in the present as the Descendants Project continues working to honor their family, the land, and the history.

“The beauty of Wallace is that it's still here," Banner said. "There's so many of these towns that have just been ripped apart. Their history has been denied. They're no longer free. The descendants aren't living in freedom because they're now on the fence line of petrochemical plants like in Saint James,” she finished.

The Descendants Project recently acquired the Woodland Plantation, the site of America's largest slave revolt in 1811. That move puts the plantation under Black ownership for the first time in its 231-year history. 

According to Banner, their plan is to preserve it and continue to share stories of the descendant communities in the river parishes.

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