Headed down La. 39 on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, a few miles down after the Belle Chasse Ferry, drivers pass a tall, white picket fence on the left with a sign that reads “Welcome White Ditch” in a circle around an outline of the state  with a pelican inside. A few yards ahead, to the right are two rusting red pipes connected to the Mississippi River which dip below the highway and then surface on the left to flush river water into a fenced-off canal that leads to acres of marsh and bayou.

This is the White’s Ditch Siphon. But to some in the area, it is a division marker. From this point south are  predominantly African-American communities such as Phoenix, Davant and Pointe a la Hache. The communities north of this mark are mostly white.

But also what lies south of this point are communities that for decades kept themselves alive through oyster harvesting and shrimp trawling. The history of this small, historically black community of fishermen and women stretches back to the early 20th century. That legacy continues today, though somewhat diluted over the past 40 years as some younger residents traded a living on the water for jobs in the energy industry. What’s left of that proud maritime heritage, though, is being threatened by the catastrophic BP oil disaster, which could choke the life out of the bays and shores on which the communities depend.

Ironically, one approach to keeping the oil away could itself finish off the black fishing community here.

State officials have opened Mississippi River diversions, such as the White’s Ditch Siphon, hoping that a strong outward flow of water will keep the oil out of the bayou and marsh where it could persist for decades, and ruin the already brittle wetlands . But emptying that much fresh water into the oyster beds throws off the delicate salinity balance the bivalves need to survive.

When the White’s Ditch Siphon was installed in 1963, it destroyed most of the oyster beds owned by African Americans, said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. Encalade says he had close to 1,500 acres of oyster beds before the White Ditch intrusion and now has about 200 acres. At peak, blacks owned almost 10,000 acres collectively, but now maybe 1,500, he said.

The state might open another diversion in the Bohemia Spillway, a couple of miles south of White’s Ditch. If reopened now, it would throw another flow of freshwater into the brackish habitat Encalade’s oystermen depend on. That will hurt, says Neal Beshel, who runs the marina office at Point a la Hache. “You need a little fresh water introduced out there, but if you get too much out there it’ll hurt the oysters,” he said. “I’m against it.”

Encalade was more direct: “That will wipe us out.Our community will not have any black-owned oyster leases left. It will finish us off.”

Despite this threat to their livelihoods, African Americans here say they are being overlooked by BP as the oil giant looks to hire locals for cleanup work.

At the Pointe a la Hache boat harbor, behind the marina’s office, five African-American men gather over a pile of crabs, picking them up, sizing them and tossing them in boxes.  All of them attended the BP “Vessels of Opportunity” job training held in their community, but none of them got work from it. One of them, Orin Bentley, sweating profusely under a straw hat and pulling crabs with thick hands scarred like hacked wood, said they likely won’t either.

“They ain’t calling us back,” Bentley said. “They ain’t hiring nobody from East Bank. We losing everything – losing our business, losing our money and losing our minds.”

There are no hard numbers on the demographics of the people hired by BP. A look at the legal form for participants in Vessels of Opportunity program shows inquiries into the make, model, vessel capacity, and fuel capacity of the boat being used, but no questions about the  race, gender or even date of birth of the trainee. Patrick Kelley, a data collector for the U.S. Coast Guard, said that while the petrochemical giant has no other method to track those employed, they have developed an informal approach to demographics: checking the spelling of the names on the agreements. Using that method, he estimates that about 200 Vietnamese or Cambodian fishers have gotten jobs, about a third of a total of about 600 hires, he said. This number represents less than18 percent of the total 3,200 people who have attended trainings and received certification to work in the cleanup.

Activists and advocates  say that without this information, government has no way of ensuring that BP is hiring fairly. Last week, Rev. Tyrone Edwards, an African-American activist out of Phoenix, a small black town near Pointe a La Hache, brought that message to Capitol Hill. Traveling with the Equity and Inclusion Campaign and Oxfam America, Edwards met with California Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters about making sure that blacks and other minorities are not left out of cleanup employment opportunities. Waters is expected to hold hearings about this issue this week.

“We know who’s been absent from the table was black fishermen,” Edwards said. “Not only were the black ones not there, but you had all the guys owning large vessels, and the large vendors who were at the table. So I said we’ve got to be more involved in this process. Right now BP needs to be saying, ‘We are paying you this money because your water bottoms are closed.’ They have the responsibility to pay us while we are not working, especially the fishermen on the east bank”

Rev. Edwards isn’t himself a fisher, but has a long history of advocating on their behalf, dating back to 1979 when he helped form The Fishermen and Concerned Citizens of Plaquemines Parish. He led that organization in a successful fight to overturn a law banning the use of a small hand dredges, often used by small commercial black fishers. They also fought for better wages and better work protection for black crewmembers, while also helping black fishers with boat ownership.

These days, Rev. Edwards heads the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, which has led post-Katrina rebuilding efforts in southeast Plaquemines — much of which was flattened by storm surges. He’s also been working with Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser on a plan to have BP come accommodate some of the overlooked fishers. Nungesser says that so far BP has agreed to set up a place on the east bank where fishers can receive assistance with the claims process or sign up for hazardous materials clean-up training if needed.

It will be a “place where I can put some of my people there becasue I think [BP is] bullshitting them,” said Nungesser. “They are not helping them express their true losses. Some of those fisherman in east bank aren’t educated and some are intimidated but they are hardworking people. So we need something so that when they come in it won’t feel like them against BP.”

One local person who’s future is in jeopardy is a man who doesn’t fish himself, but has been making a living off selling large Gulf shrimp off the back of his truck in New Orleans. Keilen Williams, the 34-year-old “New Orleans Shrimp Man”, comes from four generations of oystermen and shrimpers. He once shrimped, but now calls himself an “advocate for shrimpers,” much in the way that Encalade is an advocate for oystermen.

“I’m connected to so many fishers that I didn’t have to fish no more,” Williams said. “They need a voice. They needed me to get this together, this black representation for them because we feel like we are losing our heritage.”

Williams has been writing to city council members and talking with local media, such as WBOK morning show host Gerod Stevens, about how black fishers in southeast Plaquemines have not received the protection and assistance other communities have.  This is important to New Orleanians in particular because much of the oysters and shrimp they eat at restaurants come from black fishers in Pointe a La Hache.

Every day, the Pointe a la Hache marina is paid a visit by Rodney Fox, owner of R&A Oyster Co., who collects thousands of coffebean sacks of oysters – each containing 100 to 150 oysters in them – from black, and increasingly Mexican, oystermen. Fox purchases them for about $25 a sack, and then sells them to restaurants and markets throughout the state and country.

Williams is trying to duplicate the same success in New Orleans. When not advocating, Williams is working to establish a fresh seafood and vegetable market in the city. There, he would sell shrimp, oysters and fish at low prices thanks to his relationships with the black fishers in Plaquemines. Already, he’s registered with the state as “New Orleans Shrimpman LLC” and pursued grants from the city to help get the business off the ground.

All of that is put on hold now, though, due to the oil spill.

“Consumers will be skeptical about buying shrimp now,” Williams said. “They opened shrimp season early, when they weren’t the size they were supposed to be yet.”

In previous years, Williams was able to earn about $100,000 a year selling shrimp from Pointe a la Hache in New Orleans, tax returns show. He was hoping this year to ink contracts with big-time suppliers such as Costco and Wal-Mart. That would have tripled his income, he says, but instead it feels more like a distant dream with every passing day of oil and riverwater seeping into the marsh and boats remaining tied up.

“This is all I know, water and seafood,” Williams said. “It feels like I’m losing my heritage. If I don’t do this — black people already have been stripped of their identity. This will finish us.”

photos by Shawn Escoffery