It’s land untouched by industry – a rarity in this part of Louisiana.

Thirty miles upriver from New Orleans, in St. John the Baptist Parish, is a 14-mile stretch of Great River Road that remains largely agricultural.

In St. John, the east bank of the Mississippi River is a hub of heavy industry. Once called Plantation Country, it now sits squarely in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” — so-named for the proliferation of petrochemical plants and refineries, including the Marathon Garyville Refinery, Atlantic Alumina and Denka Performance Elastomer.

But on the more agrarian West Bank, the landscape includes fields, large oaks and three small communities – Lucy, Edgard and Wallace – built by the descendants of people once enslaved in the area’s sugarcane fields. A few historic sites here – including the Whitney Plantation and Evergreen Plantation – are nationally known for their detailed documentation of the harsh realities of slave trade and day-to-day labor.

Now, West Bank residents hope that their rich history might earn the quiet stretch of riverfront new protections from industrial encroachment – which is already on their doorstep, with the Greenfield Grain Terminal proposed in Wallace.

National experts seem to be taking notice. In May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the area on its 2023 list of America’s most endangered historic places, calling it “an intact cultural landscape in an area otherwise oversaturated with heavy industry.” This summer, the National Park Service commissioned a one-year study, to explore whether the site should be named a National Historic Landmark District, a prestigious distinction.

Archeologists, anthropologists and other researchers will spend the next year evaluating the historic value of the region and its three historic villages: Lucy, along the border with St. Charles Parish; Edgard, the parish seat for St. John; and Wallace, next to the border of St. James Parish. 

With a National Historic Landmark District designation, the very soil of the proposed Greenfield Terminal would fall within the protection of the Secretary of the Interior, which would make it more difficult for the company to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The designation would also bring new protection under the National Park Service, an agency credited as one of the nation’s largest stewards of African American history and culture. For example, the Army Corps would have to increase the intensity of its consideration during its review processes for industrial permits, because all federal agencies must avoid adverse effects on the community “to the maximum extent feasible.”

The determination is a step towards a more humanizing view of history. If the study finds merit, this section of St. John the Baptist Parish could become one of the first National Historic Landmark District designations based on the descendants of people enslaved in the region, rather than on historic structures from that era, experts say. 

Those same residents have the most to lose should industry wrap its tendrils into the west bank of the Mississippi.

The landmark district, in this rare case, would not be based around commercial buildings. “The cultural traditions, the storytelling, the way of life is still very evident there, much like it would have been 100 to 200 years ago,” said Brian M. Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.

Protecting the last untouched section of “German Coast” from industrial development

From parish to parish, the length of the proposed district is 11 miles. As the road curves to meet the river, the driving distance is 14.57 miles. Map by Delaney Dryfoos / The Lens

While the historic German Coast region stretches from St. Charles Parish to St. James Parish along the Mississippi River’s western bank, historians say that the 14.5 mile section along River Road in St. John the Baptist Parish remains the most untouched. 

High school students in Louisiana learn about the German Coast and its importance to New Orleans during a required one-semester course that covers the state’s history, Davis said.

The early survival of New Orleans can be attributed partly to the German immigrant farmers who settled this part of the West Bank in 1721 and took their produce down the river to sell in the city’s markets each week. 

To grow their crops, these important German Coast farming communities relied heavily on slave labor. Today, near Edgard, Evergreen Plantation, a 37-building working sugarcane farm, encompasses preserved structures and land that the owners describe as “the most intact plantation complex in the South.”

Near Wallace, the Whitney Plantation offers “one of the most important interpretations of the experience of slavery in the entire country,” said Chris Cody, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

This interpretation extends far beyond the buildings – protected as part of the Whitney Plantation Historic District – to document backbreaking daily work, said Ashley Rogers, Whitney’s executive director. 

“The people who were enslaved here, their whole lives would have been organized around work,” she said. “They lived in the fields.”

But if the grain terminal is built nearby, Rogers is concerned about the impact its operation – the noise, dust, traffic and obstruction of view – will have on the ability of Whitney Plantation to continue its work, as one of the nation’s leading interpretations of slavery.

Wallace itself also has a special history, said Sand Warren Marmillion, curator and manager of the Laura Plantation in Vacherie. Marmillion, a cultural anthropologist, said she found Library of Congress records of formerly enslaved men who had left Laura to join the Union Army. From their pension applications, she discovered that groups of returning Black soldiers had formed a cooperative in St. John Parish to buy small parcels of land that eventually became the village of Wallace.

To create a more realistic picture of slavery, historians also emphasize the importance of rebellion narratives, which are part of this area’s documented past. The 1811 German Coast uprising, the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, originated from sugarcane plantations along the German Coast and moved toward New Orleans, as the roughly 500 rebels chanted “freedom or death.” 

Though the rebellion took place along the East Bank of the German Coast, a memorial on Whitney Plantation grounds commemorates the uprising. Sculptor Woodrow Nash created 63 ceramic heads depicting the rebels, many of whom were beheaded, with their heads placed on stakes along River Road.

If industry encroaches here, it would diminish the overall arc of history that this span of road represents, residents said. “Understanding how life was interconnected along the River Road is important to understanding the value of this stretch of land that we’re trying to get designated,” Marmillion said.

Fragmentation has already happened up and down the Mississippi River, where only traces of post-emancipation remain, because of industrial development, said anthropologist Ryan Gray, a professor at the University of New Orleans. By contrast, he said, the uniquely well-preserved group of properties on the west bank of St. John the Baptist Parish “merit special designation and protection.”

Cody, of the National Trust, also believes that the area is stronger historically because it’s intact. Its rural farmland and rich history creates what in preservation is known as a cultural landscape, he said. “The existence of this community, the reason for its existence and the fact that these people are still here contributes to the overall setting and historic nature of this whole area.”

An imminent threat 

Isabella Poche, a lifelong resident of Wallace, shows the above-ground tomb of her mother in Willow Grove Cemetery, next to her home. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Advocates see an urgency to the historic designation, because of the proposed Greenfield Grain Terminal, which they believe poses an imminent threat to the historic region.

Their dedication to the cause is driven by the idea that the character of this area – and its zoning – must remain largely agricultural. Last month, a judge ruled in favor of The Descendants Project, an organization “committed to the intergenerational healing and flourishing of the Black descendant community in the Louisiana river parishes.” 

The judge’s decision nullified a 1990 ordinance that had rezoned the proposed Greenfield site from rural to industrial use. The ruling put another hurdle in front of Greenfield, which must petition for a new ordinance, to rezone the land back to the industrial-use zoning needed to construct the grain terminal. 

Though this part of St. John is a rural area where a grain-related business might seem compatible, Greenfield’s critics say that the industrial-size grain terminal proposed by Greenfield Louisiana, LLC, is out of scale for the community of Wallace.

For more than a year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been reviewing whether to give Greenfield a permit. During that time, lawsuits have also delayed plans for the $600 million, 54-silo, 275-foot tall grain elevator. 

But if built, the grain terminal would tower above all structures in the area. The planned elevator matches the height of the Superdome in New Orleans. 

And though the area’s history may be rich, at this point, it cannot officially help residents to fight the grain terminal: only bits and pieces of the West Bank region are protected by some form of historic designation. 

Currently, in the Greenfield-review footprint, the only National Historic Landmark that would be impacted is the Evergreen Plantation.

The 1,100-acre tract of land purchased by Greenfield two years ago runs diagonally across the back of the Whitney and Evergreen Plantations. Though the land was originally farmed as part of the Whitney Plantation, the Whitney is only preserved as a historic district, not as a landmark.  

The fight against Greenfield makes clear that a larger, regional classification could better protect the area and its culture.

The tranquility that community members find when visiting their loved ones within Willow Grove Cemetery in Wallace may be a thing of the past if the Greenfield terminal gets a greenlight. The cemetery sits between the modern-day Whitney property and the tract owned by Greenfield Louisiana. 

Isabella Poche, who lives next to Willow Grove Cemetery, said that she doesn’t want to be neighbors to a gigantic grain terminal. She would like her community to remain as it has been: rural, agrarian and peaceful.

Still, nothing would cause her to relocate. “I’m not gonna move,” Poche said, as she brushed overgrown weeds aside to expose the concrete tomb of her mother. 

“Where am I gonna go? I’ve lived here my whole life,” she said. And when the time comes, she will likely be buried right here, along with generations of family members.

The historic burial grounds likely expand beyond the marked graves, a common phenomenon in Louisiana’s older cemeteries, Gray said. Willow Grove’s early burials could trace back to the antebellum plantations, he believes.

As with other St. John historic sites, Willow Grove may have some form of segmented protection, through the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act. The federal legislation was passed within the past year, creating a new historic-preservation measure through the National Park Service to protect African American burial grounds ahead of infrastructure projects and commercial development. 

To date, many area burial grounds haven’t been formally identified – including some directly in line of Greenfield bulldozers. Forensic Architecture, an agency that investigates human rights violations, has shown several anomalies – which could be unmarked burial grounds from multiple plantations – in and around the Greenfield site itself.

Greenfield’s official position is that finding an unmarked grave or any other cultural relic in the ground is an “unlikely event,” during construction. But if it were to happen, Greenfield crews would cease work in the affected area and notify the appropriate agencies, the company said in a factsheet released on its website.

Yet Greenfield has not always been forthcoming about the issue, as reported last year by ProPublica, which wrote about a controversial independent archaeological consultant that Greenfield hired to survey the property. Greenfield was accused of improperly pressuring the Gulf South Research Corporation to alter its true findings and remove concerns about how the grain terminal may impact nearby historic sites. In response, a Greenfield spokesman told The Lens that the company did no such thing. 

As the crow flies, the entire length of the proposed district is 11 miles. But, given the fragmented way that history has been preserved along the river, in between industrial facilities, the entire, largely untouched region provides an essential narrative, of those who have lived along this part of the Mississippi River, said Cody, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“If this whole district were to be listed as a National Historic Landmark District,” he said, “it’s our hope that it would send a message to industrial development that this is the one 11-mile stretch of the river that’s going to tell the river’s history.”

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Sign up to republish stories like this one for free