The Bonnet Carré Spillway, a mile-long concrete and wood weir in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, is embedded in a landscape of flood control infrastructure and an institutionally repressed history of the Black communities displaced for its construction from 1929 to 1931. Two cemeteries of enslaved and formerly enslaved people were plowed under and then resurfaced decades later, prompting a movement for commemoration led by descendants. Through histories of both the spillway structure and that of enslaved and formerly enslaved communities, this article examines a growing movement for commemoration that challenges and dismantles the political infrastructure generated by and for the preservation of physical infrastructure.
It is late April 1975. Workers for the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) stand in a muddy floodplain in St. Charles Parish, about thirty miles upstream from New Orleans along the Mississippi River. They are establishing drainage ditches in a nearly six-square-mile floodplain controlled by a mile-long wood and concrete weir. The entire structure, known as the Bonnet Carré Spillway, functions as a safety valve between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Spillways are a common form of flood control infrastructure that serve as outlets for excess water. The imposing concrete and metal structure looks like a low railroad trestle. Seven thousand vertical pieces of wood form a gate beneath the concrete, separating the Mississippi River from miles of open floodplain. Levees frame the sides of the spillway all the way to the lake, creating a giant earthen catch basin (see fig. 1).
When the river approaches flood stage, cranes remove the wooden pins and release river water into the basin.1 This diversion of water out of the river’s main channel lowers the water level downstream. The structure is hailed as a feat of engineering that “saves” New Orleans from flooding. This was the seventh time the spillway had been opened since its unveiling in 1935.2
The workers use backhoes and other equipment to open troughs through clay and sandy river silt to disperse standing water. But on this day, standard procedure suddenly halts. In the northwest corner of the floodplain, a thick slab of wood, barely visible, rises out of the silt. It is a coffin with human bones. This was the skeleton of an enslaved person who toiled on one of several nineteenth-century sugar plantations buried underneath the sediment.
The coffin held the last mortal remains of one of an estimated three hundred enslaved and formerly enslaved African and African American people amid otherwise faceless territory, from Delhommer, Roseland, Hermitage, and Trepagnier Plantations; Union soldiers in the Corps d’Afrique, and other free persons of color interred in two cemeteries beneath the spillway.3 Subsequent government-classified archaeological studies determined that they were estimated to be in use from 1820 up until the construction of the spillway began.
These cemeteries are sites of ecological and racial conflict between flood control and commemoration of Black history. On the surface, these histories appear disconnected because the language of flood control and risk management allows the project to conceal the ongoing political project of displacement and erasure of Black life. By telling the history of both the spillway structure and that of enslaved and formerly enslaved communities, I argue that a growing movement for commemoration of these cemeteries has the power to challenge and dismantle the political infrastructure generated by and for the preservation of physical infrastructure. This movement is quieter than bulldozers and concrete mixers yet just as powerful. Though the work of engineers has destroyed flesh and bone, the dearly departed also create community that is strengthened and continuously nourished by intergenerational Black kinship networks. These networks are steeped in centuries of shared struggle that, once exposed, extend culpability for current injustices back through those centuries to include sugar planters, traders of enslaved people, engineers, military leaders, and authorities and politicians on multiple levels of federal, state, and local government. Movements for commemoration are not quelled by home buyouts, public relations narratives, or empty promises in press releases. Enslaved labor was the power that made technocratic vocabulary possible.
My analysis of the ecological and racial conflict presented by the African and African American cemeteries of the Bonnet Carré Spillway proceeds chronologically. First, I provide the nineteenth-century historical context for Mississippi River flood control infrastructure, of which the Bonnet Carré Spillway is one part, and its dependence on an enslaved and formerly enslaved workforce. Second, I highlight details of the funerary culture of the people who lived, loved, worked, and buried their dead beneath the spillway area before and after emancipation. Third, I introduce a series of archaeological investigations triggered by the 1975 emergence of the bones and the USACE’s subsequent attempts to trivialize the findings, despite an increasingly active community of descendants. Finally, I document key moments in the descendants’ movement for commemoration that began in earnest in 1995 and continues to the present.
Disciplining the River, Disciplining Bodies
One can take a forty-minute drive out of metropolitan New Orleans down River Road, a historic byway that runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Cairo, Illinois, and see the spillway for themselves. Manicured plantation homes framed by giant oak trees line the road, mere feet from petrochemical refineries and oceangoing tankers. Just beyond and often sandwiched in between, there are modest wooden houses, mobile homes, and churches. St. Charles Parish is in the heart of “Cancer Alley,” a corridor that runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.4 Throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this region was home to the largest sugar plantations in the Americas outside of the Caribbean. Today, the same land on either side of the river is riddled with natural gas pipelines, oil refineries, plastic manufacturing plants, and shipping terminals that pollute the air, water, soil, and bodies of the many Black communities descended from enslaved people who had worked the land for generations before them.
Just before this dystopian road trip ends and the land dips down into the spillway basin, there is a USACE office. A retired or inactive service member welcomes the occasional guest and offers to play a video about the history of the spillway. The video begins with the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. About 27,000 square miles of land were flooded and 700,000 people displaced. This event spurred “a new strategy for fighting floods”: spillways. The film continues by describing the engineering process and extolling the successes of the “remarkably efficient successful flood control structure.”5 Before signing off with a montage of brass bands, the narrator concludes that “the spillway’s distinctive combination of utility and beauty shows us that it’s possible to intervene in nature without damaging its character”6
This particular stretch of land—the site of this intervention—played a pivotal role in the story of flood control infrastructure of the entire Mississippi River. The spillway’s location is very strategic. First, its position at the end of the entire length of the Mississippi River proactively protects the city and global shipping port of New Orleans. Second, its placement in proximity to nineteenth-century sugar plantation operations now protects the oil refineries on either side of the spillway.
Accordingly, describing the spillway as infrastructure may seem obvious. The term is most legible as physical armature in the landscape—a skeleton of human progress. It is “a material artifact constructed by people, with physical properties and pragmatic properties in its effects on human organization,” or “something that other things ‘run on,’ things that are substrate to events and movements.”7
While the spillway is infrastructure in this sense, it is also a site of racist use and abuse of people and land, made visible by “ways in which [it] can embody specific forms of power and authority” that endure over the course of centuries.8 Control of landscape and accumulation of racial, social, economic, and political capital are cogenerated. The technology of the spillway, by way of its placement and operation, distributes both water and power unevenly across racial lines. The rich and the white live on dry land. The poor and the Black are expected to live with or under water. This racializing technology is tested during times of environmental disaster. In Southeast Louisiana, that means during floods. As snow melt and spring rains travel down the length of the Mississippi River from as far north as Minnesota, the volume and pressure of the water grows tremendously, causing flooding over the riverbanks and levees, and worse, levee breaks known as crevasses. Levees, the primary flood protection structures well into the twentieth century—and arguably to the present day—are earthen flood banks that skirt the sides of the river. Rising eight to twelve feet above water level, the Mississippi River levee system traverses nearly all of the river’s edge from Minnesota to Louisiana. “Some of the larger levees have all the lines, angles, and strength of veritable fortifications,” reported a Harper’s Weekly correspondent in 1884.9 Thirteen years earlier, an article in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper had described what happened when the river breached those fortifications. “Crevasses are formed in the banks, into which the flat-boats are drawn and whirled through the swamps. Levees are raised for the purpose of preventing these overflows; and even these levees are sometimes swept away.”10
Two flood events in particular influenced the siting and racialization of the Bonnet Carré Spillway: the crevasse of 1850 and the Great Flood of 1927. These events that occurred seventy-five years apart demonstrate the enduring, deeply rooted racial logic of flood control infrastructure that preceded the USACE’s narrative, which begins in 1927.
The Bonnet Carré Crevasse was one of the largest, most frequent, and most destructive of these levee breaches. In late 1849, the Mississippi River rushed to a small bend in the river, its tremendous force and momentum pummeling the levees. By December 29, 1849, the entire section of the east bank levee gave way, unleashing, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “a flood of water, one-third of a mile in width and fifteen to eighteen feet deep . . . pouring through the . . . Crevasse” thirty-three miles upriver from New Orleans (the current site of the spillway).11 It remained open until July 1850.
Most of the testimony describing the Bonnet Carré Crevasse of 1850 and the dependence on enslaved labor as infrastructure comes from Oxley Plantation, one of the tracts beneath the spillway.12 In 1850, 155 people were enslaved on Oxley Plantation. Some performed specialized labor such as gardening, blacksmithing, and driving, and most worked the sugarcane fields. Of all the plantations along the crevasse, Oxley Plantation would have been most impervious to flooding. Charles Oxley was known to implement new technologies on his plantation, notable among which was a pump for floodwater. But on January 2, 1850, Oxley reported that the “draining machine drowned out last night.”
Oxley wrote in his log in a hurried script, “Crevasse this morning took the levees.”13 For the next two weeks, all enslaved people on the plantation labored on the levee. Women dug ditches in front of the levee, while men reinforced the levee itself. Oxley then began planting cane, only to be foiled again by a violent storm on January 20. The draining machine again proved futile. “Water rising, running over on Trepagnier side. Draining machine on all night, but water gaining height,” Oxley wrote on January 21. A week later, the water was still rising over the rebuilt levees, despite assigning “his best hands to secure the plantation against the rising waters.” By March, it seemed that the situation was under control. “Children and old hands planting cane. Men and Women working on levee,” he recorded. Yet that same day Oxley also reported “another break in the dam.” The next day, only the children were planting cane and “all hands were building up the levee.” By three o’clock, the crevasse had fully ruptured once again. For weeks afterward, his log read roughly the same: “Crevasse at 11 o’clock a.m. . . . Crevasse at 3 o’clock p.m. . . . Damnation.”14
Flood control was deadly work. Enslaved men and women attempted to rebuild the nearly obliterated levees with simple tools, wheelbarrows, sandbags, and mule carts. Many drowned in the perilously churning waters. Planters would later sue for indemnities from their parish governments for the loss of enslaved persons. These cases would eventually shape a very early progressive taxation policy in many flood-prone parishes, especially St. Charles Parish. Plantation owners within seven miles of a levee breach were required by state law to send all enslaved men between the ages of fifteen and sixty to repair levees.15 Enslaved people who lived on the land beneath the spillway were thus doubly monetized, first as saleable commodities, then again as their bodies themselves served as flood control infrastructure and a means of disaster reparations.16 At the Bonnet Carré bend, enslaved men and women, young and old, moved ceaselessly from cane fields to floodwaters and back again. Flood control, even before the design of spillways, was an example of a technology that is so “thoroughly biased in a particular direction that it regularly produces results counted as wonderful breakthroughs by some social interests and crushing setbacks by others.”17
The Bonnet Carré Crevasse of 1850 made clear what many engineers and planters had known for some time. For planters to sustain the agricultural profits to which they had become accustomed, technological and ecological interventions besides levees and the manual labor of enslaved people were required. The crevasse set a major survey project into motion at the federal level in order to design a more robust flood control system. Andrew A. Humphreys, chief of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and the military engineer Henry L. Abbot completed a comprehensive study of the Lower Mississippi River in 1861.18 Using historical information on past floods and crevasses, including the crevasse of 1850, they proposed several options for diversifying the levee-only system.19
Humphreys and Abbot examined three options. The first was to create cutoffs that would redirect the main channel of the river into a straighter path, taking pressure off the levees and, debatably, creating a natural dredging effect, as faster-moving water would eventually form a deeper riverbed.20 The second option was to create outlets, or spillways. Humphreys identified two possible sites with caveats for each. The first, a spillway at Bonnet Carré, would threaten the currently operational sugar plantations in its path. The second, a spillway on the other side of New Orleans that drained into Lake Borgne, would still leave the city at large risk for floods. Ultimately, though, Humphreys believed the cutoff and the spillway options to be prohibitively costly and ill advised. The last option was to raise and fortify the existing levee system.
In the end, no definitive recommendation was reached. Plagued by discord and disagreement among administrators at the federal and state levels, no new engineering projects at Bonnet Carré materialized. St. Charles Parish returned to relying on the levee system.
The second major flood event in the history of the spillway, the Great Flood of 1927, however, spurred action. The events of 1927 are well-trodden by historians and geographers, memorialized by blues musicians, and often figure prominently into the infrastructure-as-savior narrative. The flood, the most devastating in the history of the North American continent, destroyed land from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico and left hundreds of thousands without homes. Importantly, the Great Flood reached New Orleans, previously protected by the levee breaks upriver that relieved water pressure and volume. For the politically powerful, white suffering in a metropole typically catalyzes swift action.21
The United States government promptly responded to the flood of 1927 by funding the Mississippi River and Tributary Project in 1928, a massive undertaking to control the entire river through public works. These plans were administered and implemented by the Mississippi River Commission, a federally appointed board that had been established in 1879. The commission, which is still active today, included USACE officers, a member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and civilians from the private engineering and business sectors. To develop the plan for this extensive system of flood control, the commission created several iterations of “Project Design Flood,” a predictive model for the impact of river flooding based on historical data.22 This time, the Bonnet Carré Spillway was a key element of the plan, along with floodwalls, dredging, and an enhanced levee system that ran from Cairo to New Orleans. The Project Design Flood diagram was startlingly simple for a production of such massive scale. Inlets and outlets were denoted by the flow rate of water in cubic feet per second. The Mississippi River resembled basic kitchen sink plumbing more than it did a highly complex alluvial system. As form follows function, objectives of ecological discipline are also achieved aesthetically (see fig. 2).
The Bonnet Carré Spillway was the last major feature of Project Design Flood, making it the last line of defense for New Orleans and all areas downriver against catastrophic annual floods. It was and still is the last opportunity for human intervention that can substantially alter the river depth and path. “You can still trace the history of the spillway through these globally induced processes of hydrological engineering, river management, modernist flood control,” the political ecologist Joshua Lewis explained in a 2015 interview. “It is already an old story.”23
Throughout the nineteenth century, then, the Bonnet Carré Crevasse embodied the fraught relationship between white plantation owners, enslaved African and African American people, and the constant specter of ruinous waters. In this way, the histories of flood control infrastructure and enslaved people at Bonnet Carré are inextricably bound together.
Transcending Plantation Boundaries
The lives of Black people who worked the land beneath the spillway consisted of more than digging, draining, ditching, and dying. Funerary artifacts recovered from the cemeteries shed light on social practices and kinship networks. Those lost to natural and unnatural causes were buried in these two cemeteries. Iron and wooden crosses were created for the burials, which were typically held at night. Some blacksmiths added initials to the crosses. Coffins ranged in size, with small ones for children and infants. Family members routinely sprinkled lime over the burials to keep weeds from growing.24 Enslaved people on the plantations below the spillway visited one another, married, and started families. “It is not surprising,” one of the USACE uncirculated reports reads, “that a social network which transcended plantation boundaries existed prior to the Civil War in the project area.”25
After emancipation, formerly enslaved people either remained on the plantations as agricultural wage laborers, or pooled money to purchase land and founded the enclaves of Bell Town (Sellers), Jew Town (Sellers), Virginia Town, and Coffee Town (Montz) on the sites of Myrtleland, Roseland, and Hermitage (formerly Oxley) Plantations. In oral histories recorded in the 1980s, residents of Sellers (renamed Norco in 1934 after the arrival of the New Orleans Refinery Company) and Montz described how difficult it was for Black people to find work in the many years following emancipation. One woman recounted that her mother was lucky to find work as a laundress.26 Another woman told a story of her mother working as a field hand. As a child, she took dinner to her every night in the sugar fields because she worked until after sundown. The same resident continued to recount her fear of the seasonal floods. During floods, her older sister would carry her on her back over the levee to reach their one-room schoolhouse.27 Even with modest means, however, the Black community continued to organize funerals and processions. Civil War veteran Sanders Royal was marked by a headstone. Metal and wooden crosses were still standing tall on the eve of the spillway’s construction.
When Bonnet Carré, the centuries-old thorn in the side of the white elite and foe to global capital flows, was finally selected as the site for the $13,266,000 flood control project, the price tag included “land acquisition.”28 The land “acquired” by the federal government was not vacant and never had been. During the spillway’s construction from 1929 to 1935, the towns of Montz and Sellers, Louisiana, were demolished and partially relocated. Oral histories indicate that the USACE had made promises to move the two cemeteries to a nearby playground but never followed through.29
Construction began at the height of the Great Depression and offered residents a rare source of reliable work. The spillway project employed many locals as well as Works Progress Administration workers. L’Observateur, a biweekly newspaper distributed in the River Parishes, wrote in a 2000 article, “In the 1930s, most of the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. One wouldn’t have noticed it around Norco.”30 Descendants of enslaved people were paid to bury their own towns and plow under their ancestors’ resting places. By the time the spillway was conceived, it had been a cemetery of African-descended peoples for centuries. The land had already been steeped with memories of both white violence and Black joy that no flood would be able to completely erase.
Hidden in Plain Sight
From 1929 to 1975, the burials remained beneath the ground, washed further and further from their original locations with each opening of the spillway. Their haunting emergence set off a series of events that would bring much more than skeletons into the light of day.
When the bones surfaced after the 1975 spillway opening, the USACE commissioned an archaeological study and report on the history of the spillway land, a collection of oral histories, and an inventory of cemetery artifacts. Twenty-five burials were found at two cemetery sites, named Kenner and Kugler Cemeteries after the white families who most recently owned the plantations. Each cemetery was estimated to hold 150 burials. The remains of an infant, a child, and a young male were identified in the field.31 All were confirmed to be African descended.
Jill-Karen Yakubik, the archaeologist who conducted the research for the report, recommended that the USACE share a “popular version” of her team’s findings with the public in schools, churches, and libraries. The classified report, “Cultural Resources Inventory of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana,” was completed in 1986.32 A second report, “Phase 2 of the Cultural Resources Inventory of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana,” was commissioned in 1987 and completed in 1988 by another team led by Eric C. Poplin. Yakubik’s company, Earth Search Inc., was contracted in 2005 for a third report, “Background Research on the Kenner and Kugler Cemeteries, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.”33 After Yakubik and her team conducted the first “Cultural Resources Inventory,” the USACE identified approximately one hundred out of an estimated nine hundred descendants. They were contacted by mail and informed that cemeteries containing the burials of their relatives had surfaced in the spillway. Yakubik interviewed several of the known descendants for the 2005 report. Although the first two reports are now unclassified, USACE employees who are aware of these reports cited the prevention of grave robbing as the reason for secrecy during a site visit in July 2012. Figure 3 shows the site of Kugler Cemetery, hidden in plain sight, in 2014. As for the recovered artifacts documented in the reports, the Louisiana Division of Archaeology responded to inquiries about their whereabouts by warning that this would be “opening Pandora’s box,” and by doing so, it “will cause some of us to scramble to figure out what happened with these materials.”34
This attempted erasure of a larger public memory by the engineered landscape of the Bonnet Carré Spillway is not purely a result of physical demolition in the 1920s or of administrative inaction over the past two decades. It is also a consequence of active and ongoing institutional practices of repression, accomplished through signage in the spillway, public marketing materials, and narratives circulated by print and online media. Hailed in recent years as a wetlands preserve and “Sportsman’s Paradise,” signs dot the otherwise flat, marshy landscape, directing visitors to ATV areas, bike trails, model airplane fields, and bird-watching areas.35 “It is a shame that . . . ATVs and biking get more resources than African American History,” a St. Charles Parish resident wrote in 2012. “Monuments have been built for others who actually fought to keep people of color enslaved and disenfranchised in Louisiana.”36
While the struggle for commemoration was about to begin in earnest, there were already sites of memory that stood the test of time despite and along with floodwaters, wreckage, and death. The stories of grandparents, parents, cousins, and neighbors recorded by Yakubik cannot be acquired like property deeds or monetized like “land acquisitions.” The foundation for the movement was there all along.
Fighting to Exist: The Movement Begins
Several of the descendants were members of the African American History Alliance of Louisiana (AAHAL), an organization working to recover, honor, and popularize stories of heroic African American ancestors. They first called on the USACE to commemorate the cemeteries in 1995. The AAHAL organized descendants and parish residents into the group Concerned Citizens for Ancestors’ Lineages (CCAL), which focused on the spillway cemeteries. In September 1997, AAHAL collaborated with the “Authentic Voices Project, an African Studies program chaired by Dr. Clyde Robertson and sponsored by the New Orleans Public School System,”37 to bring Dr. Michael Blakey, then professor of archaeology at Howard University, to the site to study the skeletal remains and share his findings with teachers and students. According to Blakey, the interred were subject to some of the most brutal manual labor and extreme malnutrition the team had found in their studies, similar to enslaved people on the sugar plantations of the British Virgin Islands.38 His evaluation of muscle and ligament attachments on upper and lower body bones showed extreme stress on the joints and muscles from heavy repetitive labor. Through study of dental remains, Blakey “noted that the enslaved had a very unhealthy and poor diet.” Further “examination revealed the presence of scurvy, dental loss, and abscessing which was consistent with a diet in sugars and starches.”39
In January 2012, the USACE announced that the cemeteries were listed on the National Historic Register. This story received only moderate visibility via the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans daily newspaper.40 Later that year, in response to pressure from residents and the CCAL to further commemorate the cemeteries and share the history of the African American communities with the public, the USACE announced a plan for interpretive panels and a walking trail called Project Resting Place.
On February 8, 2012, the USACE held a meeting to present the plan and open a public comment period on Project Resting Place. At the meeting, Christopher Brantley, the spillway project manager, presented a brief history of the cemeteries and spillway, explanation of the 1975 accidental exhumation, and designs for informational panels, landscaping, and a brochure. He noted that the cemeteries were not disturbed by the original spillway construction (though Yakubik’s report explicitly states otherwise).41 Brantley then opened a discussion period followed by one-on-one meetings. During the discussion, Margie Richard, a descendant who was interviewed in Yakubik’s first report, shared that “this oral history went on in the 1970’s and I was told not to talk about it.”42 Other attendees expressed similar concerns and requested that the USACE make presentations and share this information with other residents, high schools, museums, and universities.
Brantley suggested that maintenance of the site “could be a Friends of the Spillway project. We would like to approach the Friends of the Spillway and possibly a sponsor to help with upkeep in the areas on a more frequent basis.” Attendees and descendants were not familiar with the nonprofit and asked that membership be extended to the public. Concerns were also raised about the need for a private sponsor when the sites were part of the National Historic Register and under the jurisdiction of the USACE.43
Over thirty comment cards gathered from descendants and residents during the open comment period expressed disgust with Project Resting Place owing to its lack of detail and sensitivity to the legacy of slavery and the accomplishments of African Americans in the spillway area. The text of the panels to be installed along the interpretive trail omitted details about the enslaved people interred in the spillway, such as Sanders Royal and William H. Bolson, members of the Corps d’Afrique, the first Black regiment in the Civil War, and Hannibal Waters, a heroic rebel in the 1811 Slave Revolt. Instead, the panels offered a general history of plantations and frequently referred to enslaved people as “workers” or “laborers” and “residents.”44 Descendants of Sanders Royal and William H. Bolson submitted comments with additional detailed information about their respective ancestors.
Comments also addressed the design of Project Resting Place. The question of how and how many designers or museum professionals were solicited and consulted was raised. Community members and descendants offered specific ideas for commemoration, such as a “9 foot Black Civil War soldier sculpted in bronze.”45 Others included “an eternal flame” and “areas for meditation and remembrance,” as well as “an interpretive center long advocated by the Louisiana Museum of African American history, a statue celebrating the Slave Revolt of 1811, and historic markers noting now destroyed communities like Sellars.”46 One particularly powerful handwritten card read, “It feels like a war is still being fought over the right to exist.”47
The Louisiana Museum of African American History (LMAAH), the successor of AAHAL, proposed comprehensive revisions. The LMAAH chairman, historian, and descendant Leon A. Waters researched and detailed the oppressive system of chattel slavery affecting the daily lives of enslaved people, and the accomplishments of specific individuals known to be interred in the cemeteries. LMAAH also advised that the name of the cemeteries should be changed from Kenner and Kugler—the last names of the white plantation owners—to African and African American Cemeteries in the Bonnet Carré Spillway. According to The Stories the Bones Will Tell, a self-published informational flyer distributed by LMAAH, all of these revisions and critiques were in service to the vision to “preserve, honor, and learn from the ancestors of these cemeteries. Through proper study, much information on work conditions, diet, and African identities of the enslaved could be revealed.”48
“We would like to do this this fall,” Brantley stated at the conclusion of the 2012 meeting. Project Resting Place never materialized. Given the violence enacted on this community for centuries, a walking trail was merely a down payment.
The Power of Memory Work
The descendants’ fight is “less a reminder that ancestors must be commemorated than that we are continuing their commemorative work. Remembrance was a vital part of the politics of slavery, then no less than now.”49 As a descendant wrote of the need for commemoration, “It is the ability to honor our ancestors which is left somewhat less than fully accessible. It is the need to have a nexus, connected in a material way with our families, which is missing. It is important and necessary to keep the spirits of the ancestors present and honored for generations to come.”50
Like material infrastructure, the relationships formed through community organizing and storytelling and the kinship bonds between descendants and the larger communities to which they belong require maintenance. Public history work in the form of a movement for commemoration has tremendous power to activate, mobilize, and sustain communities. The passing down and sharing of stories of those who came before us, particularly of one’s own ancestors, is a supremely emotive and human act. Sharing institutionally repressed histories among community members and to larger audiences provides points of access that draw more people into activism and community organizing through a shared stewardship of history.
A phone call with the USACE Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records manager, in November 2014 reveals the conflicting forces at work in this landscape and the true power of the descendants. The manager could not release reports on any known descendants of those interred in the cemeteries or minutes from community meetings regarding the spillway cemeteries because there were “lots of angry Black people out there.” He was adamant, as if he needed to bar the door. “They want a golden arch over that cemetery, and we say to them, take it to your congressmen if you want anything.”51
Since the report of known descendants remained classified, and the records manager had no intention of providing documents, LMAAH began a print campaign in November 2014 entitled “Do You Have an Ancestor Buried in the Bonnet Carré Spillway?” to find more descendants by working through churches, schools, nursing homes, and other community groups in the River Parishes. A poster and detachable postcard with a list of last names of descendants was a new step forward (see fig. 4). Two possible descendants were found at the Second Louisiana Reconstruction Conference, organized by the Louisiana Public History Forum and hosted at Southern University at New Orleans. Neither descendant knew that their relative was interred underneath the spillway. Together, and slowly, the movement for commemoration continued to grow.
A young man studying at Chattahoochee Technical College grew up hearing stories from his grandmother about the vibrant, now-displaced community under the spillway. He remembers visiting his aunt in Montz, seeing the spillway in passing, but not venturing into the foreboding landscape or knowing about the cemeteries. His name is Christopher Smothers, a cousin of Margie Richard, the woman who was told to keep quiet about her oral history recording.
In 2019, Smothers began putting together the puzzle pieces of the spillway story by drawing on these family memories to trace his genealogy. He visited archives across the state of Louisiana, even traveling to the National Archives to find military pension records for one of his ancestors. They led him back to the spillway. He began to organize his family, friends, and community members and connect with other descendants. He has taken up the struggle for commemoration by locating more descendants around the country and advocating for an official landmark, history center, and memorial wall of stone. Two years later, on live television, he stood face to face with Jason Emery, an archaeologist for the USACE, and demanded a return of the remains and proper commemoration of his ancestors.
“Many years I spent trying to find the narrative . . . trying to find answers for my grandmothers,” Smothers told FOX8 reporter Nicondra Norwood, herself a native of St. Charles Parish. “They were really robbed of a lot . . . not only did it help me build a connection to them, but it really gave them closure for a lot of the injustices they witnessed in their youth.” He continued, “It’s very emotional,” as he described some of the documents he encountered in his research. “You can interpret the pain . . . How they really, really suffered.”52 The camera then cut to Emery, standing near a cemetery site. “Not making any apologies for it. The world was a different place in 1929,” he says.
In 1929, the designs of white men ran roughshod over a finite earth. Levees were built higher, and the river was dredged deeper to protect the economic interests of the few. Crowds gathered to cheer on presidents preaching the gospel of infrastructure as evidence of a democratic, egalitarian society.53
In the Bonnet Carré Spillway, floodwaters still swirl, government authorities still spin platitudes, and white families picnic, drive ATVs, fly model airplanes, and ride mountain bikes. Meanwhile, in homes and churches, backyards and porches, sisters, cousins, uncles, and grandmothers tell and retell stories of Black life in Montz, Sellers, Bell Town, Jew Town, Virginia Town, Coffee Town, and in the Myrtleland, Roseland, and Hermitage Plantations. Generations of descendants reach back into the future, writing visions of statues, memorials, history centers, and reinterment ceremonies. Creating spaces in which they “would also be thinking of the dead,” as “the dead already include the living in their own great collective.”54
The Bonnet Carré Spillway is not the only example of Black communities being displaced for private and public infrastructure projects, of cemeteries of enslaved people resurfacing, or of people of color being sacrificed in the name of disaster prevention and recovery.55 To name only a few: the Cross Bronx Expressway, constructed in 1948, displaced over sixty thousand residents, the majority of whom were Black and/or Puerto Rican; the town of Pinhook, Missouri, founded by sharecroppers, was demolished in 2011 to prevent the flooding of Cairo, Illinois; and the Monroe and Bruslie Cemeteries underneath the Shell Oil Refinery in Convent, Louisiana, resurfaced in 2013.56
The story of the Bonnet Carré Spillway cemeteries speaks to such struggles within and beyond Louisiana in that it raises questions of spiritual repair for the desecrated dead, intangible property loss through geographic displacement, and historical atrocities that belie “natural” disaster recovery and prevention. “A disaster,” says the historian Andy Horowitz, “is at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script.”57 As such, resettling communities is not just about rebuilding homes and redrawing property lines, but about severing people from land that is not only created and maintained by their labor but also holds community memory. Commemoration of the lives of displaced, dispossessed, and enslaved peoples gets to the heart of the matter. To install a plaque is to acknowledge a crime scene. Taking into account the histories of places and struggles like Bonnet Carré, what does it mean for corporations and the federal government to grapple with a historical impossibility of repair?
The FOX8 interview drew to a close. “There were lives here. People who sacrificed their lives here,” Smothers said. “There needs to be an official landmark designating the sacredness of this area.” Emery responded, “I think we can get back to you. . . . I support it.” As if permission to remember was ever his to give. Smothers swore to hold Emery to his word.
He does not stand alone. A legion of the living and the dead is not easily dispersed. Walls and weirs may temporarily allow the rich, white, and powerful to play God with Mother Mississippi, but because of forces they have unleashed, they cannot bury what they stole. There were always lives here. Indeed, there still are.
I am indebted to descendants Leon A. Waters and Christopher Smothers. Vincent Brown, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Travis Bost generously read early drafts, and Samuel Shearer and Amsale Alemu provided invaluable feedback. I thank the anonymous reviewers and editors for their helpful comments and support.
McCormack, “Tulane Studies Additional Diversions.” The trigger point for operating the Bonnet Carré Spillway is a Mississippi River flow of 1.25 million cubic feet per second at the structure, which generally corresponds to a flood stage of seventeen feet at the Carrollton Gage in New Orleans. Bonnet Carré is designed to divert a maximum of 250,000 cubic feet per second of water from the Mississippi River.
Schleifstein, “Mississippi River to Crest Saturday.” Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the spillway was used infrequently, about once every ten years (in 1931, 1937, 1945, 1950, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1997, 2008, 2011, 2016, 2018, and 2019), with a record twenty-three quiet years between 1950 and 1973. Since the 1980s, however, usage has increased, reaching a crescendo in 2019. February 27, 2019, marked the unprecedented opening two years in a row. The spillway opened once in April 2020.
Canicosa, “Term ‘Cancer Alley.’” The term can be traced to a newspaper interview with a St. Gabriel, Louisiana, resident in 1987. It gained more widespread visibility during the Great Louisiana Toxics March from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in November 1988.
Diaries of Charles Oxley (1–6), Kenner Family Papers, Louisiana State University Hill Memorial Library; Diary of Martha Kenner, Kenner Family Papers, Louisiana State University Hill Memorial Library.
Louisiana Legislature, “Act No. 31, An Act Relative to Roads and Levees.” In Acts Passed at the First Session of the Ninth Legislature of the State of Louisiana. New Orleans: John Gibson, State Printer, 1829.
Yakubik, USACE, and Goodwin, “Cultural Resources Inventory,” 320. This 360-page public document is known to be held by only two libraries: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Library, for which special permission and research clearance is required; and Tulane University Archives and Special Collections, where its catalog entry reports it as “MISSING DUE TO KATRINA.”
Chip McGimsey, pers. comm., August 11, 2014.
Redacted sender, “Subject: Comments on Resting Place.” Electronic correspondence with the US Army Corps of Engineers during public comment period, March 22, 2012. Included in attachment with author’s electronic correspondence with the US Army Corps of Engineers, September 29, 2014.
Redacted sender, “Subject: Comments on Resting Place.”
Redacted author 1, “Long-Term Management Comment Cards.” Included in attachment with author’s electronic correspondence with the US Army Corps of Engineers, September 29, 2014.
Redacted author 2, “Long-Term Management Comment Cards.” Included in attachment with author’s electronic correspondence with the US Army Corps of Engineers, September 29, 2014.
Redacted sender, “Subject: Comments on Resting Place.”
Frederick Wallace, pers. comm., November 2014.