(Left to Right) Jo and Joy Banner hold a community town hall meeting on June 7 at the Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe in Wallace to fight the proposed Wallace Grain Elevator.
Of all the corn that the United States exported last year (to the tune of $17 billion), half was handled by grain elevators throughout the Port of South Louisiana. Picture it: from South Dakota to Iowa to Pennsylvania, take about 60 billion swaying cornstalks, and float the harvest down the Mississippi River to the grain elevators of St. James, St. Charles, and St. John the Baptist parishes. The towering grain bunkers that receive and send America’s grain are Oz-like in their fortification and mystery. Each year, they reach over the levee with long metal arms to drop 30 million metric tons of kernels into the deep holds of ships bound for Mexico, Europe, China, and Japan. If there is any industry that is more American than oil, it’s industrial grain.
There is cruel irony in the fact that this flow of money and food moves through a state in which one in six people face hunger on a daily basis. The only state with higher percentages of food-insecure residents is Mississippi (through which much of that grain also flows). It is, in part, the persistence of this lopsided power dynamic that has set off a firestorm of opposition to the proposed addition of a new grain elevator to this formidable network within the Port, in a bend of the river on the far end of the Westbank of St. John the Baptist Parish.
The $400 million development slated for the town of Wallace is being pushed by a newly established, Denver-based LLC called Greenfield Louisiana. The group applied for permits to build 54 grain silos along the river, connected by a system of aerial conveyor belts, along with a new railroad spur and a new dock. The operation would run 24 hours a day and span 248 acres (the Superdome by comparison covers 52 acres). Some parts of the facility will only be 100 yards from nearby homes and about 300 feet tall—5 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty— high enough that they would effectively delay the sunrise for Wallace residents.
Dr. Joy Banner lives in one of those homes, right on the edge of the development line, and she has been organizing against the grain elevator along with her sister Jo and other community members since March. “I know that grain sounds so wholesome, and it’s farming,” she says, acknowledging the challenge of convincing people that a grain elevator is something worth fighting against. But aside from the health effects of grain dust, of which there are many, and the way the project would fundamentally alter her quiet corner of the world, Banner’s issues with the project go deeper. “It’s the connection between the plantations and now us as descendant communities. There’s this whole history of displacement, you know, and the fact that our ancestors were given the scraps of land that weren’t considered valuable,” she says, “It’s just the same level of distrust, of extraction, and exploitation.”
It is rare today to meet a person as firmly rooted in a place as Joy Banner is in Wallace. She is a meticulous researcher, including of her family’s history, and she holds lifetimes’ worth of stories and memories of her hometown, a community of about 1,000 people. I set out to learn about the fight against Greenfield, but I came away with a much older story of grassroots community resistance and Black self-determination, which Banner’s family has been an intimate part of, in one single place, since the 1700s.
That history spans centuries, but Banner has a way of connecting all the tendrils. “The West Africans,” she says, “their sense of time always relates back to the people that came before us. They are embodied in who we are now, and will be embodied in what we bring forward.” She works as the director of communications at the Whitney Plantation Museum, which sits on the same land where relatives of hers were once enslaved. The land surrounding the museum, which recorded some of the highest sugarcane yields in the region, is still actively farmed and encircles the streets where she and her distant family live. (Banner spoke to ANTIGRAVITY as a member of the Wallace community and not on behalf of the Whitney Plantation.)
Hand-in-hand with Banner’s knowledge of the history comes her visceral attachment to the place: the green of the sugarcane as you come down off the Mississippi River bridge and take a u-turn into town, the texture of the okra and tomatoes brought to her door from a cousin’s garden, birds loud enough to interrupt a phone call, the hum of barge traffic on the river, and the smells from the plants on the other side. A north wind means the rotting smell of sugarcane from the Colonial Sugar refinery, where her grandfather and great-grandfather once worked. A more northeasterly wind brings the smell of Noranda Alumina and its dust which stains white shoes and dogs’ paws dark red.
Other memories are specific catalysts for her activism. “I have a vivid memory of getting off the school bus,” she says. “My parents worked and they didn’t get off until about 4:30 or 5, so me and my sister would stop off to my grandparents and have our afternoon snacks and, you know, get a chance to chat with my grandparents. It was one of my favorite memories.” But when she walked into the den one afternoon, there was an unexpected sight: a stranger sitting with her grandmother and talking. The sight of this white man from across the river grew more regular, though. “He was there almost every single evening, that man was there!” she says. “He knew we were a Catholic family, and so he brought her this plaque with praying hands. It had a prayer on it.”
His name was Durel Matherne, and he was there, Banner learned, to convince the family and others along their quiet street to sell their land. A Taiwanese chemical company called Formosa Plastics Corporation was in the process of buying the former plantation land next door to their property to build a $700 million rayon pulp factory. “They came and infiltrated our family. They became part of our family,” she says, and recalls her grandparents being told, “You have nicer houses, so we’re gonna use those as management offices. We won’t tear your houses down.”
Her family stayed, in part because Formosa caved under community opposition. It then came to light that Durel Matherne was involved in a kickback scheme involving then-Parish President Lester Millet. In 1995, Matherne became federal prosecutors’ star witness in a trial that saw Millet sentenced to 57 months in federal prison. He was found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and racketeering involving the Formosa land transfer. The details of the kickback scheme are shocking, and show how the Banner family and their neighbors in Wallace were treated as pawns by Millet, the most powerful official in the parish. Court documents paint Millet as a dogged, abusive, and almost desperate character in his quest to get a $200,000 cut from the sale of the land next to the Banners’ property. “Millet,” write federal judges in one decision, “promised Formosa that if it purchased the Whitney Plantation for the rayon facility, he would use his authority to push through the needed rezoning and would ensure Formosa obtained the necessary deep water access for the facility. Millet planned to do this by ‘convincing,’ through threats of expropriation if necessary, owners of property adjacent to the Whitney (Wallace tracts) to convey their property to Formosa.”
For Banner, there is specific power in this memory with legal implications today. The cozying up to her family, complete with the plaque with the praying hands, was Matherne and Millet’s way of doing this “convincing,” relying on old power dynamics in the parish to move people out and move in a wealthy corporation. It has helped shape the way Banner sees the forces that move the contours of the land and dictate the economic development of the region. More than three decades later, she looks back on the Formosa experience and can see clearly how the family was played. It helps her to see—symbolically and legally—how the community is still being played today with the grain elevator. “We thought we had no choice but to sell our land because Formosa kept winning. You know, the land got rezoned, so we thought, yeah, we’re gonna sell it because we’re going to be too close to this plant, and who wants to live next to that?” But Banner says there was a crucial piece of information that no one in the family was told back then, and the same basic fact is being withheld from the community today: that residents are legally entitled to buffer zones between homes and industry.
Banner is reassured by the success of the Formosa fight and looks to the community who organized back then as a model. “Even though it did not look like we were going to win, the community, just a couple of community members, still stayed strong,” she says. “And so that’s the same thing we want to do with this.” She tells me about one vocal holdout of the early ‘90s fight, Wilfred Greene, who owned a slice of the river batture that had been in his family since 1874 and absolutely refused to sell, rallying neighbors against the project. At a “jambalaya and beer” party after Formosa moved on, Greene spoke about company officials, according to The New York Times. “They came in like carpetbaggers with bags of money,” he said. “I had reached the point where I was willing to lose my property in the defense of it.”
This Cargill grain elevator, damaged during Hurricane Ida, reflects the size and scope of these terminals. This facility handled 9% of U.S. seaborne exports of corn, soybeans, and wheat in 2021.
Three decades after that fight, much remains eerily unchanged. For one, the fight with Formosa has reappeared upriver in St. James Parish, where the company set its sights on another tract of land for an even bigger plastics factory. Then, shortly after the community organized an initiative called Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator, a stranger from across the river showed up at the Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe, which Jo and Joy Banner operate in Wallace. He is the owner of LaPlace-based Rollo Security Services, which Banner says has been a rare on-the-ground advocate for the project. He told Jo that the development would be good for the community and that it would be “tucked away” from the cafe and houses. Joy tells me, “[Jo] said, ‘I’ve looked at your plans. It’s 250 acres, and you have structures as tall as 300 feet, how are you going to tuck that away?’ And when he realized that she knew what she was talking about, he was like, ‘Oh, okay, well,” and he left.
The Banner sisters, through a nonprofit they founded called The Descendants Project, have spelled out legal problems with the grain elevator in a series of letters to the parish government, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). They had founded the organization before the announcement of the grain elevator as a project to reverse the contemporary legacies of slavery faced by descendents of enslaved people. The letters question the legality of the rezoning of the land, considering the history of Millet’s conviction. Banner tells me, “It was changed to industrial as a result of the parish president taking a bribe, being convicted, and going to jail for it. No one went back in and said, ‘Nope, this is not valid anymore.’” They also claim that even with proper zoning, the development appears to violate a parish rule that requires 2,000 feet of space between residents and industry. The distance in the plans is closer to 200 feet.
Also included in the documents are the health effects of the grain dust, which can contribute to respiratory disease (as much as 8 million metric tons of grain would be stored at the facility at a given time). The company would be permitted to emit 81 tons of inhalable particulate matter and as much as 37 tons of fine particulate matter per year. Both categories are fine enough to enter the lungs and can bring toxins from surrounding chemical plants into the bloodstream. “Wallace,” opponents of the project note, “is at the 99th percentile for cancer risk from air toxics, and 85th percentile for respiratory hazard health impacts” according to the EPA. Citing the region’s disproportionate health burdens, the United Nations in March released a stark report saying, “the further industrialization of so-called ‘Cancer Alley’ in the southern United States, known for its pollution-emitting chemical plants, should be halted.”
The letters also highlight a point that sits at the heart of Banner’s opposition to the project. Buried in Greenfield’s permit applications were maps that omitted Banner’s street and others in Wallace. The Port of South Louisiana, in its application for federal funds to build a dock for the site, also omitted streets in Wallace, along with a cemetery, church, and the Whitney Plantation Museum. “They drew up plans for their sites, submitted them, but completely left our streets off of them. That’s one of the things that we argue, that they’re literally erasing Black people. It is literally Black erasure,” Banner says.
When I asked which legal argument had the best shot at stopping the project, Banner’s answer cut more deeply. “It comes back to what our ancestors thought about land. When it came down to reparations, people said, ‘I don’t want a job that you pay me for, I want the land.’ Because land is independence, land is power, land is freedom. And I think that it all comes back to the land. If you pay attention to your land use plan, if you understand the way ordinances work, and the way zoning works, and buffer zones, and who’s buying your land, then I think it will tell you the plan, the designs that somebody else has for your community. It’s a warning sign. When you take away people from their land, you’re taking away their power.”
Banner points to the fact that the community has been denied involvement in the decision-making or public hearings about the development. The DNR originally waived its public meeting requirement for Greenfield but is now reconsidering its decision after community pushback. Parish officials also have refused to put the grain elevator on the public agenda and have not responded to letters requesting a response. Banner only found out about Greenfield’s permit applications when approached by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which provides pro bono legal counsel and now represents Banner and other community members. Parish councilmember Kurt Becnel, who represents Wallace, when contacted about the project said, “I do not talk about the grain elevator to no one.”
When Banner left Wallace years ago, she earned a Ph.D. in communications, taught business courses for eight years, and lived in Austin, one of the most vibrant and fastest growing cities in the United States; but she still came back to Wallace. She moved home, she said, “because I didn’t have any roots in Austin. I didn’t have that sense of heritage and culture that was my own. So I felt like a transplant there.” Living in Wallace, Banner knows her power, much of which seems to come from the strength of her memories and sense of place. “I was really fostered by my grandparents and my grandmother, who just painted such a rich picture of life along the river. I didn’t realize how much that was a part of me until I left it,” she says.
At the heart of community meetings and protests, in the potential shadow of the grain elevator, is the Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe, which Joy and her sister Jo opened in 2019. It’s named after the mysterious light that flickers over the swamp, a favorite story of their late grandmother. The cafe is a small pink Creole cottage tucked under a 300-year-old live oak tree at the end of Alexis Court where they serve pralines, T-cakes, and coffee. For about half the lifespan of the live oak, the recipe for the T-cakes, a.k.a. petits gâteaux, has been in their family: a hallmark of Joy and Jo’s great-great-grandmother, Camelia Aubert Alexis, who was a well-known midwife in the region. Today, elders in the community who she brought into the world come to the cafe and enjoy the cakes she would bring to the families when she delivered their babies.
Next to the huge oak is a young bottlebrush tree. The Banners planted it in memory of their ancestor, Anthony Brown, who was sold from North Carolina to the owners of Laura Plantation in 1829. He is one of the Banners’ many not-so-distant relatives who were enslaved on plantations in the River Parishes. He was owned by six different people by the time he was 21 years old.
She can see the strength of her family’s rootedness when Black customers come into the cafe and see the old photos of Banner’s relatives displayed there. The reactions convey the sheer power of this connection to genealogy and is fueled by the fact that many Black Americans have so often been denied that connection. “It means so much for them to see, to know that we have pictures of our great-great-grandparents,” she says. “Me, being able to trace my ancestry specifically back to a plantation, you know, being able to have access to documents—they’re sales documents — but at least I have that. And so many people, you know, just that history is unknown to them.”
The history as she describes it is edifying. “It’s making me feel more complete,” Banner says. “Because I think a lot of times, we’re still trying to convince ourselves even as Black Americans that we deserve to be here, that it’s our right to be here, that we’ve contributed, just as much if not more than anybody, that our blood, sweat and tears are in this land. But when people don’t allow you to acknowledge the land and dig into the history of it all, they really are playing with your sense of belonging.”
Banner’s vision for her community is one of restorative economic progress. She wants to see an economic analysis that studies small business opportunities in the region, something that has yet to be done. Her vision is focused on a sense of autonomy for communities, of taking back an autonomy that was denied during plantation days and continues to be denied to communities that are steamrolled by industrial forces. On the other hand, the Port of South Louisiana, which boasts a $14 billion economic footprint across the River Parishes, has a four-point mission statement about foreign investment and “resident industry” but makes no mention of the people who call the place home.
photos by Julie Dermansky
plaque image courtesy of feefolaycafe.com