SACRED GROUND: UNEARTHING BURIED HISTORY AT THE BONNET CARRÉ SPILLWAY


This story belongs to those who did not have the freedom to write their own, and to those whose voices were stolen and silenced. This is a story about enslaved and formerly enslaved African and African American people who deserve more than words. It is a story about control of a river and erasure of bodies. But it is also about indefatigable Black struggle for spiritual reparations and the persistence of the soul…


THE FEAT OF ENGINEERING

…Timothy, George, Georgina, Catiche, Hector, Sophia, June, Dora, Joshua, Prissy, Hetty, Ellen, Gilbert, Andrew, Joseph, Amelia, Virginia, Peolla, Piota, Sarah, Cyprus, Gammoner…

Centuries topple in on themselves during a 30 minute drive out of New Orleans on River Road, the historic byway that runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans all the way to Cairo, Illinois. As it was ardently promoted throughout the 20th century, the “Great River Road” was about as all-American of a family road trip as one could possibly take. From a new affordably-priced automobile, you could take in the natural wonder of the Mighty Mississippi, exploring its many peoples and cuisines while marveling at the industries that fed and powered the United States of America.

In 2019, however, the stretch of River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is not quite as picturesque. Lined with petrochemical refineries and ocean-going tankers operating mere feet from preserved plantation homes, old and new capitalist enterprises collapse into Southern Gothic mise-en-scène.

If you drive a little slower and look beyond the manicured plantation homes and between the belching smokestacks, there are modest wooden houses and churches. Many are tucked away behind chain-link fences with chemical contamination warnings. For the patient traveler, another 20 miles or so down River Road you encounter a piece of federal engineering called the Bonnet Carré Spillway, near the town of Norco in St. Charles Parish. Bonnet Carré, which means “square hat” in French, was the name given to the area from modern day LaPlace to Norco. Here, the Mississippi River makes an S-like curve, forming a rectangular tract of land that resembles a once-fashionable type of women’s bonnet. References are made to several locations dubbed “Bonnet Carré” as early as the 18th century.

As you pull up to the levee, a long weir comes into view. The imposing concrete and metal structure looks like a low railroad trestle. You have to squint a bit to see to the other side. Huge vertical pieces of wood form a gate structure beneath the concrete, separating the Mississippi River from miles of open floodplain. Levees frame the sides of the spillway all the way to Lake Pontchartrain, creating a giant earthen catch basin. Signs dot the otherwise flat, marshy landscape, directing visitors to ATV areas, bike trails, model airplane fields, and bird watching areas.

Right before the land dips down into the spillway basin, there is a little U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) office. Usually a retired or non-active service member sits at the desk and welcomes you, offering to play a video about the history of the spillway. The video begins with the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 that devastated both New Orleans and the River Parishes. Over the next two decades, the U.S. government responded by funding the Mississippi River & Tributary Project, a massive undertaking to control the Mississippi River through public works. These plans were administered and implemented by the Mississippi River Commission, a federally-appointed board established in 1879. The Commission includes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officers, a member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (formerly the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey), and civilians from the private engineering and business sectors. To develop the plan for this extensive system of flood control infrastructure over the next 30 years, the commission created several iterations of “Project Design Flood,” a predictive model for the impact of river flooding based on historical data. The Bonnet Carré Spillway was a key element of the initial plan, along with other spillways, a levee system, floodwalls, and dredging. The spillway was hailed as a great feat of engineering that would serve as the last line of defense for New Orleans against catastrophic annual floods. The entire structure functions as a safety valve between the river and Lake Pontchartrain. When the river gets too high, cranes remove the wooden pins and release the excess water into the spillway. Constructed at the height of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1931, the project employed many residents. L’Observateur, a bi-weekly 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.” Later, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), built roads along the levees on either side of the spillway.

The Army Corps of Engineers (New Orleans District) still manages the spillway. Throughout the mid 20th century, the spillway was used infrequently—about once every ten years, with a record 23 quiet years between 1950 and 1973. Since the 1980s, however, usage has increased, reaching a crescendo just this year. February 27, 2019 marked the unprecedented opening two years in a row.

But control of the Mississippi River always comes with a human cost. Included in the $13,266,000 price tag was “land acquisition.” But the land “acquired” by the USACE was not vacant. Cruel sacrifices were made at the altar of engineering.


Map of Bonnet Carré Spillway, with small “Vicinity map courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1974.25.18


“THE HELL OF ST. CHARLES PARISH”

…Nancy, Milly, Abraham, Thornton, Levi, Mesiah, Walter, Joseph, Phillis, Matilda, Troy…

The spillway exists on the site of four 19th century sugar plantations. St. Charles Parish was at the heart of chattel slavery during the antebellum period (1789–1861). Due to its proximity to New Orleans, enslaved Africans and African Americans were easily transported from New Orleans’ auction blocks to the canefields of the River Parishes. Following the journey of a young enslaved woman through the Middle Passage, Black feminist historian Saidiya Hartman references “the road that led to the hell of St. Charles Parish.” Here, hundreds of other enslaved Africans and African Americans would endure lives of backbreaking and degrading labor on this land, often severed from kin, and subjected to torturous physical, psychological, and spiritual punishment, routine sexual assault, and malnutrition at the hands of owners and overseers.

After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved people remained on plantations as sharecroppers or wage laborers under an oppressive system designed to keep them indebted to plantation owners. Those who saved enough money to buy their own land moved to small neighboring towns founded by other formerly enslaved people.

[pullquote]Lined with petrochemical refineries and ocean-going tankers operating mere feet from preserved plantation homes, old and new capitalist enterprises collapse into Southern Gothic mise-en-scène.[/pullquote]

Records exist about the men, women, and children who toiled on this soil—overseers’ diaries, plantation financial records, legal proceedings, newspaper articles, and woodcuts. And there are names: Lists of men who were rewarded for good behavior with winter shirts in November. Lists of infant deaths and “ruptured” field hands. Insurance lawsuits over men lost in the 19th century floods at the site of the present-day spillway. Those lost to natural and unnatural causes were buried in two cemeteries at the back of the plantations. These cemeteries were in use until 1928, on the eve of spillway construction.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Delhommer, Roseland, Myrtleland, and Hermitage plantations became the townships of Montz and Sellers. The town of Sellers—named after the town’s pastor—was later renamed “Norco” in 1934 after the arrival of the Northern Oil Refinery Company.

In oral histories recorded in the 1980s, residents of Norco and Montz describe how difficult it was for Black people to find work at this time. One woman recounts that her mother was lucky. She found work as a laundress. Another woman tells a story of her mother working as a field hand. As a child, she took dinner to her every night in the fields because she worked until after sundown.

CULTURAL RESOURCE INVENTORIES

…Catherine, Osway, Persille, Louinda, Delphine, Richard, Lucy, Indy, Harry, Daron, Clara, Phillis, Edmund, Polly, Selim, Shelby, Tanner, Poly Cox, Jackson, Henderson, Moses, Caroline, Adde, Hannah, David, Brenette, Julia, Ned, Sally…

When construction on the Bonnet Carré Spillway began in 1929, the Army Corps of Engineers demolished Montz to make room for the flood plain. Homes, churches, and the two former plantation cemeteries were plowed under. These churches—Good Hope Baptist Church in Norco and Providence Baptist Church in Montz—were relocated during spillway construction, and remain open today.

As for the cemeteries, residents of Montz and Norco informed project administrators and non-local workers of the cemeteries and their locations during construction. One former USACE employee recounts that the USACE had purchased a small plot of land, the site of a present day playground, to re-inter the deceased. This was never done, and there is no government record of provisions for the cemeteries during construction.

In 1975, after over 40 years of operation, the Corps opened the spillway for the fifth time. Afterward, when crews came in to move land around and establish drainage ditches, human bones were rising out of the flooded mud. They stopped all work and reported it to administrators.

In 1986, the USACE commissioned a series of extensive archaeological investigations on the history of the land and an inventory of the cemetery artifacts and human remains. These investigations were known as “Cultural Resource Inventories” and contained not just archaeological findings, but extensive oral histories and interviews with residents and descendants, maps of former plantation structures, and genealogical charts. The contracted company, R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, Inc. (led by head archaeologist Jill-Karen Yakubik), went into Montz and Norco to trace possible genealogies and interview citizens. They recorded oral history and went into records of overseers, property records, and other archives in the St. Charles Parish Library. Yakubik’s team was able to piece together an incredible amount of information. The reports confirmed that these were bones of enslaved persons from Roseland, Myrtleland, and Trepagnier Plantations, soldiers from the Corps d’Afrique (one of the first all Black regiments of the Union Army), and free persons of color in St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes.

Work on these Cultural Resource inventories began in 1986, while the cemeteries were quietly placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) the following year. Yakubik, now president of Earth Search Inc., continued studies through the late 2000s. At the end of the studies, the team recommended that the USACE distribute a popular version of the report to schools, libraries, and to the descendants of the people in these cemeteries. They advised further study of these areas. Through examination and testing of human remains, artifacts, and soils, future researchers might uncover important information on diet, anatomy, causes of death, and genomic identities.

The USACE never shared these reports widely, despite the recommendation of the research team. Hard copies of the complete study exist in three locations: The USACE New Orleans District Library, the Baton Rouge office of Louisiana Division of Archaeology, and Tulane University’s Louisiana Special Collections. Though listed in the catalog, the latter cannot be located and may have been lost in Katrina. Although these documents are unclassified, current USACE and state employees who are aware of the reports cite the prevention of grave robbing as the reason why more information isn’t readily available. Unfortunately, even public archives can have big barriers to entry. Schools do not always have funds and time in the curriculum for visits. Teachers’ hours are already limited and exploited. And community members with work and home schedules that do not allow, may never have time off to visit an archive. This kind of structural gatekeeping prevents wider public distribution of this history.


Entry from the diary of a Roseland Plantation overseer, listing the names of men who received new shirts on November 25, 1830. Several were likely interred in the Kenner Cemetery. (Courtesy of Tulane University Special Collections)


“PROJECT RESTING PLACE”

…Thomas, Jacob, Holly, Mary, Flora, Anderson, Olde Elle, Burton, Bricoe, William, Charles, Henry B., Guisally, Little Mary, Celestin, Ada, Ruth, Mark, Lydia, Daniel, Elmos, Rebecca…

In January 2012, a story about the Kenner and Kugler cemeteries (named after their respective white plantation owners) was published by the Times-Picayune, with the headline, “African-American cemeteries plowed over for spillway now recognized as historic.”  The article included photographs of some of the recovered artifacts, and quotes from both descendants and USACE administrators.

In March of 2012, the USACE held a public meeting for the descendants, as well as other interested community members. Attendees showed up with some ideas and insisted that some kind of commemoration and marker was necessary. In response, the Army Corps unveiled “Project Resting Place” in April 2012. Project Resting Place included designs for a walking trail with benches and interpretive panels. A second community meeting was held for comments on Project Resting Place. Residents and descendants offered ideas, corrections, and criticisms of the plan. The minutes of the meeting report that comment cards were distributed and would be taken into consideration. Project Resting Place would be implemented within the next two years.

Descendants and community members submitted 30 cards expressing disgust and disagreement with Project Resting Place. The information along the interpretive trail contained few details and featured a flat, generalized narrative of the Black experience in Southeast Louisiana. For example, the text refers to enslaved persons as “workers and residents,” with no mention of slavery. One of the comment cards reads, “It feels like a war is still being fought over the right to exist.”

[pullquote]In 1975, after over 40 years of operation, the Corps opened the spillway for the fifth time. Afterward, when crews came in to move land around and establish drainage ditches, human bones were rising out of the flooded mud.[/pullquote]

In the 1990s, The African American History Alliance of Louisiana (AAHAL), an organization working to recover, honor, and popularize stories of heroic African American ancestors, first called upon the USACE to commemorate the cemeteries with an interpretive center. The Louisiana Museum of African American History (LMAAH), the successor to AAHAL, continued the struggle, proposing written revisions to the panels in 2012. These revisions (researched by LMAAH chairman, historian, and descendant Leon A. Waters) detailed the oppressive system of chattel slavery affecting the daily lives of the enslaved, as well as information about retained distinct cultural practices, despite centuries of attempted repression by white plantation owners. LMAAH also advised that the name of the cemeteries should be changed from Kenner and Kugler to “African and African American Cemeteries in the Bonnet Carré Spillway.” All of these revisions and critiques are 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.

As of 2019, the USACE has not re-interred or returned the skeletal remains of these ancestors to the graves of the Kenner Cemetery from where they came. Nor has the USACE properly commemorated their lives. The USACE incorporated many of the revisions submitted by LMAAH but the Corps did not publish any interpretive materials. There has been no further movement on Project Resting Place. The skeletal remains and artifacts that surfaced from the Kenner cemetery in 1975 remain housed at the R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, Inc. office (according to the LMAAH). Shamefully, the Kenner and Kugler cemeteries remain unmarked and not properly preserved.

“THERE ARE A LOT OF ‘EM OUT THERE”

Dennis, Harrison, Saunders, Anna, Baptist, Dolly, Frances, Frederick, Madison, Cornelia, Margaret, Justine, Isaac, Ann, Gabriel, Maria, Phil, Sam, Nancy, Eli, Hester, Nina, Monroe, Henry, Mary, Spencer, Enoch, Alford, Perry, Nelson, Aurthur, John Buis Louis, Lattie, Parlor…

The USACE actively seeds and promotes a particular popular narrative of the spillway that does not include this history. It is not lack of public interest, but the institutional repression and diminishing of this story that keeps these sacred sites hidden in plain sight.

In summer of 2012, I walked into the USACE office. I made some small talk, watched the video, and picked up a glossy brochure in the card rack. It had a few sentences about the cemeteries and a photograph of some of the recovered headstones and excavated burial artifacts. When asked about the memorial trail, the USACE office employee warned, “We can’t tell you where the cemeteries are. You can’t disturb them. It is punishable by law for you to disturb them. We don’t want people to rob the graves.”

Even a seemingly simple inquiry regarding the whereabouts of the already recovered and publicized artifacts turned into its own dark saga. The USACE says they are housed at the Louisiana State Archaeological archives. The Louisiana Division of Archaeology claims they have no record and directed me to the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s office. A very kind woman at the office was just as bewildered as I that the state thought this sheriff’s office had been given pieces of a federal archaeological study for safekeeping for 35 years. I reported back to the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, who told me that my inquiries could 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.”

I’m also reminded of a phone call with the Freedom of Information Act records manager. He kept telling me they couldn’t release records I requested because there were “lots of angry Black people out there.” He had a real fear of “the angry Black people” as if he had a responsibility to bar the door. He told me, “There’s a lot of them out there. They want a golden arch over that cemetery and we say to them, ‘take it to your Congressmen if you want anything.’” But due to exchanges like these and years of similar regulatory practices of silencing that happen outside the congressional power structure, such petitions often fall on deaf ears.

To this day, his words haunt me: “There are a lot of them out there.”


Crowds gather for a spillway opening, 1937 and 2016. Top photo excerpted from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictoral History (The Donning Co. Publishers, 2010). Bottom photo courtesy of the author.


PANDORA’S BOX

…George Scrowley, Belford, Stephney, Thornton Smith, Virginia, Old Polly, Manuel, Primus, Moses, Harry, Jerry, Charles H., Chaim, Rachel…

Time marches forward. Many more spring floods come to Louisiana. Local news outlets report readings at the Carrollton gauge, a giant wooden ruler that measures the depth of the water just as the river begins its distinctive bend toward the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River is “cresting,” as hydrologists say. Snow melt from Minnesota meanders to the Midwest, early spring rains come to Missouri and Arkansas, the water picks up steam as it gushes downstream…

12 feet. Flood Stage 1. All levels are monitored closely and with greater frequency.
13 feet. Raining.
14 feet. Local news stations pick up the story and start interviewing USACE employees.  
15 feet. They must be opening it again, right?
16 feet. The pins have got to be coming out any second now.

According to the USACE, the “trigger point” for opening the spillway is a water flow of 1.25 million cubic feet per second, which is a reading of approximately 17 feet at the Carrollton gauge.

17 feet. We are officially at “Flood State.” Pack the picnics and fishing poles.

Hundreds of people make a pilgrimage down River Road. Families holding hands, women with strollers, elderly couples, teenage cliques. Some take the high road, up on the levee, others walk on the shoulder. Some carry coolers of beer and sandwiches. Others tromp along with fishing gear. With the exception of St. Ann’s Parade, I’ve never seen that many people in Louisiana awake and walking at that hour.

I go to pay respects quietly. My friends and I share fliers, postcards, and historical information with the crowd—not so quietly. We direct interested parties to the Louisiana Museum of African American History.

The 250 to 300 burials of Africans and African Americans were invisible to the majority white families picnicking and fishing (in 1931, 1937, 1945, 1950, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1997, 2008, 2011, 2016, 2018, and 2019), invisible to friendly fishermen (until I tell them as they breathlessly scoop netfulls of shad into their pickups), and invisible to the teenagers who go “mudding” when the water subsides. They do donuts in the swampy floodplain, spraying walls of dark brown clay up on the the sides of the levees. We exchange solemn nods. Neither party understands what the other is up to. Here we all are, in a landscape that looks like the end of all things.

photo by Robin McDowell

In the Bonnet Carré Spillway, the living walk with the heroic deceased, animated in quieter moments at the dinner table and the pew. They have always existed. When the gates open, I imagine the great rebels of the 1811 Slave Revolt charging across the floodplain with members of the Corps d’Afrique. And as they make their way across the spillway, they are joined by Charity, Emily, Jeffrey, Alexander, Hercules, Susan, Elizabeth, Cecil, Diana, Delsey, Kellsey, Solomon, Talbot, Prosper, Jerry, Marriane, Olga, Morris, American, Peter, Eliza, Rose, Simon, Milly, Rosaline, Louisia, Washington, Delia, Hannibal, Niolie, Phada, Primus, Lucy…

To many descendants, myself, and others who may not know yet but feel the weight, learning about these cemeteries is a chance for a beginning, grounds for spiritual and material reparations, a means to re-ignite struggle through public history. Bones may be scattered in the flood waters. Crosses and stones marking burials may be lost in the ether of state power. But the souls of those Africans and African Americans in St. Charles Parish who worked, lived, loved, laughed, and fought like hell to provide for their families and live whole and healthy lives are unbreakable. Their names must not be lost.


Top photo: Aerial view of Bonnet Carré Spillway flowing into Lake Ponchartrain, courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Dode Platou, 1976.6.1 

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