Willow Grove Cemetery is one of the historic sites near where the grain elevator would be constructed.

Willow Grove Cemetery is one of the historic sites near where the grain elevator would be constructed. Akasha Rabut/ ProPublica

Grain Elevator Project Could Destroy African American Historical Sites, Preservation Agency Says

Following ProPublica's reporting, a federal agency says that a proposed grain elevator in Louisiana could harm a historic plantation and asks why a report was changed to minimize discussion of possible damage.

The federal agency charged with overseeing historic preservation policy has expressed concern that a Louisiana industrial project could inflict harm on African American historic sites. The move follows a ProPublica investigation that found an archeological consulting firm had gutted a report to the Army Corps of Engineers that originally detailed that harm.

In a letter sent last week to the Army Corps, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation said it is aware that the report commissioned by the developer of the project “has been challenged by the original author of the report.” It went on to state: “The ACHP requests that the Corps clarify how it will address this issue.” The Corps is considering a permit application from the project’s developer.

Greenfield, a Colorado-based agricultural company, plans to build a grain transfer facility, which would stretch for more than a mile from the Mississippi River through sugar cane fields. The grain terminal has been contested by community and advocacy groups that say the project would make life untenable in parts of Wallace, a small, nearly all-Black community. They also argue that the project would damage important historical sites, including the nearby Whitney Plantation Museum, which serves as a memorial to generations of people forced to work the fields against their will, and the Evergreen Plantation, an unusually intact plantation that’s been designated a national landmark.

Greenfield has said that its project will not harm any historic properties. As evidence, it cited a survey it commissioned. But that report, produced by a consulting firm called Gulf South Research Corporation to allow Greenfield to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, was altered dramatically before it was submitted to the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation.

The letter sent last week to the Army Corps was written by Jaime Loichinger, an assistant director at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, who said in an interview that ProPublica’s story had raised questions about the “validity of the report” and spurred the agency’s intervention.

The Army Corps, Loichinger said, must “take steps to supplement or replace” the report that was altered “to make sure that they [the Corps] have a full and complete understanding of the historic properties.”

The original draft of the report had concluded that the development would harm historic properties including the Whitney Plantation Museum. The report’s authors had written that the entire area around Whitney and the Wallace community should be characterized as a historic district.

According to internal Gulf South company emails that ProPublica obtained and to one of the drafters of the original report, an architectural historian-turned-whistleblower named Erin Edwards, the firm was told by its client to change the report or risk losing the Greenfield contract and other future contracts.

In its letter to the Army Corps, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation echoed the findings of the original report.

“We understand that most of the residents of the community of Wallace are the descendants of the African Americans who labored as slaves on the Whitney and Evergreen Plantations prior to emancipation and continued as farm laborers and tenant farmers after emancipation,” the letter says. “As such, there appears to be potential for an historic district associated with this descendant community and an encompassing cultural landscape.”

Gulf South previously denied that it had changed the findings because of pressure and said it stood by the content of the final report. Greenfield said it would respect any historic sites discovered in the course of construction. “Protecting historic and cultural resources is a priority in our discussions with the Corps of Engineers,” the company said in response to questions about the recent Advisory Council on Historic Preservation letter. “We take our responsibilities as stewards of this land very seriously.”

The project has drawn recent condemnation from other prominent voices in the weeks since the ProPublica investigation. Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans and current president of the National Urban League, whose own ancestors were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation, sent a letter to Greenfield’s executives on June 3 to express his “unequivocal and vigorous opposition to your ill-advised plans to develop a massive grain elevator complex” and noting his concern about the “silencing of an unfavorable independent assessment.”

And on June 21, the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, the state’s leading preservation organization, placed the land around Wallace and the Whitney Plantation on its 2022 “most endangered places” list.

“Plans for a large-scale grain elevator, port and other industrial development will change this corridor’s historic integrity and destroy the overall quality of life for local residents,” the Louisiana Trust said in a press release.

The Army Corps is only now beginning its permit review. The Corps previously told ProPublica that it has concerns about possible harm to historic sites. The Corps said last week that it will be in touch with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation this week and will then respond more formally.

Greenfield has already begun work on the land. In late May, it informed Wallace residents that it planned to drive large metal beams into the ground in a sugar cane field to determine whether construction could proceed as planned.

The Descendants Project, an organization that aims to build power among communities who trace their ancestry to people enslaved in the river parish communities, raised the prospect that the work could disturb the unmarked graves of enslaved people. As part of an ongoing lawsuit the group is pursuing, The Descendants Project asked a Louisiana judge to impose a restraining order on Greenfield’s planned “pre-construction” testing on the property.

“You’re talking about people’s final resting place,” Joy Banner, one of two sisters from Wallace who founded The Descendants Project, said on June 3 in a packed courtroom. “That’s why we are here today: because we don’t know where our ancestors are buried.”

Greenfield’s lawyer said that “there’s been no testimony at all about specific burials” in precisely the sites where the company planned to begin driving in piles. He claimed that Greenfield would incur financial losses if it was barred from beginning pile-driving work on its property.

The judge denied the emergency restraining order. Days later, the Army Corps separately refused a request from the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic to stop the pile driving, saying it had no jurisdiction because the work on its own would not impact wetlands.

Greenfield’s builders began pounding massive beams into the ground near the Banners’ family home on June 17 and continued the work on June 20 — a federal holiday commemorating Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people.

“I think they are trying to send the message that this project can’t be stopped, and that they’re moving forward,” said Jo Banner, Joy’s sister. “The cranes are there and they’re acting like they have the permit.”

In its letter, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation made clear its belief that the permit, and Greenfield’s plans, should not be treated as an inevitability, and it reminded the Corps of its responsibility to consider environmental justice in permitting decisions. “A federal agency should consider alternatives in a way that gives full consideration to the effects of that undertaking on historic properties,” the letter said.