CONVENT, La. — A major oil company is taking steps to honor once-forgotten slaves buried on its land west of New Orleans in an area where sugar plantations once abounded, an effort that some hope will grow into a larger movement to recognize and protect such cemeteries around the country.
The Shell Oil Company marked, blocked off and spruced up the tracts near its Convent refinery west of New Orleans and held dedication ceremonies in March, about five years after archaeologists confirmed the presence of slave burial grounds in 2013. The company also has been working with the nearby River Road African American Museum to arrange commemorative events and accommodate visitors.
It’s the latest example of the South’s decades-long path to acknowledging unsavory aspects of its history.
For Kathe Hambrick, the director of the River Road museum, the work is the culmination of years of efforts to ensure that Shell honored and remembered those buried on what used to be the Monroe and Bruslie sugar plantations, just two of many plantations that once abounded along the road. Hambrick said there are likely hundreds more such graveyards between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Some of the restored plantations are themselves undergoing a rediscovery, moving away from their romanticized “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of the past to offer a more realistic look at the South’s history of human bondage. One, the Whitney Plantation in the town of Wallace, opened in 2015 as a full-fledged museum with an unvarnished look at the cruelties of slavery.
“We ought to work together to figure out how ... to evaluate the things that we want to preserve, protect and teach about in terms of how this country was really developed,” said A.P. Tureaud Jr., the son of a revered New Orleans civil rights lawyer who counts slaves and slaveowners among his ancestors.
Tureaud, who traveled from his current home in New York to attend March dedication ceremonies for the Monroe and Bruslie sites, has joined with Hambrick in an effort to give slave gravesites federal protection. The two have brought their idea to the attention of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose district includes most of New Orleans.
Vincent deForest, a civil rights activist who helped preserve two slave cemeteries in Washington, D.C., said he and others are urging the Congressional Black Caucus to get involved. DeForest would like to see the National Parks Service undertake a study to identify ways to preserve such sites in every state.
“The wholeness of the living is diminished when the ancestors are not honored,” deForest said, quoting one of his favorite epitaphs.
Sandra Arnold, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, is leading a project to compile a database of slave burial grounds, but notes there is a dearth of records.
“It’s as if their humanity is erased,” Arnold said.
Thurston Hahn, an archaeologist with Baton Rouge-based Coastal Environments Inc., said it’s reasonable to believe many of the slave graveyards along the River Road have been farmed over or covered by levees or petrochemical plants.
“The problem with the slave cemeteries — we just do not know where they are,” he said.
It’s a problem researchers working farther south, in the Louisiana city of Thibodaux, can relate to.
Anthropologists and geophysics experts from Tulane University are among those using radar and soil samples in hopes of discovering the burial sites of dozens of African-American victims of Reconstruction-era racial violence that came to be known as the Thibodaux Massacre.
The descendants of massacre victims and Confederate plantation owners have formed a committee to honor the victims of that violence and, if possible, find a mass grave. If a grave is eventually discovered, they want any remains exhumed and reburied on consecrated ground.
No such grave has yet been discovered.
The Monroe and Bruslie sites were found during land surveys commissioned by Shell as it prepared for a construction project that has since been abandoned for economic reasons not related to the cemetery discoveries.
Ground-penetrating radar and the careful scraping away of topsoil exposed variations of color and texture in the dirt, indicating the presence of graves, Hahn said. The remains of the slaves were not uncovered and the number of graves could only be estimated.
“We don’t want to disturb them at all,” Hahn said. “We are just looking for a shaft that the gravedigger dug to put the burial in.”
Hugues Bourgogne, general manager of the Convent refinery, said Shell wants to honor and respect those buried at the sites. In addition to protecting, preserving and marking the cemeteries, Shell has installed iron benches where visitors can sit, reflect and pay their respects.
Visitation opportunities are limited, however. One day a year will be set aside for planned activities at the sites and Shell will work with descendants and other interested groups to arrange safe access at other times, he said.
Malaika Favorite, an artist and lifelong area resident, says she knows she has ancestors who were enslaved and buried at plantations, but hasn’t been able to isolate the burial sites. Now she feels a little closer to doing that.
“Just making this step with the graves here is a step forward,” she said. “And we need more of that.”