Judge Allows Juneteenth Gathering at Former Slave Cemetery

The ruling allows access for one hour on Juneteenth to commemorate people buried on an old slave plantation in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.

Oilfield and plastics plants sit in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley on old plantation lands once worked by slaves, who are buried there. (Courthouse News photo/Sabrina Canfield)

CONVENT, La. (CN) — A judge in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” on Thursday affirmed his ruling granting a restraining order to allow citizens to enter a newly discovered slave burial site to pay homage to their ancestors for one hour on Friday, Juneteenth. 

The cemetery is one of perhaps many others recently discovered on thousands of acres of former sugarcane fields acquired in 2018 by Taiwanese single-use plastics manufacturer Formosa Plastics, once named the worst polluter in the world.

Formosa Plastics said at the end of the hearing Thursday it would seek an emergency appeal at a state appeals court. That appeal was denied Thursday evening.

State Judge Emile R. St. Pierre said from the bench of the 23rd Judicial District courthouse Thursday afternoon that his decision earlier this week to allow plaintiff Rise St. James, a faith-based organization of mostly local residents, still stood.

“Honoring the dead is sacred to everyone who has existed, and in Louisiana, we are taught that cemeteries are special,” St. Pierre said at the conclusion of the hearing. “We pay homage. There are basic rights that are paramount — like visiting a cemetery, and that’s why I signed [the order].”

St. Pierre said the cane field on which the cemetery sits is empty, so getting to the site should not pose a problem.

“This is empty land. These rights are sacred, and we need healing. We should have some good citizenry from our corporate neighbors,” St. Pierre said. 

St. Pierre granted access to the site Monday in a 2-page temporary restraining order that prohibited Formosa Plastics from blocking access to the Buena Vista Plantation Cemetery on its property from 11 a.m. until noon Friday for a Juneteenth prayer service.

Formosa Plastics, which owns the old plantation cemetery, was once named the worst polluter in the world. (Courthouse News photo/Sabrina Canfield)

“Constitutional rights are at stake and defendants will not suffer financial harm or other damages as a result of plaintiffs’ prayer and peaceful ceremony on the cemetery, which is in an open, empty field,” St. Pierre wrote.

In their request for the restraining order, plaintiffs asked for access to the cemetery under the Louisiana cemetery dedication law. The law grants access to cemeteries for descendants and friends of the deceased.

But James C. Percy, an attorney for Formosa, told St. Pierre there is no connection between the members of Rise St. James and the bodies buried in the Buena Vista Plantation Cemetery.

Percy said at the Thursday hearing that the cemetery law can be invoked only under three criteria — “food, friends or relatives” — none of which, he said, apply to plaintiffs.

Before making that comment, Percy said during his sometimes-rambling argument that for St. Pierre to allow plaintiffs the one-hour access to the burial site was analogous to granting them access to a refrigerator that had been stolen by a neighbor and was in the neighbor’s home.

Percy called the issue “far more significant than trespassing for one hour.” Because the order “disturbs the status quo,” Percy said St. Pierre could not grant the temporary restraining order without holding an evidentiary hearing.

The judge was not persuaded.

“People are hurting. This would be a good time to heal,” St. Pierre said after Percy’s rebuttal.

Pamela Spees, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, appeared on behalf of Rise St. James on Thursday.

In her 32-page request for a restraining order filed earlier in the week, Spees said her clients had asked several times to enter the property but that Formosa had given no reply.

“Junteenth is a deeply significant holiday for plaintiffs, who are African American residents of the Fourth and Fifth Districts of St. James Parish,” Spees wrote.

June 19 is the day that enslaved people in Texas learned of their emancipation, 2½ years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Louisianans seeking access to an old slave cemetery demonstrate against Formosa Plastics on Thursday in at the 23rd Parish Courthouse in Louisiana. (Courthouse News photo/Sabrina Canfield)

“Juneteenth is especially important for plaintiffs this year,” Spees’ request continued, “as communities around the state and the country struggle through the Covid-19 crisis which has had a disproportionate impact on black communities, and through the collective upheaval in this country necessitated by more killings of black people, tragically underscoring the enduring failure to fully reckon with and account for the traumatic history of slavery and its modern vestiges.” 

The document continues: “The discovery of the burial site on a former plantation has had a significant and meaningful impact on plaintiffs and African American members of the communities in St. James and descendants of people enslaved on what was called the Buena Vista Plantation.”

St. Pierre, a white Republican and four-term judge from the 29th Judicial District Court in St. Charles Parish not far from St. James Parish, came out of partial retirement in March when he was named by the Louisiana Supreme Court as a fill-in after an Assumption Parish judge was forced to resign because of racial slurs, including the N-word, she used in reference to a court employee and a deputy in text messages to her ex-lover, a chief sheriff’s deputy.

The judicial district spans Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes (Louisiana has parishes rather than counties), and judges rotate among the dockets in the courthouses in each parish. 

The rural areas that lie along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and include the area where the Convent courthouse and Formosa Plastics’ proposed site are is rich in architecturally significant plantation homes and the fertile soil was once abundant in crops tended by slaves. Today, factories and refineries replace the crops in portions of the district that lie inside what has become known as Cancer Alley.

Formosa Plastics’ 2018 property acquisition spurred local claims of environmental racism but came with the blessing of Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and the help of local taxpayers’ money, including $1.4 billion in local property tax exemptions, according to the Advocate newspaper and local government, including a $12 million grant to offset infrastructure costs and a hold on property taxes for the next decade.

The name Cancer Alley originated in the 1980s because of residents’ poor health and environmental pollution n an 85-mile stretch of fertile land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is becoming increasingly industrial but was at one time agricultural and heavily populated with prolific plantations that were made possible by the work of slaves.

Formosa Plastics’ new plant, slated to become one of the largest single-site ethylene production complexes in the world, will emit thousands of tons of volatile organic compounds, particulates and nitrogen oxides a year, according to its permit application. Environmental groups say it will also result in the destruction of 100 acres of wetlands in St. James Parish.

Neither Formosa Plastics nor the office of Gov. John Bel Edwards immediately replied to emailed requests for comment. 

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