Out on Their Own

Concerns about pollution are driving slave descendants from their ancestral land

NORCO, LA.—Margie Eugene-Richard's roots run deep here on a former sugar plantation where in 1811 slaves joined the largest American slave revolt and marched on New Orleans, 25 miles away. After the uprising had been suppressed, 21 rebels were decapitated, their heads displayed on poles along nearby River Road as a warning to other slaves. "My ancestors were part of it," says Eugene-Richard, a retired schoolteacher. "They were among the ones marching for our freedom."

They were also among the many slaves emancipated from the Diamond Plantation who after the Civil War settled on the land they had been forced to work. Like generations of her family before her, Eugene-Richard lived there. But three years ago, worried that pollution from nearby Shell Chemical LP industry was damaging her health, she sold her house to the company and moved outside the plantation boundary.

"I hated to leave historic things," Eugene-Richard says, meaning her entire neighborhood.

She was following her own advice. For more than a decade, Eugene-Richard has led Diamond residents in a campaign to demand that Shell buy their homes so that they can distance themselves from the smokestack emissions of a Shell oil refinery a mile away and a Shell chemical plant, which has expanded within 25 feet of several lots. The community has shrunk from 1,000 people to 40, as most of the settlers' descendants have sold their birthright to protect their health. Only a few holdouts preserve their family ties to the property.

"As far as my health and safety go, I'm glad I moved," says Iris Carter, who was diagnosed with asthma two years ago and now lives about an hour away. "As for my roots, I didn't want to leave."

Eugene-Richard's ancestors settled on the Diamond Plantation in a community named Belltown. In the 1950s, displaced by the chemical plant, Eugene-Richard's parents and their neighbors merged with nearby Wattstown, another community of slave descendants, to form Diamond. For nearly three generations, Diamond residents lived in tiny clapboard houses that were built for the relocation. A few, more affluent neighbors built small brick houses. As families grew, lots were parceled off and adult children moved trailers and doublewides into the neighborhood. Diamond expanded to four rough streets, with 400 homes and two churches on eight blocks.

Evidence of the community has almost vanished. As residents sell, Shell clears the property. Only 10 homes remain.

Diamond lies within Norco, a town that grew in the 1920s around the New Orleans Refining Co. in what is now a heavily polluted stretch of the Mississippi River corridor known as Chemical Alley. In 1997, a survey conducted by Xavier University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice found that 34 percent of Diamond children had asthma and 28 percent had bronchitis.

Shell's independent studies dispute residents' health concerns, saying that the area presents less risk of cancer and fewer threats to health and longevity than other parts of Louisiana. "This isn't really about health," says David Brignac, the company's external affairs manager for sustainable development in Norco. "This is a segment of society that is disadvantaged. Basically, this was a struggle about people who had been wronged through the centuries."

About 85 percent of Diamond property owners have signed agreements to sell their property to Shell, according to Brignac. He characterizes the buyouts as an effort to create a greenbelt around Shell's plants.

A few residents are holding out. Roosevelt Johnson, who lives in a doublewide with his two teenage sons, says Shell offered him less than it gave a neighbor who lived in a small, rundown home. "The prices were very mixed up," he says.

Shell operates the nearby River Road Museum, which displays pictures of several families from the area. The company has also preserved old cypress timbers taken from one Diamond house and may eventually use them in a tribute to Diamond's history. Anne Rolfes, executive director of an environmental group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, wishes Shell had preserved a shanty moved from Belltown to the rear of a house bought by Shell. The shanty was once a slave dwelling whose beams were probably carved by the homeowners' ancestors when they lived on the Diamond Plantation. Shell's demolition team dismantled the shanty and disposed of the timbers.

"In the end," Rolfes says, "Shell is going to own all of this history."

 

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