It’s not by chance that 158 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, rural Black communities bear the environmental consequences of Louisiana’s biggest industry. Overlay a map of southern Louisiana’s petrochemical and petroleum plants with archival maps of the area’s plantations, and you’ll find that in many cases the property lines match up. “One oppressive economy begets another,” Barbara L. Allen, a professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech and the author of Uneasy Alchemy, a book on environmental justice in the region, told me over the phone. “The Great River Road was built on the bodies of enslaved Black people. The chemical corridor is responsible for the body burden of their descendants.”
Allen’s research examines the extractive economy: how sugar monocropping transitioned to petrochemical manufacturing. During Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau gave land grants to Black maroons and the formerly enslaved along the lower Mississippi, parceling out slivers of large plantations to extended-family groups as part of reparations, while returning the bulk of the land to white owners. The result, Allen wrote in a 2006 article, was “a pattern of large, contiguous blocks of open land under single ownership … separated by communities of freed blacks and poorer whites.” Like plantations, petrochemical and petroleum plants benefit from large acreage and easy access to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. When the oil industry moved in during the first half of the 20th century, corporations began buying up the intact plantations. More than a century later, the pattern established during Reconstruction is still visible, only instead of plantations, Louisiana’s historic free towns share fence lines with plants.
The proliferation of petrochemical plants along the lower Mississippi is undoubtedly slavery’s legacy. Before the Civil War, the state relied on the plantation economy. Today it relies on an industrial economy, which continues to disenfranchise residents. In her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild observes that many rural white Louisianans believe they must sacrifice environmental regulation in order to have jobs. For many rural Black Louisianans, that sacrifice is much starker. When industry moves in, descendants of the formerly enslaved get neither environmental security nor well-paying jobs. Like the plantations and land owners who came before them, petrochemical plants and their leadership have emerged as a new kind of “boss,” determining what happens not only to the land but also to the people who live there. [Continue reading…]