At night the Pontchartrain Works lights up the horizon. During the day the tall scaffolding and plumes of emissions soar into the sky.
The chemical plant has caused misery here for years. But the land on which it is built holds older and even darker secrets. It is a history, say some residents of Saint John the Baptist parish, which helps explain the pervasive racial and environmental inequality that persists to this day.
Pontchartrain Works was built on a former plantationon the so-called German coast that was settled by Europeans in the 18th century. The fertile land snakes along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge for about 100 miles. Nestled on a small patch, just outside the town of LaPlace, stood the Belle Pointe plantation, home to the planter André Deslondes and over 150 slaves, which local historians suggest was active from 1792.
Where once stood a West-Indian style plantation house, now stands a plant pumping a ‘likely carcinogen’ into the air. Then, as now, these buildings spelled disaster for black people living in close proximity. The list of serious ailments and deaths from cancer are woven into the story of this town over the last 50 years; just the most recent of deprivations visited on African Americans who have lived and worked on this land for centuries.
In 2015 the Pontchartrain Works facility was found to be the primary cause of some of the most toxic air in America, according to US government findings. In the tract of land just behind the plant, residents in this mostly black and mostly poor town endure a risk of cancer due to air pollution that is the highest in the country and 50 times the national average. For almost five decades the plant had been owned by the chemicals giant DuPont, and has now become the only place in America to emit the chemical chloroprene, which is listed as likely to cause cancer.
The Guardian is running a series of pieces over the course of the next year from Reserve to draw attention to this community — and hundreds like it — who are fighting to win the right to a clean and safe environment for their children. But some injustices run deeper, and for even longer, in this part of America.
Many African American residents of Saint John the Baptist trace their roots back in this region for centuries, to the slaves that once toiled the fields. Former slave quarters, picked up and moved from Belle Pointe, still dot the streets just behind Pontchartrain Works.
The Guardian has pieced together fragments from local historians, centuries-old court and census records, and archives dotted around America, which tell this land’s story in detail for the first time.
“When you think about it, nothing has ever really changed,” said Reserve resident Mary Hampton, reflecting on how black Americans in Louisiana have borne the brunt of commercial production here.
“First slavery, then sharecropping, now this. It’s just a new way of doing it,” said the 80-year-old, who has lived a few blocks from the factory’s fenceline her whole life. Hampton traces her family’s roots back to a slave vessel that arrived in Louisiana from Haiti. The ship carried her great grandfather, then defined as chattel property, to the banks of the lower Mississippi where generations of her family labored in the sugar industry — first as slaves, then as sharecroppers and finally as employees.
More than a century earlier, in 1810, the sugar trade was booming, along the German coast. Louisiana proved an ideal environment for the brutal work of cane cultivation, and thousands of enslaved people, mostly from west Africa, were imported to the German coast to do the work — swelling to make up over 75% of the population. They endured what many historians argue were some of the harshest conditions faced by enslaved people in America: rape, beatings, whipping, branding and multiliation were common punishment, back-breaking labour was often fatal.
Belle Pointe would have been no exception.
And a seismic event in the early 19th century — to which it appears Belle Pointe and André Deslondes were closely linked — tells it own story.
In January of 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved people rose up against their white owners in a rebellion that sent shockwaves through a society built on the complete domination of black bodies. It started just a few miles down river of Belle Pointe, at another plantation owned by the sugar planter Manuel Andry.
The rebellion was the largest of its kind in American history. Although for centuries it has been written off as an unimportant act of insubordination, revisionist accounts portray the revolt as a well-organized attempt to wrest power from the white planter class, timed to strike when Louisiana’s defences were vulnerable.
The rebels were led by Charles Deslondes, a mixed-race slave who laboured as a slave driver on Andry’s plantation. Records reveal, however, that Charles Deslondes was owned by another planter named Jacques Deslondes, the father to Belle Pointe owner André Deslondes, — meaning it is almost certain Charles and Andre had known each other well.
It is also possible that the two men — one planter, one slave – were related by blood. According to a number of accounts of the rebellion, Charles Deslondes was mothered by an enslaved woman and fathered by a white plantation owner. Although no records exist to prove it, this plantation owner could well have been Jacques Deslondes.
The rebellion began on the evening of 8 January as the elite class were celebrating the beginning of carnival season and many of Louisiana’s troops were fighting elsewhere. Manuel Andry’s plantation house was attacked in the evening. He was wounded but escaped. His son, Gilbert, was killed.
“An attempt was made to assassinate me by the stroke of an axe,” Andry wrote in a letter to Louisiana’s governor William Claiborne that was published by the national press, “and my poor son has been ferociously murdered by a horde of brigands who… have committed every kind of mischief and excesses which can be expected from a gang of atrocious bandits of that nature.”
He promised his governor to “make a GREAT EXAMPLE” of the slaves.
The rebels burned down a number of plantation homes as they marched dozens of miles towards New Orleans to the sound of beating African drums and as Charles Deslondes urging them on. Enslaved people from other plantations joined the group and another planter was killed as many others in the area fled.
Two days after it started, with the region in panic, the rebels were confronted by a militia of planters, led by Andry. This militia, according to some local historian’s accounts, also included André Deslondes, suggesting he took part in what happened next.
The battle turned into a massacre. The rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. They were roundly defeated. Forty-five were killed in the fighting, but Charles Deslondes was barbarically executed in the aftermath. The rebel leader was captured by the planters’ dogs. Both his hands were cut off, and he was shot in both thighs, then shot in the chest. Finally he was set alight by the militia as he died a martyr.
The planters captured dozens of other rebels and sentenced 44 to death in a series of show trials. In an act that symbolised the sheer brutality of white power, the executed men’s corpses were mutilated, and their heads placed on pikes, for miles along the Mississippi.
Although there are no records that suggest slaves at Belle Pointe took part in the rebellion itself, it is likely they would have seen the gruesome aftermath. And the message, said Daniel Rasmussen, the author of a revisionist history on the revolt, was clear: “[It was saying]: this is what will happen to you if you violate the social order. It was marking the territory and showing what the law is through these severed heads. And it was largely effective in suppressing revolts in that area. The reaction was so violent, so public and aggressive that it did, in some sense, succeed in pacifying the region.”
Belle Pointe and its slaves made André Deslondes an incredibly rich man. Census records from 1850 show he owned 159 enslaved people that year, the youngest a five-month-old baby girl, the eldest a 70-year-old man. In 1860, records declare the planter’s worth at $550,000, the equivalent of $16.8m in today’s terms.
André Deslondes died in 1865, the same year the civil war ended and slavery was abolished. As the German coast suffered an economic downturn in the war’s aftermath, Belle Pointe was eventually sold to the local businessman and sugar planter Leon Godchaux. Decades later, Mary Hampton’s father brought his family to Reserve to work a job at the Godchaux refinery.
Sharecropping, atrocious labour conditions, and later Jim Crow laws, kept much of the black population along the coast in poverty. By 1914 Belle Pointe was converted into a dairy farm.
Dairy production at Belle Pointe ended in 1947. It was a decade later, as the Jim Crow era began to end, that the chemicals giant DuPont bought the land. It was still listed as Belle Pointe in title deeds and was purchased from Godchaux’s estate for an initial fee of $736,000 ($6.6m in today’s terms).
DuPont held Belle Pointe for five years before publicly announcing the construction of the Pontchartrain Works facility.
An internal company magazine Better Living from 1966 boldly describes the land as perfect for the company’s rapid expansion. “At any given moment there are thousands of possible places where DuPont could build a plant,” it states. “It must be done right, for the location of a plant sharply affects production cost … In every respect a site near Laplace, Louisiana filled the bill.” There is no specific mention of the now mostly black community that had established itself right next to the land where the plant would be built.
The magazine declares that the plant hired 310 people in its early years, 240 local hires. But an earlier edition of Better Living reveals that just six of these jobs went to black people.
Initially, the $160m plant was slated to produce the compound adiponitrile, a component of nylon. But DuPont’s internal records show that demand for neoprene, the synthetic rubber, was also booming at this time as well. In 1968, with the plant now up and running, DuPont announced it would produce neoprene at Pontchartrain too. Within two years of the announcement, internal records show, DuPont had increased its export of neoprene by around a third to over 110 million pounds a year.
It was around this time that residents in the immediate area began to notice a distinct odour in the air. It would take an additional 45 years for the US government to recognise that emissions from the plant caused the greatest risk of cancer from airborne toxicity anywhere in America.
This account was drawn from a number of books written on the history of the area, including Daniel Rasmussen’s American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, Mary Ann Sternberg’s Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana’s Historic Byway, and On to New Orleans!: Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt by Albert Thrasher. It is also based on land records held at the St John the Baptist parish courthouse, census records from 1850 and 1860 and documents held at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware.