From Petro-Plantation to People’s Preservation: Louisiana Free Settlements on the Road to Recognition

Authors: Theodore Hilton*, Tulane University
Topics: Cultural Geography
Keywords: Louisiana, Reconstruction, Black Geographies, historic preservation, NRHP, NPS
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 10
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Louisiana’s Mississippi River corridor is known for petrochemical industrial sites and plantation tourism. Both trace their legacies to enslavement-based agricultural production. Through the 20th century, the oil industry replicated the racial logics of plantation power as local and national elites sought to protect the plantation structures that aesthetically affirmed their white supremacist ambitions (Adams 2007, Williams 2011). Today, descendant residents in Reconstruction-era freedpeople’s settlements critique this version of history as they advocate for environmental justice. These groups “struggle with discourses that erase and despatialize their sense of place” whether seeking historic representation, provision of baseline municipal functions, or protection from toxifying environments (McKittrick 2006, Wright 2018). Established through the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), federal processes for identifying historic sites are deployed for industrial construction projects. These include archaeological impact assessments that often confirm their Reconstruction-era pasts in state-legible terms (Battle-Baptiste 2011). This paper centers the voices of activist residents in Plaquemines and St. James Parish historic freedpeople’s settlements who are petitioning for state recognition of their communities on the basis of these studies. Through oral history accounts, government records, and other primary source archives, this paper follows traces of the NHPA to better understand how it and other Great Society programs failed to protect these places, how descendant residents and their networks have staked historical claims to place using NHPA protocols, and how residents’ activism challenges the white spatial logics of the historic preservation while outlining a vision inclusive development (Finney 2014, Nieves 2007, Pulido 2010).

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