DARROW — The unmarked graves of as many as 1,000 slaves who toiled in the agricultural fields of two Ascension Parish plantations were uncovered five years ago by an archaeologist working for the Shell Convent refinery, a finding that one state expert said is among the largest unknown burial grounds discovered in Louisiana.
Now, the company is moving forward with a plan to remember those enslaved people, working with the River Road African American Museum to mark the two cemeteries and allow descendants onto the property to pay their respects.
"I always knew there were cemeteries out there somewhere," said Kathe Hambrick, founder of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville. "Having the plantation map in the museum and understanding there were as many as 100 plantations in Ascension Parish, I've always wondered, 'Where were all those cemeteries for all those plantations?' It has been brought to my attention that many of these cemeteries are now on property owned by industry."
The Shell Convent Refinery is set to host a memorial service and marker dedication on March 24 for enslaved people buried in the Bruslie and Monroe plantations located to the northwest of the plant. Historical records show there were at least two more plantations on the more than 4,000 acres of property Shell owns in Ascension.
Hambrick, through a burial coalition she formed, has been working behind the scenes with Shell since the graves were discovered in 2013. The company had commissioned a survey when it was considering expanding its refinery, a project that has since been scrapped. They ended up discovering the unmarked cemeteries.
Shell's spokesman Jordan Tremblay said the company's response to the finding was shelved for a few years as the company went through changes in upper management.
But after the dust settled, Shell revisited its partnership with the museum to figure how best to proceed in the wake of the discovery.
"It became apparent that the project was the perfect fit and the appropriate thing to do based on our core value of respect for people," Tremblay said.
Thurston Hahn, an archaeologist project manager with Coastal Environments Inc. in Baton Rouge, first suspected there could be a graveyard beneath the land outlined for the expansion during the preliminary phase of his company's survey work for Shell. Hahn spotted a particular symbol on an 1877 map near the spot where the Bruslie cemetery was later located.
"It wasn’t a cross or labeled or anything, but the symbol was similar to the ones they used to mark some of the ones that we knew were cemeteries," Hahn said. "So we had a (ground penetrating radar) survey done back there that showed some anomalies that we couldn't figure out what they were."
The Bruslie Plantation cemetery was located in the middle of a sugarcane field.
Coastal Environments informed Shell about the early findings and received permission to bring in heavy machinery that allowed Hahn and his crew to peel off approximately 1½ feet from the top layer of soil in the area.
Hahn said they found burial shafts beneath the surface, confirming their suspicions.
Burial shafts are the holes into which the undertaker digs to lower a coffin. Hahn said ground surface that had not been disturbed would be one monotone color. The ground beneath the surface at the Bruslie cemetery had spots were the soil had been disturbed, or rather, holes had been dug and then filled back in with dirt.
Hahn said there was a little more certainty surrounding the Monroe cemetery.
"We knew that was there because it shows up on several different maps," he said. "We just didn’t know how big it was."
The area was heavily overgrown and shrouded by trees. Hahn suspects farmers knew it might have been a burial site so they didn't farm that portion of the land.
As they were clearing the shrubbery to peel back the top soil like they had at the Bruslie cemetery site, Hahn and his crew stumbled across a tombstone shrouded in leaves and dirt.
The name on the grave marker was M.K. Mitchell. Hambrick's research claims he was a black man who died at the age of 25.
"That's the only one we found, and it was out of place," Hahn said. "At some point it had been pushed down. So we don't know where it came from originally."
After pulling back the top soil, Hahn said they were able to define the boundaries of both cemeteries and estimate how many enslaved people where buried there by the number of burial shafts they discovered. They believe it could be as many as 1,000 people.
Chip McGimsey, director for the state's Division of Archaeology, calls the discovery a rare find, saying it is among the bigger burial grounds that have been found.
"Typically what you find are the small family plots where a family lived for a generation or two," he said. "It was important for Shell to know where the boundaries were because that defined where they were going to be able to develop and where they couldn’t."
McGimsey said there are state laws that apply to cemeteries defining how Shell could use the property on top of and immediately adjacent to the discoveries.
Shell has now cleared the land within the perceived boundaries of both cemeteries and installed markers that briefly explain their history, along with protective bollards and sitting benches.
Tremblay said Shell will allow descendants to visit the cemeteries through scheduled visits.
"It’s currently still agricultural land and adjacent to the refinery," he said. "It's not ideal for them to just drive back there any time they want."
New York retiree A.P. Tureaud Jr. is flying in to attend the March 24 dedication ceremony, which is being held on the lawn of the former Tezcuco Plantation near the refinery.
Tureaud's father, the New Orleans civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud Sr., led the legal fight that forced the desegregation of New Orleans public schools. His white ancestors owned several of the other plantations that were once located on Shell's property. His black ancestors worked at those plantations.
"I think everyone has got to face up to the fact that we’re all in this together, and we need to collaborate and work together," Tureaud said. "If this were 1,200 white people buried somewhere, there would have been a cemetery there a long time ago."
"I think this is the beginning to show the collaboration between community activists and historical preservationists to really honor, celebrate, explore, preserve and educate about the true history of the development of the River Road and Gulf South," he said.
Hambrick and others in her coalition hope Shell's response will inspire similar actions by others within the industrial community and show the need for congressional action as well.
"I hope that there will one day be congressional legislation on a national level that will protect the African burial grounds of the formerly enslaved to the same level that there is protection for Native American burial grounds," she said.