When Garry Winchester was a child and on extended summer visits with his grandparents in St. James Parish, his grandfather would often remind the youth from New Orleans about the family's ties to the sugar cane fields along River Road.

Just upriver from where the now 71-year-old Winchester's grandparents had lived in the small community of Welcome, his great-grandfather, Williams Lot Winchester, spent the early part of his life as a slave working those fields for a White master who carried the same last name as his, according family history.

Garry Winchester says he's never forgotten his great-grandfather's story and has spent decades gathering information about the family, though sparse antebellum records of slaves have left that history frustratingly murky.

"That's a fact of what we have deal with as African Americans. It's not gonna be an easy thing. You know we were not treated as human beings. We were treated as property," said Winchester.

But a running political fight over the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics chemical complex proposed in the Welcome area may end up providing more information about Winchester's and other families and has the potential to reveal more about the pre-Civil War history in the region.

FG LA LLC, a Formosa affiliate building the chemical complex, said Friday it will halt previously announced plans to move an old plantation graveyard found on part of the complex's proposed site along the Mississippi River.

While the company says it had always planned to find out who is was buried there, FG LA said it has decided "to pause" moving the graves "and conduct additional research to learn the identity or ethnicity of the remains in continued consultation with SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) and with potential descendants, if identified."

FG LA has reached out to Garry Winchester, a retired U.S. Navy civilian employee who has taken an interest in genealogy, and says it wants to stay in contact.

In a report, FG LA's consulting archaeologist initially suggested the unmarked graveyard from the old Buena Vista Plantation, once owned by a White planter named Benjamin Winchester, could be a slave cemetery. Four sets of human remains were found there.

The graveyard and the potential it may hold the bodies of formerly enslaved people fueled community and environmental activists' push to block the complex. They object to the facility because of air pollution the company proposes to emit in the majority-Black area, which is surrounded by other heavy industries.

The archaeologist later modified his position, noting he couldn't say without more information who was buried in the graveyard: slaves, White field hands, Chinese immigrant laborers or others. 

The community groups and media organizations recently found Garry Winchester, who appears to be the first person with a family tie to the old plantation. His name and story appeared in an affidavit filed by the groups in a court fight for access to the graveyard for a Juneteenth commemoration. The groups prevailed and held a ceremony at the site, at which Winchester spoke.

Winchester, who believes his great-grandfather's parents may be buried in the cemetery though he doesn't have proof, said he has mixed feelings about moving the gravesite but welcomes FG LA's attempts to find out who is buried there.

"I think that's a good decision, on our part and on their part. I mean it shows at least that they're interested in maybe investigating further," he said.

Groups opposed to the complex and other experts in the region's African American history said they say they are opposed to moving the graves.

Kathe Hambrick, founder of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville and curator and director of interpretation for the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen, said she opposes any industry moving any of the graves of any people in the river region, much less enslaved ones.

"They deserve not to be moved because if you set a precedent by starting to move them, there will be no end to that," said Hambrick, who has been involved with preserving slave graveyards at other industrial sites along the river.

The Buena Vista graveyard instead should have a 10- to 25-acre commemorative park built around it, she said. 

The echoes of history leave intriguing but not fully connected clues about the Winchesters' ties to the Buena Vista Plantation and to Virginia, where the plantation's owner had also lived.

Benjamin Winchester, the White sugar planter who owned the Buena Vista Plantation, was a lawyer, judge and former Louisiana legislator. He was born in Maryland and had lived in Kentucky and Virginia before he moved to Louisiana in 1813.

He owned 197 slaves two years before his death in 1852, when his plantation was taken over by his widow and son, a separate archaeological report from the environmental groups says.

Born into bondage on Aug. 1, 1854, in Louisiana and dying a free man on Jan. 13, 1944, Williams Lot Winchester survived the Civil War and Reconstruction as a youth and saw World War I, the Great Depression and much of World War II as a middle-aged and elderly man before his death at 89.

Williams Winchester was buried in a cemetery a few miles upriver from the old Buena Vista Plantation in the historically Black community of Lemannville. The graveyard is behind Buena Vista Baptist Church off Buena Vista Street near the Sunshine Bridge.   

Perhaps more intriguingly, Williams Winchester's death certificate says his father was a "Mr. Winchester." It's not clear who that man is.

Garry Winchester said he has uncovered shipping documents showing a William Winchester, born in 1800 and, thus, too old to be the great-grandfather, had been transferred from Virginia to New Orleans in 1822 by agents known for their involvement in the slave trade. 

As a young man, Garry Winchester's great-grandfather had told a census taker in 1880 that his parents were from Virginia, though his death certificate from 1944 says they were born in Louisiana.

It's not clear why those origins don't match up or if they might reflect different understandings of what was being asked on different government forms 64 years apart.

Finally, the adult son of Benjamin Winchester, the plantation owner, was also named William. 

During the Juneteenth ceremony at the Buena Vista gravesite, Garry Winchester spoke of the need to learn more and clear up the mysteries of the past.

"You need to do your genealogy, not just for your ancestors but for your descendants. It will mean a lot to them," he said. 


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.