"The reason that we are here today is to honor and acknowledge the lives of those people, who worked in these sugarcane fields all along the Mississippi River."
A commemorative program was held in honor of enslaved people buried in the Bruslie Plantation Cemetery (Circa 1830s) and the Monroe Plantation Cemetery (Circa 1820s) on Saturday in Convent, La. Unmarked slave cemeteries were found near the property of the old Tezcuco Plantation, which is now owned by Shell Oil.
"Because of the work that Shell did with the archaeological investigation in 2013, the ancestors revealed themselves in that data report," Kathe Hambrick, Founder of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, told dozens of people Saturday.
Kathe Hambrick encouraged the crowd, largely dressed in white, to sign a book at the event to say that they were a descendent of either of these plantations. The problem is that the information was documented orally, she said.
"But it may not have been documented with the pen," she said. "And so we need to be informed by you, the descendent community. The reason that we are here today is to honor and acknowledge the lives of those people, who worked in these sugarcane fields all along the Mississippi River."
As many as one thousand enslaved people are interred in unmarked graves in these burial grounds, as revealed by an archeologist in 2013. Co-founder of the RRAAM, Darryl Hambrick, said years ago when Shell was planning to sell the property, the land was surveyed. That's when about a thousand unmarked graves were discovered, as the land survey revealed bone fragments buried in the ground.
Darryl Hambrick said the property did not sell after the graves were discovered. That's when the River Road African Burial Grounds Coalition was formed, as Shell worked with the community in finding the right way to honor the lives of those buried on the property, which was being used as a sugarcane field.
"They got together with Shell and decided to come up with a plan on how to embrace this and make it where the community feels like we've done the right thing and where the corporation feels like its done due diligence to the community," said Darryl Hambrick.
Five years later, the cemetery is being taken out of production as a sugarcane field, and historical markers have been laid honoring the lives of those buried there. Darryl Hambrick said they've reached out to the community asking anyone who believes they may have relatives buried here to contact the museum. He is hopeful that over time the people buried here can be identified, and name markers can be laid at the site.
A memorial service was held next to the old Tezcuco Plantation site. The site is not much more than a foundation these days. Darryl Hambrick said the ritualistic ceremony was culturally centered around African burials to pay homage to the enslaved people buried there.
After the service, which included African drummers, bible readings, song, poetry, spoken word and dance, those in attendance were welcomed aboard buses that took the crowd to the burial grounds. Wreaths of roses were laid in honor and remembrance.
Kathe Hambrick developed a collaborative partnership made up of members of the descendant community, the Shell Oil Company, and the RRAAM, to preserve and acknowledge these slave cemeteries which hold cultural significance for Louisiana and the United States. It is estimated that as many as one hundred plantations produced sugar in Ascension Parish during the antebellum period with slave labor, which created a powerful concentration of wealth that contributed significantly to the economy of our nation.
These burial grounds are unique in scope. They reveal information about how enslaved people lived in the past. They allow the descendant community today to make connections with family heritage. They shed light where recorded history has been silent: while historical accounts of plantation owners are readily accessible, much remains unknown about the lives of the thousands of people who were enslaved along the River Road.
"It is obvious that this project is meaningful in many ways," General Manager of Shell Convent Refinery Hugues Bourgogne said. "It is for people who worked those plantations, who are interred out there. This is the day that we are going to pay them respect and give them the right of human dignity that they did not enjoy during their living lives."
This partnership with industry, the museum and the descendant community is a decisive step in acknowledging the contribution of the enslaved to the economy and culture of the parish, the state and the nation.
The event was hosted by Shell, the River Road African American Museum, and the River Road African Burial Grounds Coalition. Special thanks was given to the River Road African Burial Grounds Coalition: Kathe Hambrick, Founder; A.P. Tureaud, Jr.; Ingrid Palmquist, and Pat Port. The Coalition Advisors were also given special thanks: Cheryl LaRouche, Joe Joseph, Dave Port, and Harold Hambrick, Jr. (Posthumously). The RRAAM Burial Grounds Committee is Darryl Hambrick, RRAAM Interim Director; Linda Hill, RRAAM Board Pres.; Todd Sterling, RRAAM Board Vice Pres.; and Dr. Thomas Durant, Jr., RRAAM Board Treas.
Click here to see our photos from the ceremony.