Dispatches from the End of the World: Oral Histories from Black Plaquemines Parish

An oral history project supported by a Rebirth Grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and Louisiana Sea Grant. This collection features oral history interviews with several community leaders from historic Black and Creole/Mixed-Race fishing communities living along the last stretches of the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana. A full archive of oral history audio and transcripts will be available for public use in 2019.

Project Overview and Introduction

Locating the end of the world: Background on the project’s scope and content

Commonly referred to as the “end of the world,” or at least the end of the road, the communities alongside the last 20 miles of the eastern Mississippi River levee in Plaquemines Parish trace their roots to Native Americans, European settlers, and enslaved Africans – ancestors who worked on and lived off the abundance of the coastal waters and lands for generations. The rural, sparsely populated east bank section of Plaquemines Parish had a population of approximately 1,800 according to the 2010 US Census, with about 57% of the population listed as African American. The oral history interviews featured in this collection feature several residents from the predominately African American communities in the lower east bank section that these interviews cover, from Phoenix to Pointe a la Hache, where 64% of the 188 residents are African American (2010 US Census). These communities are poised upon the edge of Louisiana’s ongoing coastal land loss crisis, with some of the most ambitious engineering projects to sustain the state’s fragile coast through diverting portions of the lower Mississippi River anticipated to be built in their backyards in the next 10-20 years. They have also fought decades of systemic economic and political discrimination at the hand of local and state officials, particularly concerning access to land, water, and political representation. These experiences, along with characterizations of how life and work has changed in this area of coastal Louisiana, are some of the predominate topics discussed in this collection.

Despite deep and culturally unique roots to the lower Delta region, the communities of Phoenix, Davant, and Pointe a la Hache, and Bohemia are largely absent from Louisiana’s scholarly or popular literature. The relative absence of historically marginalized groups like African American, Creole, and other mixed-race communities from historical records reflects decades of discrimination linked to colonial encounters that placed little value on their lives, let along their collective histories and shared cultures. The long shadow of racist political control of the dictator-like reign of Leander Perez and his family over Plaquemines Parish during the course of the Twentieth Century has, in many ways, created a vacuum in the historical record on the numerous African American and Creole communities who lived, worked, and self-organizing for civil and basic human rights on some of the farthest reaches of southeast Louisiana. Histories of Perez and his legacy of racism dominate the story of Plaquemines Parish (Conaway 1973; Jeansonne 1978; Alverez and Kolker 1982), but little is told from the perspective of communities of color that held onto important family and cultural traditions during that time and fought the normative institutionalization of racism in the parish. These communities were ultimately responsible for dismantling many of the economic and social inequalities that discriminated against communities of color and poor residents in rural southern and eastern ends of Plaquemines Parish until well in the 1980s. This work was organized predominately by the Fishermen and Concerned Citizen’s Organization, which formed in 1978 by a group of African American oystermen from the lower east bank of Plaquemines Parish. Their history, along with others of battling racial segregation, economic inequality, and political discrimination, is documented in this collection.

Against this backdrop, these communities are currently facing environmental challenges from the forces of subsiding lands, rising seas, and ambitious land restoration projects that stand to drastically transform, and possibly eradicate, what is left of their communities (Reed and Wilson 2004; Tidwell 2007; Blum and Roberts 2009). Several of the interviews in this collection discuss the challenges of rebuilding after hurricanes and how coastal land loss and the increased threat of natural disasters are shaping community members’ decisions to stay or leave the community. More often than not, interviewees reflect a determination to stay, reinforced by experiences of the community self-organizing to rebuild after major events when little help from local, state, or federal programs was available. This perspective on the threat of environmental change and possibilities of adaptation are rooted in the longer histories of these communities sustaining themselves through networks of family and friends.

Recent scholarship and documentary films, such as Reverend Tyronne Edward’s book The Forgotten People (2017) and filmmaker Nailah Jefferson’s films Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache (2012) and Plaquemines (2016), have begun the important work of documenting the communities of the east bank and the political activism of its leaders. Dispatches from the End of the World builds upon this important work, presenting a collection of life histories and ethnographic vignettes from residents living in these historic fishing communities. This project focuses on historical memory because many of these stories are not captured by mainstream histories of Plaquemines Parish and coastal Louisiana writ-large and because this form of historical documentation is culturally appropriate, reflecting the more intimate form of historical documentation that foregrounds the subject’s voice and experience. The documentation of these historic African American and Creole fishing communities fills an absence in the larger public imaginary of coastal Louisiana, enriching our understandings of the ways coastal lands were central aspects of the fight for political and economic independence as well as sites of recreation and pleasure, where multiple generations of families partake in and share traditions that tied residents to each other and the lower Delta’s landscapes.

Overview of interview content

Interviews selected for this collection address several key issues for these coastal communities, including: community culture, racial inequality, oyster fishing, hurricanes and flooding, coastal land loss, and adaptation to environmental change. Each interview contains and full transcript with an introductory statement that summarizes major topics covered in the interview along with an audio file of the interview. There are also key terms reflecting topics and geographic scope to aid researchers in navigating interviews for specific content.

 

Works cited

Alverez, L. & Kolker, A.

(1982). The ends of the earth: Plaquemines Parish [film]. Center for New American Media

Blum, M. D., & Roberts, H. H.

(2009). Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global        sea-level rise. Nature geoscience2(7), 488.

Jefferson, N.

(2014). Vanishing Pearls: The oystermen of Pointe a la Hache [film]. Array Now Films.

Conaway, J.

(1973). Judge: The life and times of Leander Perez. Knopf/Random House.

Edwards, T.

(2017). The Forgotten People: Restoring a Missing Segment of Plaquemines Parish History. Xlibris.

Jeansonne, G.

(2006). Leander Perez: Boss of the delta. Univ. Press of Mississippi.

Reed, D. J., & Wilson, L.

(2004). Coast 2050: A new approach to restoration of Louisiana coastal wetlands. Physical       Geography25(1), 4-21.

Tidwell, M.

(2007). Bayou farewell: The rich life and tragic death of Louisiana’s Cajun coast. Vintage.

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