Twin sisters buy former plantation to preserve and protect Black history

Jocyntia and Joyceia Banner preserve the history of their enslaved ancestors.

Growing up in Louisiana, in the bayous of the Mississippi River, identical twins Jocynita "Jo" Banner and Joyceia "Joy" Banner always heard stories from their grandmother Grace, who would tell them about their enslaved ancestors and their history of fighting back at the very plantation the two women now own.

"I know that she is really proud," Jo Banner said, referring to her grandmother. "She just served as this vessel to connect us to an energy that is informing and providing us the sustenance of what we need now for this fight."

The Banner twins are the founders of The Descendants Project, a nonprofit that fights for historic and cultural preservation for descendants of enslaved people. It was through their nonprofit that they bought Woodland Plantation, the birthplace of the 1811 slave revolt.

During that revolt, hundreds of enslaved plantation workers, inspired by the Haitian Revolution, took up arms and marched toward New Orleans, hoping to seize the city, free other slaves and establish a free state. The uprising was quelled by U.S. troops and local militia, leaving nearly 100 enslaved people dead. Scores more were captured and executed, while others were returned to their plantations, where some were punished.

Jo and Joy Banner said they never really learned about the revolt in school. It was their grandmother's oral history, they said, that taught them about the revolt and the enslaved people in the area who escaped from plantations to join the Union Army.

"[Some of the enslaved people] were sentenced to death, they were executed, and their heads were chopped off, placed on pikes along the river with a message," Joy Banner said. "As a symbol of 'This is what happens to you when you fight for freedom.'"

Some 213 years later, Jo and Joy Banner became the newest owners -- and first Black owners -- of the historic Woodland Plantation site. It's the second plantation they've bought through the Descendants Project, the first being the Many Waters plantation in Wallace, Louisiana.

PHOTO: The Many Waters home in Wallace, La. is the headquarters of the Descendants Project.
The Many Waters home in Wallace, La. is the headquarters of the Descendants Project
Jo Banner

The sisters said they purchase these lands to preserve their history -- they call it defensive buying. But they're also fighting for the freedom and protection of the historic homelands of their enslaved ancestors from industrial companies they claim are polluting the area, compromising the health of the land and the local population, a predominantly Black community.

"In addition to preserving that culture and aiming to get more recognition for that culture, we also do our best to protect the descendant communities, which are our descendant communities who are also fighting against a lot of environmental injustice, a lot of environmental racism," Jo Banner said.

Woodland Plantation is located on an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi known as "Cancer Alley." Running from north of Baton Rouge to south of New Orleans, the area is surrounded by almost 200 industrial facilities releasing emissions linked to cancer in the region. Woodland itself is located in the most concentrated stretch, known as the "chemical corridor." Residents in this area have a 95% higher risk of cancer due to air pollution compared to the rest of the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA announced last month that it was calling for the plants in this area to reduce toxic emissions linked to cancer.

In January, the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch singled out the state of Louisiana and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, saying they had failed for decades to protect locals from industrial pollution and uphold federal safety standards, making the region the largest concentration of fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities in the western hemisphere.

The state of Louisiana and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality did not immediately return ABC News' request for comment on the matter.

About 20 minutes away from Woodland in Wallace, situated in St. John the Baptist Parish -- and still in Cancer Alley -- the Banner twins are also in a legal battle to stop a grain export facility from being built near their home and the Descendants Project headquarters.

PHOTO: Joy Banner protests against the installation of a grain facility in their backyard.
Joy Banner protests against the installation of a grain facility in their backyard.
Courtesy of Jo and Joy Banner

The company behind the facility, Greenfield, says it will provide "hundreds of good paying, environmentally sustainable, 21st century jobs" for "local residents who have long sought such opportunity." In a fact sheet on its website, Greenfield states that the export facility will be "a green, low-emission site used solely for storage and river transport" with "no on-site production, refining or manufacturing."

Jo and Joy Banner said that jobs are not the problem, but rather the risk of environmental and health hazards in a region that is predominantly Black.

In 2021, the Banner sisters filed a lawsuit through the Descendants Project against the parish with the goal of rendering a rezoning ordinance from 1990, which changed residential lands to industrial sites, null and void. The rezoning ordinance would have allowed a large area of land in Wallace to be used for industrial purposes, including Greenfield's proposed grain terminal. Greenfield later joined the parish as a defendant in the case, seeking to uphold the industrial zoning ordinance.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented the Descendants Project in the case, said in a press release at the time that the 1990 rezoning ordinance had been illegally pushed through without proper approvals. Attorneys also argued that subsequent facilities built on the rezoned land, such as the Greenfield facility, would harm the surrounding community.

"If built, the grain terminal would follow a common pattern in which hazardous industrial facilities are placed in or near Black communities, a practice central to environmental racism. People who live in areas with toxic air pollution suffer higher rates of cancer and other diseases, and these people are disproportionately Black," the center stated.

In 2022, the court ruled in favor of the Descendants Project, and in 2023, struck down the industrial zoning ordinance, restoring the area to a residential zone, stating that 1990 zoning change had not been brought before a planning commission for review.

In April, the parish approved a new zoning change that would allow the project to move forward. The new zoning ordinance allows the Greenfield's facilities to be built within 300 feet of residential properties, according to The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.

Greenfield is currently waiting for its permit to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers before it can begin building.

In a statement to ABC News, Greenfield claimed the proposed facility will use advanced emission control technology that benefit the local community with "markedly reduce[d] environmental impacts." It also said the project will provide thousands of good paying, environmentally sustainable jobs.

"The proposed Wallace Grain Export Facility is a state-of-the-art operation, outfitted with advanced emission control technologies that markedly reduce environmental impacts, particularly when compared to traditional local agricultural practices earning us a Minor Source permit from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality," it stated. "With 95% of our grain transportation set to be conducted via barge on the Mississippi River and less than 1% received by truck, we anticipate a significant decrease in truck and train traffic and their associated emissions - normally associated with older, outdated grain facilities."

"Economically, Greenfield is poised to revitalize the local St. John the Baptist Parish economy by transitioning from petrochemical-based jobs to environmentally sustainable, non-toxic industrial operations," the company continued. "Greater New Orleans, Inc., projects that Greenfield will create over 1,000 construction jobs and 371 permanent jobs, boosting its property tax revenue from the current $30,000 to about $2 million annually, and generating $300 million in total tax revenue over the next 30 years."

It added, "Responding to local calls for commitment, we are enhancing job and vendor access for West Bank residents and will reinvest the first $500,000 of Wallace facility profit annually into the area through a community-led foundation, underlining our dedication to economic resilience and sustainability in the region."

Not everyone in the community wants to stop construction of the grain facility. Resident Chad Roussell, a TSA employee and a volunteer firefighter who said he can trace his family's lineage in the region back several generations, told ABC News he was looking forward to the potential economic benefits Greenfield has touted.

"I've seen, you know, what once was a great community [has] slowly died," Roussell said, adding the younger residents are "graduating from high school, going off to college" but aren't returning home afterward, "because there's nothing in the area that can [get] us to stay at home."

"[People] have talked about giving the younger folks a fair chance that, you know, the older folks have gotten. Most of them have came have worked and retired from [this] industry," he added.

Still, the promised benefits of the Greenfield facility, Joy Banner said, can't solve the systemic issues that make predominantly Black communities such as theirs vulnerable -- and if not enough people know the history of the region, she said, then it will be harder to get people to care about preserving it moving forward.

Through the Descendants Project, the Banner sisters hope to change that.

"Your sense of place comes from knowing your history, and I think it has, you know, in many respects, been intentional that we as African Americans don't know our place, don't understand our contributions or don't know about our contributions. We feel like we have no ownership in it, right? And so I think it makes us really vulnerable," Joy Banner said.

"I think a lot of us as Black Americans, we walk around with this complex that we are a burden -- we should just be lucky to be here. We're [saying], 'No, you create this space. This space was created by your ancestors for you.'"

ABC News' Abby Cruz and Melanie Schmitz contributed to this report.