Sisters reclaim historic plantation to serve local Black community

A plantation house in Wallace, Louisiana, that Jo and Joy Banner purchased in 2004 and renamed the Many Waters House. (Jo Banner)

Jo Banner couldn’t explain why she was drawn to the house that sat on the Norma and Lacaz Plantations in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish. At first, it seemed impractical to move the structure onto the property she owned in Wallace, but when it went on the market, she and her sister, Dr. Joy Banner, took the opportunity to purchase it in 2004.

Then, when the previous owners gave them a book about the house’s history and the genealogy of the family who had lived in the plantation home, pieces of their own family’s past began to come into focus.

While the revelation was a shock at first, the Banners are now placing the house’s history at the forefront while giving the structure a new name and purpose.


They renamed it the Many Waters House, or Many Waters, after the local Indigenous Chitimacha Tribe, whose name means “people of many waters.” The nod to the tribal nation was to recognize how members of the tribe had also been enslaved alongside their ancestors. Today, the house serves as the headquarters for The Descendants Project.

The non-profit organization, created in 2019 by the Banners, serves as a resource for residents of their small town with a focus on advocating for Black community members who descended from people who were enslaved. And soon, the plantation house will be added as an asset to better help the community recover from natural disasters.

“We wanted this home to really be a way of giving back to our community,” Banner told AccuWeather, adding that they wanted to make the home a place where the Wallace community could find shelter, electricity and hot food in the aftermath of hurricanes.

Dr. Joy Banner works on repairs to the Many Waters House. (Jo Banner)

The goal, Banner told AccuWeather, is that the Many Waters House will provide a place of respite in time for the height of the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season or the following summer once renovations are complete.

The plantation house has weathered many a storm since 1806, according to Banner, who listed off Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 after it had been transferred to Banner’s property.

With Wallace located roughly 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, Banner’s main concern when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana was the strong winds. But when she and her sister returned after taking shelter at Whitney Plantation, only the siding — which they were planning to remove anyway — had peeled off from the house. The tin roof, the shingles, everything else remained.

“It was amazing how much it took and [there was] really little damage,” Banner said.

The Descendants Project has opened its doors to hurricane victims before, providing food and guiding people through FEMA disaster aid applications at a cafe that Banner owned following the landfall of Hurricane Ida in 2021.

The plan, which takes the house’s durability into consideration, is to provide for community members following a hurricane while remaining active in other parts of their community activism in Cancer Alley — a roughly 100-mile corridor stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that’s laden with oil refineries, plastic plants and chemical facilities alongside primarily Black residential areas.

Dubbed a “sacrifice zone” — an area packed with high levels of pollution and environmental hazards by industrial facilities at the cost of the health and safety of nearby communities — Cancer Alley includes St. John the Baptist Parish, where Wallace is located. Roughly 90% of the town’s population is Black.

In 2021, a group of independent human rights experts from the United Nations branded the sacrifice zone as environmental racism.

The banner has expressed concern for AccuWeather in the past on how damaging weather events such as hurricanes combined with local facilities could impact the communities around them.

“What I want is that if we can start working, connecting to our history, that we’re building out of something bigger that we all can fight to protect,” Banner said. “So if it’s stopping petrochemical buildup, if it’s making sure a grain elevator doesn’t come and put us at more threat and wipe out our community, all of these things are making us safer, as well as when we get those resources after the storm.But this is just what we’re doing to really build upon something bigger.

“We don’t want to be in triage all the time. We don’t want to be waiting for help. We also want to be actively protecting ourselves in a way that we don’t get to that point,” she added.

Jo Banner (left) and Joy Banner (right) continue renovations at the Many Waters House. (Jo Banner)

Many Waters will also house an ancestral archeology and burial ground research center, an African American genealogy research center and an interpretive public history space that will depict the history, culture and experience of the descendant community and the connection to their predecessors.

“What we are hoping is to at least give people a place to start,” Banner said. “When you start wanting to know about your family, first of all, is to understand that there are people who do have genealogical information. For example, we have pictures of our family members that are up, and it goes back to my great- grandparents. What we saw is that a lot of Black people who don’t have beyond their grandparents in many cases.”

She hopes that through the hire of genealogists at Many Waters, more people will be able to find lost information on their ancestors. Other plantations, such as the Whitney and Evergreen plantations, also in Louisiana, reference a slavery database on their website. One of them, the Louisiana Slave Database, referenced by the Whitney Plantation, contains over 100,000 entries documenting people enslaved in Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. While there are no photos to go from, it does pull from official documents located in parish courthouses, state archives, notarial archives and other records.

However, these plantations are in the minority when it comes to placing the history of the enslaved at the forefront, with Banner adding she sees little involvement from other historic plantations in Black issues, such as environmental racism.

Many Waters, as its new role begins, will contrast this, they hope.

“I’m happy that we have it [the Many Waters House] as descendants of the enslaved, showing in addition how you can use a resource like this that has a dark history to it [and] how you can use it to actually help your community and support the community of the descendants of the slaves around it,” Banner said.

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