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Almost two centuries ago, a famous battle occurred on the sugar-cane fields on Ignace de Chalmette’s plantation in St. Bernard Parish. On that date, the Battle of New Orleans was fought and won by a curious assembly of American militia, U.S. Marines, Creole militia groups, free men of color, slaves, businessmen and pirates. This was the last time a foreign army conducted operations on American soil. It was the last time Americans and British opposed one another on the field of battle. From this date forward, a strong alliance would grow between the former combatants. It was a historic event.
The significance of this historic battle prompted plans for a monument in 1855, but because of a shortage of money, it was not completed until the land was transferred to the federal government in 1907. On Aug. 10, 1939, Congress established Chalmette Battlefield as a National Historical Park.
In 1864, near the site of this famous battle, the Union Army established a cemetery to bury its Civil War dead. Since that date, soldiers from nearly all America’s wars have been interred in this hallowed ground called the Chalmette National Cemetery.
These two historic parcels of property have been separated from one another since their beginnings. However, in the early 1960s efforts began to unite them in order to form one entity – Chalmette National Historic Park. The timing was to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, its sesquicentennial, scheduled for 1965.
Shortly before that celebration, in 1964, another tragic event occurred on this site, one wholly unrelated to the bloodshed that occurred on that battlefield or to the honor of those whose remains sanctify the cemetery ground. This event was a human loss of a different sort, although the general intentions were well-meant.
Early records indicate that Pierre Fazende, a free man of color, owned a rice plantation on land that was a part of the Chalmette Plantation. When and how he acquired it is unknown. In 1856, he turned that property over to his son, also named Pierre.
Fazende the younger then subdivided the property into lots and sold them to other free people of color. There is reason to believe that some members of this community were freed slaves, which would have given them ownership of property for the first time. A one-street community of 33 lots evolved over the years. The census of 1870 mentions Pierre Fazende (age 60) and his wife, Pauline (age 40), living in “dwelling house #88.” Both were farm laborers and neither could read or write, but they were proud landowners.
The 1888 census mentions 17 families living in the community. The names mentioned in this census report are the ancestors of those who lived in Fazendeville throughout the remainder of its existence. Family names such as Cager and Minor dominated the neighborhood as off-spring built homes on property adjacent to their families’ homes.
A NEW BATTLEGROUND
By the turn of the century, Fazendeville had become a stable community of about 30 families composed of thirty homes, a one-room school house (first to eighth grades), the Battleground Baptist Church, a dance hall, the Battleground grocery store and two barrooms. A single road serviced the community. The houses were situated on the east side of the road. An open pasture lay behind the houses. It was used for a baseball field. A former millrace (a channel whose current is used to power a mill wheel) for a rice mill, now serving as a drainage ditch, ran along the west side of the road from the Mississippi River to St. Bernard Highway to the north. A large grove of pecan trees flourished west of this millrace, situated a short distance from the abandoned Beauregard House on the site of the Chalmette Monument.
As the years passed, the community became so close that the sound of each automobile was recognized as either belonging to a resident or an outsider. Deliverymen who serviced the community, black and white alike, testified to the kindness and generosity of the residents. If a car broke down, all would rush to help.
Fazendeville was an isolated community surrounded by open ground belonging to a variety of corporations who had no use for the land. Children caught crawfish in the abandoned rice mill canal; mothers collected pecans from the neighboring pecan grove; and families played baseball and picnicked in the adjoining field.
For more than 100 years, life in Fazendeville remained tranquil and undisturbed. Families grew, children were educated and some even went off to college to begin their professional careers. But they all called Fazendeville home.
Circumstances beyond their control would alter their lives. Residents were trapped between the impact of an expanding Kaiser Aluminum plant and a desire to unite the national park and the national cemetery.
As the sesquicentennial date approached, life changed. Suddenly, a collection of community activists began to acquire the unused properties belonging to the New Orleans Terminal Corp. and Kaiser Aluminum Corp. for the National Park Service. A movement began to unite the National Cemetery with the Chalmette Monument thus forming one unified National Park.
As the parcels of land were accumulated, one problem arose – what about Fazendeville? That small community bisected the proposed project, with a strip of land one lot wide running down the center of the future park setting from the river to the highway. When approached about selling their properties, the residents refused. They had lived together for more than 100 years. Why fragment now?
The drive to combine these federal properties overwhelmed the residents of Fazendeville. The legal process to expropriate their property began, and the wheels of power proved too strong to resist.
PASSED AND SENT
On Feb. 16, 1962, Sen. Russell B. Long testified before a U.S. Senate committee on a resolution to establish a commission for the purpose of supervising the 150th celebration of the Battle of New Orleans. This would be the beginning of the end. The commission was composed of 23 members appointed by federal and state groups. None were members of the Fazendeville community.
By telegram, Sen. Allen J. Ellender and Rep. F. Edward Hebert announced that Congress “ … passed and sent to the President for signing into law a resolution to create the commission for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of the Battle of New Orleans and to authorize the purchase of certain land within the Chalmette National Historical Park.”
An article in the St. Bernard Voice dated Sept. 28, 1962, continues: “ … The purchase of certain land within the Chalmette Park is the property individually owned by Negroes residing on Fazendeville Lane.”
On Jan. 11, 1963, President Kennedy appointed six members to the Sesquicentennial Commission. One of his appointments was community activist Martha Robinson. She had been responsible for getting 66 acres donated to the park several years before. The wheels were turning fast.
On Feb. 2, 1963, the National Park Service regional chief of lands, Clifford Harriman, and Lyle Lynch, superintendent of the Chalmette National Park, retained the services of two Army Corps of Engineers Land Appraisers, Lloyd Seber and Joseph Eueyer. Their duty was to establish comparable values on the Fazendeville properties. At no time were the members of this community given any consideration about their feelings or desires. Their homes were blocking progress and had to be removed.
At the time of this appraisal, the market price for a new home in St. Bernard Parish was $16,500. The residents of Fazendeville would receive only about $6,000 per family for their homes. Granted, these were not new houses, but the fact remains that the compensation they were to receive would force them into mortgage debt or make them renters.
On Oct. 12, 1963, just 41 days before his assassination, President Kennedy signed the bill into law that expropriated the Fazendeville property owners’ land. No one came to their defense.
The St. Bernard Voice reported: “At 8:00 a.m. Wednesday November 25th 1964 the Fazendeville Road running from the Mississippi River to St. Bernard Highway was closed to public travel by the federal government.”
At the Police Jury meeting the Tuesday before, District Attorney Leander Perez was requested by the jury to seek a restraining order to prevent closing of the road. They reasoned that no notice of closing had been given to Police Jury in advance. Was someone finally coming to the defense of this helpless community of black citizens? No – the Police Jury’s concern was not about displacing the Fazendeville community but about access to the sewerage treatment plant that occupied that parcel of land between the community and the river.
Records of the Chalmette Park indicate that on April 13, 1964, a U.S. Marshal served the Police Jury secretary with a copy of the condemnation proceedings filed in federal court. Once local government was assured of access to its sewerage facility, objections ended. The sewerage plant remains to this day.
On Nov. 27, 1963, Fazendeville Road closed. By Sept. 4, 1964, only six families remained in old Fazendeville village. According to the St. Bernard Voice, “The others have moved their houses or otherwise established new homes in New Orleans or in the Violet Neighborhood.” Fazendeville was no more!
The Voice reported on Feb. 26, 1965, that:
Sealed bids for the purchase of a double frame dwelling on the old Fazendeville Lane will be opened at 2 p.m., Friday, March 5th at the Chalmette National Historic Park. The building to be sold is the only remaining building on Fazendeville Lane which was acquired by the U.S. Government for the National Historical Park. Also being sold is a frame garage. The building must be removed within 30 days by the successful bidder. The building is sold “as is” and “where is.”
This was the last home. On a more tragic note, one family who lived in California tried to drive back to Fazendeville to claim their belongings. However, they were involved in a serious traffic accident. Their home was destroyed, with its contents still inside, before they arrived.
With little fanfare and little concern on the part of government or local supporters of the park, a quaint, 100-year-old black community ceased to exist. Those houses that were not moved were bulldozed.
In recent years, the National Park Service has recognized its responsibility. The service has funded research to study Fazendeville, interview surviving inhabitants and develop a history of the community. The service intends to make visitors to the park aware of the sacrifice a small black community made in order that today’s Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, so designated in 1978, could exist.
The National Park Service has also expended considerable resources researching the events and people involved in this displacement. A contract has been awarded to Dr. Joyce Marie Jackson of Louisiana State University to collect oral histories, and a painting of Fazendeville was presented to the parishioners of the Battleground Baptist Church. Poster copies of the painting are available through the National Park Service. In addition, a brochure about Fazendeville is now available. The Park Service seeks to document and commemorate those who lived in Fazendeville.
A LITTLE BEWILDERED
The Battleground Baptist Church still exists, only it has been relocated to New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward on Flood Street. Rev. Theodore Sanders, a former resident of Fazendeville, officiates every Sunday. His comments are telling: “Some residents, most of whom have passed on, were very hurt … a little bewildered. What was done was done a long time ago. I think that the contributions of the National Park Service and WHO?? Ms. Allison Pena have gone a long way to assuage some of that anguish. The prints of Fazendeville have been distributed to the families of the residents, and that has brought great joy. Some kind of a monument on the site itself would bring people back to the area. If I could walk down that road and imagine where those houses were, it would do a lot. What the National Park Service has done, the sincerity of their effort documenting the residents’ story means a lot and has endeared the Park Service to those who remain. They are grateful.”
It has been 40 years since this 100-year-old community was destroyed. Despite bold efforts by the National Park Service to heal wounds, with moist eyes, survivors remember only too well what was.
Ron Chapman is an assistant professor of history at Nunez Community College.