You hardly ever see the river, but the levee is always close by, a great green serpent running through the woods, swamps, and farms, with towns nestling close to its slopes. The levee is unobtrusive, since its slope is green and gradual, but in fact it is immense — higher and longer than the Great Wall of China, very likely the biggest thing that man has ever made. … It was the principal human response to the titanic power of the great river.
— Alan Lomax, from The Land Where the Blues Began (2002)
In March 2011, as water levels reached critical stages throughout the Mississippi River Valley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated phase one of the “Flood Fight” that would become Operation Watershed, mobilizing against the forces of nature with military resolve. The storms kept coming and the water kept rising. In April, farmers and fishers in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin were notified that they might be forcibly evacuated if extreme control measures became necessary. The Army Corps began the controlled inundation of floodways along the river soon thereafter. On May 2, the Corps detonated a levee downstream of Cairo, Illinois, submerging a wide swath of southeast Missouri known as the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. On May 9, as 1.25 million cubic feet per second (CFS) of water flowed past New Orleans, it opened the first of 330 bays at the Bonnet Carré Spillway, diverting water away from the Crescent City and into Lake Pontchartrain. And on May 14, with the river flowing at 1.5 million CFS at monitoring stations near Baton Rouge, the Corps opened 17 bays of the Morganza Flood Control Structure, diverting water from the Lower Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya Basin, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Journalists covered the Flood Fight as they would a military campaign. Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post announced that “there’s a war underway” and the “engineers seem to have the upper hand.” Channeling the wisdom of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, Achenbach speculated that “in the protracted wrestling match on the Mississippi between man and nature, nature will ultimately come out on top.” 1 Isabel Wilkerson, in The New York Times, quoted an Army Corps colonel who said, “We’re going to fight this river all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.” In a more restrained register, the Times excerpted Wilkerson’s 1993 article “Running Wild: The Mississippi Reclaims Its True Domain,” which ended with a romantic quote from an English professor who saw in the Mississippi’s floodwaters “the debris of battlefields between water and man.” 2
In July 2011, not long after the last of the control bays were closed, the Army Corps declared victory in the Flood Fight: “One of the greatest floods in the history of the Mississippi River proved that the … system could withstand and manage historic flows. The flood control system operated as designed and protected almost 10 million acres, thousands of homes, more than 4 million people and 200 billion dollars of infrastructure.” 3 Compared with the Great Flood of 1927 — which inundated 26,000 square miles of land, killed 500 people and left another 700,000 homeless — Operation Watershed seemed a triumph of river engineering. 4
Within a few weeks, life along the Mississippi River was business as usual. The rows of sandbags stacked neatly atop levees disappeared, and local roads reopened in the Atchafalaya Basin. Residents’ lives returned to pre-Flood Fight schedules. The immediacy of danger, accentuated by hourly flood-stage reports on television and radio, yielded to the mundane rhythms of work and leisure. This is where our story begins, where the violent waters turn peaceful and forgetting replaces remembering.
Paying Attention at Church
Seated in a church pew, months after the waters receded, we listened to residents of Fordoche, Louisiana, talk about how they had been affected by the diversion of Mississippi floodwaters. “Piece of cake,” said one member of Zion Traveler Baptist Church. Everyone in the small African American congregation agreed. “It was right on the other side of the levee here,” an elderly deacon noted, gesturing toward the massive earthwork 300 yards west of the building in which we were gathered. Another said, “We were in a drought on this side, and we were wishing for water, and they had all the water on that side.” 5
“That side” was the Morganza Floodway — the corridor designed to divert floodwaters from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin. Proposed in 1928 and begun in 1937, the project transformed a swath of east-central Louisiana into a donor landscape, a floodable territory 5 miles wide and 20 miles long, capable of relieving half the flow of the Mississippi River during periods of high water. When the Army Corps completed the Morganza Control Structure in 1954, the floodway became practically uninhabitable, though engineers have inundated the land only twice, in 1973 and 2011. (During lesser floods, the Morganza Floodway stays closed so that the Atchafalaya River doesn’t become the principal distributary of the Mississippi.) “This side,” in the church member’s words, was the secure area locked away from the volatile river, protected by the levee. 6
As we listened to the congregation, we found it easy to accept the spatial qualifiers of this and that side, and difficult to question the certainty with which church members confirmed the Flood Fight as an unqualified victory. Environmental historian William Cronon has written extensively on the American tendency to idealize “nature,” to separate “us” from “it” in order to preserve an Edenic ideal. 7 When a space, in this case the Morganza Floodway, is removed from the immediate context of the built environment — whether for the protection of the land or its inhabitants — it is often perceptually associated with wilderness. Boundaries shift, as observers reorganize their worldview to see completeness in the part that remains. As long as the river is quiet, church members don’t think about it.
But what we heard in the pews that day ran even deeper. It’s not just that members of Zion Traveler don’t think about the river. It’s that they don’t need to think about it. The levee has come to seem inevitable in force and effect. This outlook makes it possible to regard the levee as a natural feature of the landscape, instead of a geomorphologic anomaly barely a half-century old. The river, on the other hand, has come to seem less significant — out of sight and out of mind — thanks to the Army Corps’ success in controlling floods.
You’re not likely to find Zion Traveler’s name in histories of the Morganza Floodway, let alone histories of Mississippi River flood control. It’s just one tiny church on the edge of a massive infrastructure project in a highly engineered landscape. But Zion Traveler is an ideal place to explore the processes of remembering and forgetting that are essential to that larger history. What follows is a mystery story, a minor mystery perhaps, told by two outsiders, a landscape architecture professor and a religious historian, who found themselves enrapt by the story of a small, rural community facing the powerful forces of the Mississippi River and the United States government. It highlights the perspectival similarities and differences between an entity as small as a twelve-person Baptist church and a government institution, the Army Corps, with a multi-billion dollar budget and a federal mandate to control the Mississippi. It’s an ambiguous mystery, without a neat conclusion, without even an obvious crime, but that’s partly the point. The past here is as murky as floodwater. Selective memory and willful forgetting are as essential to this place as the control systems that safeguard its future. Residents have made their peace with that.
Build a Floodway, Move a Church
Zion Traveler is one of dozens of churches in the safe zone between the levees of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers in east-central Louisiana. Most of the area’s African American Baptist churches have fewer than fifty regular members. Visually modest, made of cinderblock or wood, with simple steeples or none, these structures are so frequently sighted along the levees that they are often overlooked — as with many places that are considered sacred, we tend to assume they’ve “always been there.” But in fact their history is more complicated.
Beginning in the 1930s, when the Army Corps condemned roughly 100 square miles of land to create the Morganza Floodway, residents and buildings were moved so the corridor could be flooded at any time and on short notice. The Corps provided for the relocation of most occupied structures, including churches, from inside the floodway (“that side”) to the levee-lined safe zone (“this side”). Non-essential structures and spaces, like agricultural plots and temporary buildings (hunting camps, barns, storage units), were allowed to remain at the expense and risk of the owner. In the cause of flood management, entire farming communities like Ravenswood — once the home of Zion Traveler — were displaced, their residents forced to seek new territories.
At the time most communities were organized around small churches associated with large plantations. The original church sites were tied to waterways — the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya River, and various bayous and ponds — which served as baptismal pools. Later, many churches relocated to sites on or near “safe” waterways like the borrow pits that line levees throughout Louisiana. In these still-water pits that resemble bayous, churches found a substitute landform that functioned as a suitable site for baptisms. 8
And sure enough, Zion Traveler sits about 100 meters from a borrow pit, on a wide, flat spoil bank of the now-defunct Bayou Fordoche, which intersects the eastern levee of the Morganza Floodway. The church — the people, the building, the graveyard — was moved here in the 1940s, from its original location inside the floodway. In this respect, Zion Traveler has been saved. The government engineered a flood protection system that allows people to live in a place once threatened by the unpredictable and destructive power of the Mississippi, whose meandering outlet is now constrained and obstructed by levees. The “unmeasured desolation” of the untamed Mississippi, as one local historian put it, has been relegated to the past. 9
But in another respect, Zion Traveler has been lost. In the half century that it has taken residents of east-central Louisiana to forget what it meant for the Mississippi to flood, the members of Zion Traveler have forgotten where their old graveyard and church once stood. What the current site provides in perceived permanence and safety, it lacks in memory and history. The floodway has cut off the congregants from their past, from ancestors who lived and worshipped less than a mile away. The secretary of Zion Traveler — the person responsible for keeping the church records — does not know where the old church was located, and neither did anybody else before we started asking questions. We asked the secretary if her parents or grandparents ever talked about the old place. “They didn’t talk about it much,” she said. “I guess because it was history.”
Histories are lost all the time, of course. The relocation of people and buildings — religious and otherwise — is a common occurrence in the evolution of the American landscape, often driven by the interests of powerful political or economic forces. Whether that relocation is forced or voluntary, it doesn’t necessarily sentence a community to total loss or ahistoricism, although the losses are often greater when those who are displaced are also marginalized by race or socioeconomic status. 10 What drew our interest to Zion Traveler was the embedding of this loss in a deeper forgetting about the place of human activity in a precarious landscape.
In Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape, Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha illustrate how settlement patterns and cultural practices often hinge on government decisions to engineer — to secure and protect — the territory. 11 In the Mississippi Basin, that role has been assigned to the Army Corps, which is concerned, first, with building and maintaining the infrastructure of flood control, and, second, with telling a story that projects to the future: the lives and property to be saved. Public preservation of the past is token at best: the odd historical marker or local museum, meager surrogates for the rich cacophony of private memories that reside in oral stories, photo albums, junk drawers and cedar closets, which are often lost when communities are displaced. The success of landscape interventions like the Morganza Floodway is generally measured in ways that don’t account for intangible losses such as the cultural memory of a place. Mechanisms for remembering are managed by powerful institutions like the Army Corps and are less available to private communities at the margins of society and forgotten to history. Projecting the future of east-central Louisiana depends on our ability to access and understand the less-leveed past, sorting through the rupture between memory and history, between the private stories of Zion Traveler and the public history of the Army Corps.
The Three Graveyards of Zion Traveler
“I continue to be troubled by the unsettling spectacle offered by an excess of memory here, and an excess of forgetting elsewhere, to say nothing of the influence of commemorations and abuses of memory — and of forgetting.” — Paul Ricoeur, from Memory, History, Forgetting (2004)
Walking among the dead on the grounds of Zion Traveler Baptist Church, one notices two distinctive graveyards. On the west side of the church, nearer the levee, the graveyard looks like every other Baptist graveyard in the region, with fake flowers resting on concrete vaults bearing the names of church members (from only a handful of families) dating from the 1940s to the present. The graveyard on the east side, somewhat concealed by the shadow of an oak tree, looks very different, with military-style headstones evenly spaced in five straight rows and eleven columns. Most are marked “Unknown”; they appear undisturbed except for the slow crawl of fungus and the soft washing of erosion.
The deacon of another Baptist church, a retired employee of the Army Corps, had told us about the peculiar graves of Zion Traveler and insisted that we see them for ourselves. He said the graves didn’t contain bodies, which got our attention. So we knocked on the door of the church, but since Zion Traveler worshippers meet only twice a month, there was no one home. There was also no phone listing, so we inquired at the office of the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District across the street. “Oh yeah, I know somebody from Zion Traveler,” the office manager said. “He used to work here. He’ll know something.” He rattled off the phone number by heart. We asked a few more questions about Zion Traveler. “Have you ever attended church there?” “No,” he replied, “it’s a black church. But good people, though.” He didn’t know anything about the two graveyards. 12
Several days later, we met with elder members of Zion Traveler after Sunday services, who confirmed our hunch about the two graveyards. In the 1940s, their parents and grandparents had moved the church from its original location inside the Morganza Floodway. The west graveyard was where the church had buried its dead since the move, and the east side was the “old” graveyard, with headstones provided by the Army Corps. “From what my auntie was telling me,” a deacon said, the Army Corps “just moved the headstones and left the bodies in the graves.” The secretary supported his claim: “I have heard that too. They just put stones there. There wasn’t no bodies.” We found this surprising: “So there are no bodies in the ground in the ‘old’ graveyard?” The secretary replied, “Correct.”
Somewhere out there, it seemed, was a third graveyard, where earlier generations were still buried. “Do you know where the graves are?” we asked. No, they said. “Do you feel wronged in any way because you don’t know?” They did not. This was the first of many conversations we had at Zion Traveler that revealed our different perspectives. As outsiders, our gut reaction was to assume that some deep indignity and injustice had occurred. Like the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, we were troubled by “the unsettling spectacle offered by an excess of memory here, and an excess of forgetting elsewhere.” 13 We later pressed this point on several occasions, but the general response was one of resignation to events of the distant past. On this day, we asked, “If you knew where the old cemetery was in the floodway, would you visit it?” One of the deacons responded, “Yes. Yes, I would. I would pay my respects.”
Memory is about remembering and forgetting. It is about having (and not having) the wherewithal and resources to recall the past. “Sites of memory,” to use historian Pierre Nora’s term, are locations where the past resides in physical and imagined forms, in material objects and immaterial thoughts that are always subject to deformation, manipulation and appropriation over time. 14 The lost graves of the Morganza Floodway are sites where we can explore how alterations to the landscape have an impact not only on the trajectory of a place’s future, but also on access to its past. Memories of the old Zion Traveler have been lost in part because they don’t fit the prevailing narrative of the “Flood Fight,” the Army Corps’ official history of mastery over nature. Attempting to uncover that past was a year-long journey that took us to libraries and archives and churches and cemeteries and homes and farms and fields throughout the region. In a donor landscape like the Morganza Floodway, where so many of the physical scars of removal are erased, there is not much to go on. The past is accidentally located in physical elements of the landscape — here an irrigation ditch, there a deteriorated fence — that have somehow survived years of flooding and farming, in historic land surveys and contractual agreements, and in the stories handed down through generations of church members who are physically and imaginatively disconnected from their past.
A month after that first meeting, we visited the secretary at her home, where she showed us three legal documents related to the sale and purchase of land between the Army Corps and the church trustees over 70 years ago. She had never read them closely and did not know what information they contained. The earliest document dates to 1939, when Zion Traveler members unanimously approved a resolution drafted by the Army Corps to execute “a certain flowage easement deed on the said above lands, together with all buildings and improvements thereon,” located in Ravenswood, Louisiana, which today is an abandoned settlement inside the Morganza Floodway. 15 For $550, the Army Corps purchased the perpetual right to flood the 1.08 acres of land and to prohibit permanent or temporary habitation of the property that was originally acquired by the first members of Zion Traveler in 1888. It is not known exactly when the congregation left the Morganza Floodway, though the oral history suggests that the original church was rolled on logs to the current site in the 1940s and then demolished in the 1960s to make way for the cinderblock church that stands today.
The other two documents, dated 1949, involve the conveyance of land used as a graveyard to the Army Corps. Most current members of Zion Traveler believe that the graveyard was located on the original church site. This is a reasonable suspicion, but the documents show that in fact Zion Traveler shared a graveyard with another church in the Morganza Floodway. That graveyard, the Mount Olive Baptist Cemetery, was a half mile north of the original Zion Traveler site along Bayou Fordoche. At a cost of $30, the Army Corps bought the 0.13 acre property with the option to “transfer such rights so obtained to the successful bidder for the removal of bodies from the cemeteries situated within the boundaries of the Morganza Floodway.” 16 Stated in the resolution is “a certain option for purchase of [a future] cemetery site for the reinterment of bodies removed from Mt. Olive Cemetery,” though no other documents in the possession of the secretary reveal whether or not the bodies were ever moved. 17
Few structures are called out more explicitly on U.S. Geological Survey maps than churches and cemeteries (both marked with crosses), suggesting that surveyors were mindful of the significance of these sacred sites. The 1940 USGS map clearly marks the sites of Zion Traveler Baptist Church and Mount Olive Cemetery inside the Morganza Floodway. Aerial photographs taken in 1941 and archived at the LSU Cartographic Information Center, appear to show the church and cemetery still intact at that time. The map places the abandoned Mount Olive Cemetery in what is today a sugarcane field flanked on the east and north by Bayou Fordoche. We have visited that site on many occasions, visually scanning the area for signs of a graveyard — stone, plaster, wood, concrete, brick, bone — to no avail. The presumably sacred ground has been tilled dozens, perhaps hundreds of times since its desertion. It’s quite possible that any remains of the bodies are scattered, if not vanished. There are no markers that would suggest that the site was once (or still is) a place of burial.
For a time, we were resigned to the fact that we would probably never know what happened to the lost graves of Zion Traveler. Did the Army Corps disinter the bodies and move them to the unmarked graveyard at the new Zion Traveler? Were they left behind in the floodway? Our superficial site visits could not definitely answer the question. But while we were digging through archives and making field visits, the members of Zion Traveler were talking and remembering. Given the opportunity to corroborate with family and friends, more details emerged. The secretary told us that older church members had always said they moved the bodies, but “I don’t know, I never asked my parents: Was it real? Was it not real?” She conceded, “None of us are sure.” A deacon remembered his aunt talking about a time when she was notified that some group — probably the Army Corps — was disinterring the graves. She hurried to the site to make sure her child’s body was properly identified and transported to the new burial site. A second deacon telephoned his aunt in Detroit and reported, “She thinks that they moved the bodies.” “But let me tell you a story,” he continued. “My grandmother, she was buried over in the spillway. And when they got ready to move everybody over to this side, daddy was working and he couldn’t get off, and he was the only one who could tell them who she was and where to move her. So when they moved her, they didn’t have no name.” So “they’ve got a grave over there [in the east graveyard] for her, but we don’t know which one. It’s unknown.”
Providence, Prayer and Control
The west graveyard, where the congregation has been burying its dead since the relocation, has 57 concrete vaults extending six feet into the ground and three feet above ground, each clustered into one of the congregation’s five main family units. “At least we know who’s in there,” a member told us as we walked the grounds on a warm autumn morning after services. 18 At first glance, this graveyard — the one current members of Zion Traveler have had the most control over — seems permanent and fixed in the landscape. It’s easy to understand photographer Tom Rankin’s claim, in his book Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta, that “the ubiquitous presence of these churches and their adjoining cemeteries and churchyards — these sacred spaces — constitutes a kind of three-dimensional iconography in an otherwise profane agricultural landscape.” 19 But the lost graves of Zion Traveler should teach us otherwise. Objects that now appear to be icons in a sacred vernacular landscape may turn out to be as vulnerable as everything else here, caught between past and future developments in the engineering of the Mississippi River.
That much was clear when the Army Corps diverted water down the Morganza Floodway in 2011. Prior to the diversion, a representative of the Army Corps called the Zion Traveler secretary and asked if there was a record of the graves “in case the water came up and the bodies washed up.” So, the secretary says, “I took pictures of the cemeteries, stuff from the church, and the church [building], and I put it all on the computer.” She then catalogued the dead in a spreadsheet. “I just went by the names on them [in the west graveyard], because some of them don’t have names, and I kind of asked other members, ‘Do you know who that was?’ and we guessed who was there.” As for the east graveyard, “I just counted the headstones on that side because I can only name a few.” The secretary joked, “If something would happen and I lost the computer, I’d be in bad shape. But as of today, it’s all on the computer now.”
That phone call was, as they say in the U.S. military, standard operating procedure. The obligatory nature of the gesture, however, doesn’t discount the fact that it was also an act of preservation — there is now a record of the dead — and an admission of vulnerability — the levees may fail. The official history of the 2011 flood reinforces this point. Army Corps representatives, like ordinary residents, “put their faith in the readiness of the flood control system that had protected the valley since 1928.” Faced with the prospect of a devastating flood on the scale of 1927, many soldiers and engineers tasked with managing the 2011 flood believed, “This wasn’t a man-made disaster. … It was a God-made scenario.” Or, to use the words of the Mississippi River Commission historian, “it was Divine Providence.” 20
And yet, that apparent belief in the hand of God doesn’t mean that the Flood Fighters ignored the potential for failure. The Army Corps and its partners understood the hardships faced by communities in the path of the rising waters. Indeed, moments before giving the order to explode a gap in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, just days before opening the Morganza Floodway, the executive director of the Mississippi River Commission led the command post in a prayer of forgiveness. He began, “We remember God’s Word” from the Book of John: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And he ended, “We acknowledge that You are the only one who can forgive sin, restore hope and truly help. In Jesus strong name we pray, Amen.”
Prayer, it turns out, is also a part of the unofficial plan to control the Mississippi.