Ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar in hunt for dead in racial mas­sacre

Imperial Valley Press - - OPINION - BY JANET MCCON­NAUGHEY

NEW OR­LEANS — Re­searchers search­ing for a pos­si­ble mass grave from a racial mas­sacre in 1887 said they picked up sig­nals Thurs­day of dis­turbed earth at a south Louisiana site, but they cau­tioned they don’t know yet what ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar de­tected.

The sig­nals were de­tected Thurs­day, the first day of a sur­vey of a va­cant lot in the com­mu­nity of Thi­bo­daux, where lo­cals be­lieve white mobs dumped the bod­ies of African-Amer­i­cans killed dur­ing a Re­con­struc­tion era ram­page. The mobs were out to break a month­long strike by sugar plan­ta­tion field hands, many of them ex-slaves, in the era fol­low­ing the Amer­i­can civil war.

The ex­perts were cau­tious as radar probed for un­der­ground dis­tur­bances war­rant­ing fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“I’m be­gin­ning to think we might have found a prospec­tive site. But it might be from a garbage dump,” said Tu­lane Univer­sity geo­physics pro­fes­sor Cyn­thia Ebinger, who op­er­ated the radar at the lo­ca­tion some 65 miles (95 kilo­me­ters) west of New Or­leans

They re­ceived quick dis­ap­point­ment as a man who once lived across the street came to watch and told them a small oil rig once stood in the area they had marked by small or­ange flags.

Tu­lane an­thro­pol­ogy grad­u­ate stu­dent Davette Gadi­son was in charge of the ini­tial sur­vey. Gadi­son had done past work with a foren­sic team un­earthing re­mains of 20th cen­tury civil war vic­tims in Gu­atemala — and sim­i­lar work in the East African re­gion of So­ma­liland.

Ebinger said sig­nals ini­tially in­di­cated a pit about 6 feet deep (2 me­ters) and 10 feet (3 me­ters) across in an area where lo­cals be­lieve vic­tims could have been buried. An es­ti­mated 30 to 60 African-Amer­i­cans are be­lieved to have been killed in what be­came known as the “Thi­bo­daux Mas­sacre.”

“This is ex­cit­ing,” said John DeSan­tis, who wrote a book on the mas­sacre and helped form a com­mit­tee of the vic­tim’s de­scen­dants and oth­ers. He smiled broadly as Gadi­son showed him radar images on her cell phone.

But Sylvester Jack­son, whose great grand­fa­ther sur­vived the ram­page, came to watch and told them about the oil rig.

It was a bit de­flat­ing, Ebinger said.

Bones don’t show up on radar. The sig­nals might show dis­turbed earth un­der­ground — ar­eas where bod­ies could have been buried — or any­thing else, even garbage.

Ebinger op­er­ated con­trols of the radar — an in­stru­ment mounted on a pair of metal frames they slowly moved across the ground. Guided by a mea­sur­ing tape, geo­physi­cist Ryan Gal­lagher set the radar down ev­ery 25 cen­time­ters (10 inches), say­ing “point, point, point” to in­di­cate when Ebinger should trig­ger a radar sig­nal.

An ar­chae­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor helped by ex­tract­ing core sam- ples from the soil with a long, nar­row metal cylinder.

The work calls for find­ing ev­i­dence mer­it­ing fur­ther at­ten­tion on land now owned by an Amer­i­can Le­gion chap­ter, built by African-Amer­i­can veter­ans dur­ing the seg­re­gated 1950s. The re­searchers weren’t im­me­di­ately seek­ing hu­man re­mains. If any bones are de­tected, they must im­me­di­ately halt work and seek state per­mis­sion to con­tinue.

But af­ter a full day Thurs- day, the re­searchers said they wouldn’t be re­turn­ing Fri­day since they had to an­a­lyze the ini­tial data.

Neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents and the com­man­der of the Amer­i­can Le­gion post watched the work Thurs­day. The search was com­pli­cated by the fact that the Amer­i­can Le­gion post build­ing was erected over what had be­come a city land­fill for a time.

Post com­man­der Deb­o­rah Win­ston said she first heard sto­ries of a pos­si­ble mass grave in the area be­fore DeSan­tis be­gan re­search­ing his book, since pub­lished in 2016.

She thought at first that peo­ple were telling ghost sto­ries. She re­mem­bered telling them: ‘Y’all try­ing to scare me? I’m in the build­ing by my­self at night.”

“I feel bet­ter now, since they’re out here try­ing to find out what’s go­ing on,” she said.

Events in 1887 be­gan with strik­ing sugar work­ers de­mand­ing a raise. Ac­cord­ing to DeSan­tis, they also wanted cash pay­ment, in­stead of the chits they re­ceived for use only in a plan­ta­tion com­pany store. As ten­sions soared, a judge de­clared mar­tial law in Thi­bo­daux. When vi­o­lence fi­nally erupted on Nov. 23, 1887, white mobs went door- to- door for more than two hours shoot­ing un­armed blacks, ac­cord­ing to DeSan­tis.

AP PHOTO/GER­ALD HER­BERT

Tu­lane Univer­sity re­searcher Dr. Ryan Gal­lacher uses ground pen­e­trat­ing radar equip­ment with a team from Tu­lane, on a piece of land that may hold a mass grave from a Re­con­struc­tion-era racial mas­sacre in Thi­bo­daux, La., on Thurs­day. The re­sults could in­di­cate whether dig­ging would likely turn up a mass grave where white mobs are said to have dumped the bod­ies of African-Amer­i­cans they killed in 1887.

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