Editor’s Note: In the spring 2020 semester, University of Alabama history professor Julia Brock taught a class on the theory and practice of oral history. Titled “Southern Adaptations,” Brock and her students interviewed Southerners about their memories of their environment or natural landscape, about adapting to and working to slow the climate crisis, and about fighting for environmental justice. “Oral history interviews contribute information about the past, but more importantly, bear witness to the way a person felt, perceived, or experienced the story from a personal perspective,” Brock said.
COVID-19 interrupted the class, requiring Brock and her students to shift to virtual methods of communication. Here she presents the voices of three environmental activists from Uniontown and Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Marshella Hood, Benjamin Jackson, and John Wathen. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Alabama’s history of protecting its natural resources is rarely discussed. But in 1906, the state created one of the South’s first fish and game commissions, which fought industries, including guano fertilizer manufacturers, that dumped toxic waste in river systems. In the 1970s, Alabama created an environmental protection unit that was the first of its kind in the South. Unfortunately, however, the state’s history of racism, injustice, and exploitation of natural spaces has overshadowed these progressive steps. Over the last several decades, the state has been criticized for failing to use regulatory power to curb industrial polluters — from fossil fuel companies to landfills to chemical plants.
Since the 1990s, the work to hold industry accountable, and protect vulnerable communities, has been carried on by grassroots groups in communities across rural and urban areas of the state. One of those is Uniontown, a small town of about 1,700 people in the Black Belt in west-central Alabama that is 90% Black, according to Census data. Uniontown has garnered attention in recent history because it’s home to a landfill that has been a dumping ground for coal ash — the byproduct of burning coal that contains toxic heavy metals — from states around the country, including the nation’s largest coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. There are other industrial hazards, too: A cheese plant and catfish farm, which are still in operation, dump waste into the local watershed. The city does not have a functioning municipal wastewater system.
In 2005, residents organized Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, which advocates on behalf of Uniontown folks and uses public education campaigns and voting rights initiatives to empower residents in the area.
An hour north in Tuscaloosa, locals formed Friends of Hurricane Creek in 1993 to restore Hurricane Creek, a tributary of the Black Warrior River that was polluted for years by strip mining, chemical manufacturing, and construction runoff. The group continues its efforts through legal means to fight pollution and polluters, and serves as a watchdog for river health in Tuscaloosa and across the state.
The University of Alabama class interviewed three representatives from these organizations: Marshella Hood and Ben Jackson, members of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice in Uniontown, and John Wathen, one of the founders of Friends of Hurricane Creek, in Tuscaloosa.
Below are stories about their lives, work, and the environmental justice movement — in their own words.
Marshella Hood began an interview with Ryan Howser and Vincent West by reflecting on her childhood in Uniontown. She told how a beloved childhood creek behind her home was polluted by the local cheese plant
Ben Jackson, who is also from Uniontown, was a teenager in 2010 when the coal ash dump appeared. He remembers the numerous trains coming in that effectively blocked his neighborhood from the rest of the town. Jackson’s mother shielded him from the burden of worrying about risks associated with the dump. In 2016, the landfill company filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit against four residents who had spoken out against it. A settlement was reached in 2017.
Jackson left Uniontown for college. While at the University of Montevallo in 2019, he attended a screening of Uniontown, by Fraser Jones, which weaves together stories from residents, including members of Black Belt Citizens. Members of the group, including a young man who reminded Jackson of himself, spoke at the screening. Jackson moved back to Uniontown and worked for Black Belt Citizens until May. In the clip below, he recounted that decision:
Hood and Jackson both outlined the Black Belt Citizens’ efforts to use legal resources, grassroots electoral campaigns, and voter rights initiatives to fight industrial polluters in Uniontown. Hood noted a recent training she attended, for example, to “get voter rights restored for former offenders,” which built on previous experience she had working in criminal justice reform.
John Wathen, the Creekkeeper of Hurricane Creek, recalled for students Declan Smith and Jana Venable what catalyzed his work in environmental protection: Routine encounters with toxic chemicals like benzene while working in Birmingham’s mining industry in the 1970s. Seeing children in his community exposed compelled him to act.
Wathen has documented environmental destruction across Alabama for decades. He has used airplane photography, for example, to capture the effects of pollution, including in Uniontown–when the coal ash dump came to the city, Wathen used his camera to collect evidence of the landfill’s expansion. He explained other strategies of the Friends of Hurricane Creek and the Alabama Waterkeepers Alliance in holding state and federal regulatory bodies accountable using citizen-led initiatives.
The interviews shed light on the effects of years of pollution. As environmental historian Ellen Spears wrote, oral histories with those who have experienced environmental injustice allow us to recognize personal toxicologies, one way to document the embodiment of what she and other scholars call “toxic knowledge.”
Marshella Hood told Howser and West about the health issues faced by family and friends in Uniontown. Alabama has long been a dumping ground for other states’ waste; residents have for decades been fighting to shed light on public health concerns.
Black Americans have also seen higher death rates from COVID-19, particularly in the rural South. “As the black share of the population in rural Southern counties increases, the median number of confirmed COVID cases per 100,000 rises,” Facing South reported recently, “so does the number of deaths.”
Hood noted the connections between systemic racism, environmental hazards in Black communities, and the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has stalled or stopped at least some of these activists’ work. Wathen continues to steward the creek, part of which is now a park owned by Tuscaloosa County, and muses that the state’s shelter-in-place order — which is no longer in place — was beneficial in some ways. “There is less litter, in the Creek, there’s less people up there swimming and abusing the Creek, frankly,” he said. “It’s a shame to have to learn lessons the way we’re learning this, but the Earth is doing much better without so much human impact. Without our contact, she will heal herself. Hurricane Creek is a prime example of that.”
Jackson agreed that the recent response to the pandemic — he said he saw the proof that we can attempt to remake the world in a more just way.
Hood argued for better leadership at all levels of government, and Wathen said that protection was in the hand of future generations and that any successful change will require bipartisan effort.
This short piece was drafted before civil uprisings began in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Reyshard Brooks and a long history of police brutality and systemic racism. Asked to reflect on the connections between the protests and the “slow death” of environmental racism, Ben Jackson wrote this response:
“I think that too often we forget that ‘society’ is a contract. It is an agreement that we have with each other about how we live. The relationship between the citizens and the state is also a contract. There are rules. When the state and its representatives violate those rules then they should be held accountable. And if the state cannot insure peace and safety for all of its citizens, especially its marginalized citizens, it forfeits the privilege of insuring anything else. The sad truth lies in how necessary the destruction was to get the attention of people and institutions that spent so much time gaslighting Black Americans. I think this movement will give so many people the voices needed to fight the issues ailing them. I was proud to see other movements growing from this. …I think that the social climate is also a part of our environment. Hopefully, actively acknowledging the existence and significance of Black lives will make it hard for them to pollute our communities.”