By Ryan Velez
Historically, we know the last slave ship to bring enslaved Africans to the U.S., is the Clotilda. After being freed by the Civil War, this group, from the Dahomey Kingdom (modern-day Benin) petitioned to be returned home. When the U.S. government refused, the freed slaves bought land from their captors and founded the township of Plateau. This community is one of the first of its kind in the U.S. and still lives on as Africatown today. Now, Atlanta Black Star reports that the community is grappling with another, modern problem.
Last spring, a suit was filed on behalf of 1200 Africatown residents against International Paper, which operated a paper plant for the better part of the 20th century on land owned by the Meaher family. The lawsuit claims the plant and its related facilities surrounding the town released highly toxic chemicals linked to cancer into the local environment in amounts far exceeding legal EPA limits. It further alleges International Paper, a Memphis-based company that made over $21 billion globally in sales in 2016 alone, violated federal regulations by failing to clean up the site before closing and bulldozing the plant in 2000, leaving chemicals to seep and spread into surrounding areas.
“Many of these communities were founded by former slaves at the worst time in our history,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. The prolific author commonly recognized as “the father of environmental justice” is an Alabama native. Despite everything they’ve been through, said Bullard, communities like Africatown have “been able to pull together, become self-sufficient and fend for themselves. And then you get this industrial encroachment by these polluters who see these communities as dumping grounds.”
“That’s the ultimate disrespect,” continued Bullard, who traveled to Africatown to share information on environmental racism and engage local representatives after being inspired by their efforts to save their community. “It says your community doesn’t matter, your children don’t matter, your health doesn’t matter, and your lives don’t matter.”
“We need regulations, a strong EPA and environmental protections across the board,” stressed Bullard, noting the dangerous environmental policy direction of the Trump administration. He clarified the consequences of failing to have such protections in place for Africatown and other historic Black communities across the country.
“It’s telling,” said Bullard. “This community survived the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow segregation but may not survive this modern-day environmental racism.”