‘Not in Anyone’s Backyard’ — people of color and the Environmental Movement

Northwood Manor protest

In spring of 1978, Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) sought a permit for their latest project: a landfill in predominantly Black northeast Houston. BFI had already acquired a plot of land, and after all the necessary arrangements were made, they would begin to build. They had not paused to consider that the plot was next to a residential community.

That community was Northwood Manor, a mostly Black subdivision. As soon as the residents learned a landfill was planned near their homes, they voiced their concerns. As historian Elizabeth D. Blum points out, the landfill’s proposed location was not far from the local high school. Residents were worried about their children’s safety. One parent, Mildred Douglass, was certain that “over a long period of time [the landfill] would cause some type of health problem.” Another parent, Margaret Bean, told Blum there were no “sidewalks out here. I was concerned because the kids were walking home and these big old Browning-Ferris trucks [would be] going up and down the street. I thought some of these kids might get hit by these trucks.”

Bean started knocking on her neighbors’ doors to inform them about the impending landfill. Soon after that, she joined forces with two other women in the neighborhood: Patricia Reaux and Louise Black. The three women became known as the ‘Gunfighters’ because, in Reaux’s words, “they knew that if we were going to fight, we would fight to the end.”

The Gunfighters used a variety of strategies: they called and visited their neighbors, handed out pamphlets, held demonstrations, circulated petitions, and hosted frequent ‘clean-up days’ in their neighborhood. They also hired a lawyer named Linda McKeever Bullard, who prepared to argue that the siting of the landfill was racially discriminatory. The Gunfighters, meanwhile, helped her case by conducting research on Houston’s landfills.

The same year that BFI proposed the Texas landfill, a similar issue emerged in Warren County, N.C. It began when Robert, Timothy, and Randall Burns drove through the county with 50,000 tons of toxic waste.

The waste came from Ward Transformer Company, an electrical equipment company owned by Robert Ward. To avoid the cost of proper disposal, Ward hired the Burns family to dump the waste illegally along the highway.

The state of North Carolina sued and sentenced Ward and the Burns family, but 50,000 tons of waste containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) [a toxin and potential carcinogen] still lay strewn across the county. With approval from the EPA, the state of North Carolina declared its plans to open a landfill in Warren County and move the PCBs there.

The residents of Warren County demanded to know why they should have to live with Ward’s waste. They held demonstrations at the site, and in 1982, they enlisted the NAACP to represent them in court. Like McKeever Bullard, the NAACP argued that North Carolina and the EPA had allowed the landfill in their community specifically because it was Black and low income.

Neither the Warren County case nor the Northwood Manor case was successful in court. In both Texas and North Carolina, activists were able to delay but not ultimately prevent the landfills. Still, the movements were successful in pushing many people (for the first time) to consider the relationship between racism and environmental degradation. As Blum writes on Northwood Manor: “The impact of the Bean case lies not in its result. Bean yielded a new cause to which [environmentalists of color] energetically applied themselves. Over the next few years, the movement gained in prominence, drawing support from other scholars and activists. During the 1980s, activists in the environmental justice movement developed definitions of their movement in strong opposition to their perceptions of the ‘mainstream’ environmental movement.”

The residents of Northwood Manor and Warren County laid the groundwork for later organizing, and they inspired other groups.

One such group was the United Church of Christ (UCC).

The UCC had been following the events in Texas and North Carolina. Its Racial Justice Committee decided to conduct research on environmental hazards in communities of color. In 1987, they published their findings in a report still cited today: Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. The report found that race was the most important factor in the siting of landfills, processing plants, and other hazards. It also determined that three out of every five Black and Latinx Americans (and half of Asian and Native Americans) lived in “communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.”

With Toxic Wastes and Race, the UCC started an important conversation—a conversation much of America, unfortunately, was unwilling to have. In many ways, the politics of the 1980s ran counter to the UCC’s views and values. The decade was marked by deregulation of industry, large tax cuts, and budget cuts. It was also a challenging decade for environmental issues.

Then-President Ronald Reagan hired James G. Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne M. Burford to head the EPA. Both were criticized and eventually pushed to resign: Watt, for insensitive remarks toward people of color and people with disabilities, and Burford, for “mismanagement in cleaning up toxic waste.” Reagan, too, was rebuked for his 1981 statement that “trees cause more pollution than cars.”