by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
This is Hazel M. Johnson. A working-class woman and mother of seven who lived in the Chicago housing project Altgeld Gardens for most of her adult life.
Because of Johnson’s grassroots efforts to combat environmental racism, she is now known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice.” In 1979, a decade after her husband died of lung cancer, Johnson saw a TV report saying South Side of Chicago residents had the highest incidences of cancer in the city. Hazel became determined to find out why.
Hazel learned that not only did the steel mills, refineries and chemical companies nearby shoot toxins into the air and dump into the local river (which locals fished in) making Altgeld Gardens a perfect storm of contamination of air, water and land which Johnson herself would later call (and coin) “the Toxic Doughnut,” but that Altgeld Gardens was originally established as a federal housing project for World War II African American veterans.
It was built atop land that had been an industrial sludge dump for the Pullman Motor Company from 1863 until the early 20th century. Altgeld Gardens, it turned out, had the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the nation.
Johnson went door-to-door collecting data from neighbors and started calling city and state health departments to investigate industrial pollution in her community. In 1982 Hazel founded People for Community Recovery to fight environmental racism.
PCR, made up mainly of mothers and local residents who were volunteers, pushed for city and state officials to do epidemiological studies of Altgeld Gardens (there was no legislative mandate before Hazel Johnson’s activism that addressed how industrial pollution was affecting the quality of life for low-income and minority communities).
Hazel and PCR also put pressure on the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens.
Johnson was equally instrumental in convincing city health officials to test drinking water at Maryland Manor, a South Side neighborhood dependent on well water. After tests conducted in 1984 revealed cyanide and toxins in the water (Hazel convinced city and state officials to meet her in Altgeld Gardens and took them on a “toxic tour” so they could see the problems first-hand), officials installed new water and sewer lines.
In 1986, Hazel and others in PCR protested daily outside the incinerator near Altgeld Gardens where the city was burning its trash and spewing toxins in the air, until the Illinois EPA charged the owners of the incinerator a $5 million fine and shut them down. Below is video of Johnson speaking out against South Side pollution at a 1990 Chicago Town Hall:
Johnson’s victories were true examples of the “power of the people,” because everyone who made them happen were from low-income areas or lived in public housing. Hazel was not paid for her work nor were other members of PCR. But Hazel felt it was her calling:
“Every day, I complain, protest and object. But it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and government accountable to the people on environmental issues. I’ve been thrown in jail twice for getting in the way of big business. But I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop as long as I’m breathing. … If we want a safe environment for our children and grandchildren, we must clean up our act, no matter how hard a task it might be.”
Johnson focused much of her organization’s work on educating minority communities about urban environmental hazards and said, “For so long, environmental activism has been primarily a white, middle-class issue, far removed from the daily reality of inner-city life. It’s all very well to embrace saving the rain forests and conserving endangered animal species, but such global initiatives don’t even begin to impact communities inhabited by people of color.”
Hazel’s work in Chicago led to the national stage, where she joined other activists in urging President Bill Clinton to sign an Environmental Justice Executive Order, holding the federal government accountable for urban communities exposed to pollution.
Johnson served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and this work ultimately led to Executive Order #12898 on Environmental Justice issued by President Clinton in 1994.
The order directed federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. The order also directed each agency to develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice.
While a huge step forward in nationally recognizing environmental racism and the need for environmental justice, not unlike Brown Vs. The Board of Education, many states and cities were slow to implement or follow the Executive Order. Which meant Hazel’s and PCR’s work was and is far from over.
Hazel Johnson passed in 2011 and is still celebrated in Chicago. Her not being more widely known is frustrating. Until recently, she didn’t even have a wikipedia page (she does now). I personally only learned about Hazel Johnson four years ago when I was researching another Hazel Johnson (Hazel Johnson-Brown, the first Black woman general in the U.S. Army).
I was instantly moved by this Hazel’s story and her decades-long fight against environmental racism. As her grandson said at the 2016 dedication of “Hazel Johnson EJ Way” in Altgeld Gardens: “My grandmother spend 50 to 55 years of her life as a wife and mother and later a widow. She spent the last 20-25 years of her life as an advocate fighting for equality and justice, was honored by two presidents [Bush and Clinton] and mentored a third [Obama] … it’s never too late to make a difference.”
Words to live by.
Hazel’s legacy still stands via People for Community Recovery, which is now run by her equally intelligent and charismatic daughter Cheryl Johnson and you can visit the website for information and to donate here: http://www.peopleforcommunityrecovery.org.
To learn more about Hazel Johnson, check out the EPA link here: https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2014/02/mama-johnson/ or the Chicago Public Library link here: https://www.chipublib.org/…/hazel-m-johnson-mother-of…/
The most comprehensive video report I’ve personally seen about Johnson is “Environmental Justice and Altgeld Gardens” from 2014 by then high school student Khalil Parsons. Check it out!
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