Documenting Environmental Racism

Housing Adjacent to U.S. Steel Plant (LeRoy Woodson, DOCUMERICA, National Archives)

There’s a good reason why I’ve focused on the work of Chicago-based Black photojournalist John H. White during the first few installments of my series on race and DOCUMERICA. Of the roughly 350 DOCUMERICA photographs I have identified and cataloged that center the Black experience, more than forty percent come from White’s Chicago assignment. That White’s work accounts for such a significant slice of the Black presence in DOCUMERICA reflects his own journalistic ambitions. The photographer intentionally centered Chicago’s Black residents and used his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assignment as an opportunity to capture the “spirit, love, zeal, pride, and hopes of the community.” But it also speaks to a paucity of Black representation across DOCUMERICA as a whole; both in terms of the images it produced, and the photographers it employed.

Out of the more than 100 photographers that the EPA claims were part of the project, just a handful were non-white. This included Japanese American photographer Yoichi Okamoto, who was the official White House photographer during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and Korean American photojournalist Ken Paik, who migrated to the United States in 1963 and subsequently worked for outlets such as the Kansas City Star and the Baltimore Evening Sun. Alongside White, I have identified only two other Black photographers who were hired to produce DOCUMERICA assignments. The first was Wil Blanche, an experienced photojournalist whose bylines and photo credits included Look, Our World, Sports Illustrated and Ebony. Blanche worked on assignment in New York City and nearby Westchester County, where he documented the impact of landfill and water pollution.

The second was LeRoy Woodson. Born in California and educated in France and Florida, Woodson earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1966 before turning his attention to photojournalism. He worked for a broad range of publications and photo agencies throughout his illustrious career, although he remains perhaps most closely identified with National Geographic, where Woodson served as a staff writer and editor during the 1970s and early 1980s

Woodson’s DOCUMERICA assignment took him to Birmingham, Alabama, during the summer of 1972. Many of the city’s most pressing environmental problems were linked to its steel and mining industries, which had dominated Birmingham’s economy since the Gilded Age. As Henry McKiven and other scholars have argued, the expansion of these industries was rooted in the exploitation of Black workers, who had flocked to urban centers across the South during the decades following the Civil War. By America’s entry into World War II, nearly half of Birmingham’s total labor force was employed in its steelworks or adjacent industries, and more than two-thirds of frontline workers were African American. Reflecting this occupational dependency, many Black workers lived in close proximity to the furnaces, plants, and foundries that dominated Birmingham’s landscape, rendering them disproportionately vulnerable to industrial pollution.

Woodson’s photographs for DOCUMERICA emphasize the long shadow cast over many of Birmingham’s Black residents by the city’s steelworks. In many images, this shadow is literal, with plants owned by corporations such as US Steel and US Pipe and Foundry clearly visible behind Black residents posing outside their houses or hanging out on their front porch. Other photographs show Black children playing in the street outside “housing adjacent to [the] U.S. Steel plant.” It is noticeable that the focus of Black residents is never on the plants themselves, but on each other or on Woodson behind the camera. Through his staging of these photographs, Woodson juxtaposes the looming imagery of industrial architecture with the apparent indifference of his subjects to it–a reminder of how the proximity of Black residents to the city’s major industrial sites made these imposing structures just another part of their everyday experiences.

However, in other photographs, Woodson explicitly links this residential proximity to specific public health concerns, most notably air pollution. The city’s heavy industry had led to its nickname as “Smoke City,” and by the 1960s Birmingham’s air quality was so bad that some local businessmen reportedly kept bowls of water in their offices to wash their hands before handling documents. While new environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act of 1970 hastened deindustrialization, air pollution remained a major issue by the time that Woodson arrived in Birmingham to shoot his DOCUMERICA assignment. In many images, Black residents posing outside their homes or playing in the street are difficult to make out through the smoke, with Woodson suggesting that this pollution saw “day become night” in the most heavily polluted areas of the city. Other photographs show Black residents stood next to damaged cars, with Woodson’s image descriptions noting that “the jobs are here and so is the smoke. Smoke and rain forms acid which corrodes automobile surface[s].” The deterioration of Woodson’s DOCUMERICA images over time has only added to the effect, with Black communities wreathed in sepia-tinged smog.

We can link these images of environmental crisis to ongoing struggles for environmental justice within Birmingham’s poor and working-class minority communities. Galvanized by its importance as a center for civil rights activism, Birmingham’s civic and political elite sought to transform its reputation as “the most segregated city in America,” leading to the election of Richard Arrington Jr. in 1979 as the city’s first Black mayor. During his two decades in office, Arrington helped to promote a new image of Birmingham as a “diverse city under enlightened black leadership,” and growing Black political representation at the municipal level helped city hall become more responsive to the needs and demands of Black residents. However, decades after the peak of Birmingham’s civil rights movement and the highpoint of its steel industry, industrial pollution–and its disproportionate impact on Black neighborhoods–remained an intransigent and contentious issue.

Over the past decade, public attention on these issues has become concentrated around the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham, one of thousands of similar sites across the country identified by the EPA as in need of hazardous waste cleanup. In 2011, the EPA determined that in predominantly Black North Birmingham neighborhoods such as Collegeville, Harriman Park, and Fairmont, where median household income is less than 50% of the state average, residents are at significantly higher risk of exposure to lead, arsenic, and other carcinogens. Since then, the progress of a multimillion-dollar cleanup program has been repeatedly stymied by politicians and corporate interests. For local Black activists such as Keisha Brown, these delays are a reminder that Black residents are “at risk whenever they step outside.” Just as Woodson’s photographs for DOCUMERICA demonstrated how industrial pollution and environmental racism shaped the daily lives of poor and working-class Black communities in Birmingham during the 1970s, so too do these forces continue to negatively impact the fortunes of the city’s most vulnerable residents. For Brown, the scene outside remains strikingly familiar: “I look out my window every day and see that plant putting out black smoke.”

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.