By Kara Morrison
Former Vice President Al Gore and Hazel Johnson meeting at the White House, undated. Courtesy of Chicago Public Library People for Community Recovery Archives, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature
On this day in 1935, Hazel M. Johnson, founder of People for Community Recovery, was born. After first moving to Chicago in the 1950s, Johnson and her husband moved to Altgeld Gardens Homes, a public housing project originally built to house African American veterans on Chicago’s south side, in 1962. By the time Johnson’s family moved there, Altgeld Gardens Homes had been taken over by Chicago Housing authority and housed almost 10,000 mostly low-income residents. In the early 1970s, after seeing a television program connecting cancer to certain environments, Johnson began suspecting her husband’s death from cancer just a few years earlier may also be linked to their community’s environment. She began investigating and found that not only was there a higher rate of cancer among her neighbors, but also that there were many children in the area, including her own, suffering from various skin and respiratory issues. She soon learned that Altgeld Gardens was not only teeming with toxic emissions from surrounding landfills, toxic waste dumps, and industrial factories, but that Altgeld Gardens Homes had actually been built on a landfill. Johnson educated and organized her neighbors, founding People for Community Recovery. They collected data and health surveys showing evidence that their low-income, minority community suffered from a disproportionate amount of surrounding pollution. Johnson and People for Community Recovery confronted many of the companies polluting their community, even confronting the Chicago Housing Agency itself, and later working with them to carry out projects that could help improve their living conditions. Johnson turned her grassroots movement into a larger effort to fight against environmental racism in communities of color across the U.S. Later, Johnson at time worked with EPA and even worked towards urging President Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice Executive Order.
You can find more information about environmental racism and its more recent impacts here.
Hazel M. Johnson at the presidential signing of Executive Order 12898. Courtesy of Cheryl Johnson, “Mama Johnson: A Visionary Who Inspired Her Country,” The EPA Blog, February 19, 2014.
Kara Morrison is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and a contributor to the Turnstone Strategies blog. She is passionate about making historical and educational information accessible to the public.
Sources cites: Chicago Public Library, The EPA Blog
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