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Fighting Environmental Racism in North Carolina

January 19, 2016

The New Yorker

January 16, 2016

By Vann R. Newkirk II

On an autumn afternoon in 1972, the people of Rogers-Eubanks, a historically black community just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, gathered beneath a tree to witness the end of a dispute. They were led by David Caldwell, Sr., one of Chapel Hill’s first black police officers, in whose back yard they stood. Before them was a delegation of local politicians, including Howard Lee, Chapel Hill’s first black mayor. For the previous five months, the community had been at odds with the county, the city, and the state university over the placement of a new landfill on Eubanks Road. Now Lee made a proposal. In exchange for agreeing to the construction of the landfill, Rogers-Eubanks would receive some of the municipal services that it lacked—sidewalks, water and sewer connections, a community center. After the landfill reached capacity, it would be turned into a recreation area. Caldwell and his neighbors relented. They looked on as an agreement was signed. Chapel Hill purchased eighty acres of land and began development.

More than four decades later, the landfill has been expanded and there is no recreation area. A manhole cover near the site of the agreement serves as a symbol of services not rendered; many of the original residents of the community still lack sewer connections. “The most disgusting thing that I have with Chapel Hill was that it did not follow through with what I thought was an honest commitment,” Lee, who is now retired from public life, told me recently. “Unfortunately, when I left, they had amnesia.” Local residents have been fighting continuously to see Lee’s promises realized, first under the auspices of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA), then with the Coalition to End Environmental Racism (CEER). The movement has spanned generations. David Caldwell, Jr., the son of the man under whose tree the original meeting took place, and who was present there as a boy, is one of today’s activists. “We had to learn how to fight,” he said.

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