Green Power

Article excerpt

Long before the Green movement Tubman, DuBois and others fought against pollution and other ills.

Neither environmental racism nor environmental justice activism are new. As early as the 1600s, noxious industries expelled from lower Manhattan in an effort to improve environmental quality relocated to the fringes of a Black neighborhood and polluted it at will. Though many point to the protests against dumping polychlorinated biphenyllaced soil in Warren County, N.C., in 1982 as the beginning of the movement, environmental justice and Black environmental activism is centuries old - and some revered

Black leaders could be described as environmental justice activists.

Black environmental activism is often ignored because the actions are not always couched in environmental terms. For instance, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote one of the earliest environmental-justice documents in the wake of the 1793 yellow-fever epidemic that killed thousandsof people in Philadelphia. While Whites fled the city en masse, Jones and Allen organized Blacks to keep the city functioning. Though Blacks cared for the sick, buried the dead, cleaned the city and kept it functioning, they were accused of wrongdoing. Blacks had a greater immunity to the disease than Whites and because people misunderstood how the disease was transmitted (through a mosquito bite), Whites blamed Blacks for the epidemic. Elizabeth Drinker, a Quaker wrote, "Negroes may have poisoned the wells" to spread the disease. A publisher, Mathew Carey, openly accused Blacks of extortion and looting in his publication, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, which sold over ten thousand copies in a month. Under siege and forced to defend their actions before the mayor, Jones and Allen - leaders of the Free African Society founded only six years earlier - wrote a document responding to the charges. In A Narrative of the Proceedings of Black People, Jones and Allen discussed the role Blacks played guiding the city through one of the most devastating mental challenges it ever faced. The environmental reforms Blacks helped to implement provided important lessons the drew on to combat later epidemics.

Whereas Jones and Allen were former slaves, Blacks who were still enslaved were forced to transform the environment with their labor. In so doing, many developed environmental expertise that they used to escape bondage and forge new lives for themselves in freedom. Harriet Tubman, renowned for her accomplishments on the Underground Railroad, did just that. She was a leading environmental justice activist of her time. Tubman began learning about the environment while toiling in the fields with her father. She learned to read the sky to predict the weather. She also learned to imitate birdcalls and use them to communicate with others. Tubman knew that if she wanted to escape and help others she needed to know the routes that led north and be able to navigate the terrain at night. Hence, while logging in the southeastern tip of Maryland, Tubman learned about aquatic ecosystems as she set muskrat traps - she learned how to read the river currents so she could tell the direction a river was flowing. She also learned to feel die trees trunks to identify where the moss was heaviest. …