s if a spell had been cast on them nearly 100 years ago, droves of Black southerners such as sharecroppers, seamstresses and tobacco farmers began moving to northern cities, including Detroit.
From the beginning of the Great Migration starting in 1918, individuals and whole families came. They did whatever was necessary to get here, seeking good-paying jobs, finer homes and better schools. Many settled in a small community in southwest Detroit.
They secured jobs in nearby auto plants, factories and mills, and made dreams come true.
But the generations they left behind feel betrayed. Today, many of those migrant workers' offspring are convinced the smoke, sediment and strange smelling substances spewing from the same workplaces that helped catapult their folks from the backwoods to middle class are making them sick, and in some cases, killing them.
"These complaints should be taken very seriously," says Paul Mohai, an environmental scientist at University of Michigan, who in 1987 co-authored the well-known environmental report, "Toxic Waste and Race in the United States," and worked on a second analysis in 2007 that reported Michigan had the greatest racial disparities and the highest number of hazardous waste facilities in the country.
Says Mohai, "I would be concerned if I were living in an area if there was a significant amount of pollution because the question in my mind would be: 'To what extent is the pollution causing asthma in my neighborhood or causing or having an effect on cancer?'"
The soil around homes in the southwest Detroit community near Boynton Middle School and Mark Twain Elementary School has tested positive for lead and other contaminants. Some in the neighborhood say the air inside their homes is more poisonous than the air outside. They name countless loved ones and neighbors lost to cancer and asthma. Dozens claim they are victims of environmental racism.
They've offered their testimonies, showing up at so many public meetings and hospital emergency rooms that the NAACP, politicians, doctors and university researchers have heard their weeping-and wheezing.
Detroiters who live near the city's incinerator on East Davison Street close to Syracuse Street, near the Ambassador Bridge and in pockets of the city's North End and East Side have had similar health complaints. But nowhere do the voices resound louder than in the 48217 ZIP code, which covers a large portion of southwest Detroit. University of Michigan environmental scientists have declared it the state's most polluted ZIP code.
In early July, the national office of the NAACP released "Coal Blooded," a report citing coal plants as one reason many Detroiters are living in a contaminated environment. The report ranked the River Rouge plant as the seventh most polluting coal plant out of 431 in the nation and called for stronger emission standards and regulations.
This month offers a rare opportunity for national focus on the environmental conditions Detroiters live with every day. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is co-sponsoring a national environmental justice conference from Aug. 23 to Aug. 26 at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center. The free conference is for residents, advocates, public officials and community leaders to learn effective strategies for addressing pollution, environmental workforce development and training, updates on federal priorities for environmental justice and funding sources.
Help can't come soon enough for Theresa Landrum, an environment activist who lives in southwest Detroit. She's distressed because her best friends, a married couple who lived three blocks away, were hospitalized simultaneously with cancer. She recently sold chicken dinners to raise money for the pair, who were given only days to live. Thomas Hester, who was diagnosed with bone cancer a few years ago, is spending his last days in hospice. His wife, Shirley, was diagnosed with lung cancer about a year ago. She died on June 27 at age 63.
It's the same fate Landrum's parents met. And Landrum, who still lives in the same neighborhood in which she grew up, is a cancer survivor herself.
"This is a life and death situation," she says. "We have a large rate of asthma out here; a large rate of heart disease, respiratory illnesses, multiple sclerosis, and sarcoidosis. We have so much cancer we are burying people like four times a month."
She explains that southwest Detroit is home to 27 industrial companies and more than half of them are located in the 48217 ZIP code, nestled between I-75 and the state's largest industrial sites. The well-groomed brick homes accented by rose bushes and daylilies, are surrounded by a panoramic view of smoke stacks, flashing lights and fire-spewing pipes.
Adrienne Crawford-Hill, 53, says tests confirmed in November of last year that 21 poisonous gases, including the carcinogens benzene, hydrogen sulfide and ethyl benzene, are entering her home through the sewage line. Officials from the Marathon Oil refinery tested the air quality in her home. Crawford-Hill requested that Marathon buy her house. The company offered to purchase her house and 12 others. But so far, only two have been sold.
Chris Fox, a spokesperson for Marathon, says the chemicals were produced by not by her company, but by "background sources," although she could not identify them. Fox attributes chemicals in Crawford-Hill's home to a missing plumber's trap in her basement floor, which Marathon replaced. Fox also says Marathon isn't able to purchase Crawford-Hill's home after all because of complications with the deed. But Crawford-Hill says the holdup over the purchase is because of the price Marathon offered her.
"I'm not selling for pennies," she says. Crawford-Hill, who lives, ironically, on Pleasant Street, was left alone when the Detroit Water Board purchased every home on the block except hers as it prepared to build a new treatment facility nearly three years ago.
"Besides, the house is toxic and what's the rush now? The 21 chemicals I've been exposed to for 21 years already are killing me and my 17-year-old daughter. They clog up my chest and take my voice. That's why my mother and father are dead. They died in my arms right here in this house. It's killing my brother, who has kidney failure," she says. "All the things these chemicals do to people are breaking us down and are inside of me now."
Four years ago, when residents tried to initiate a cancer cluster study, Delores Leonard recalls distributing surveys to residents on her block on Vassett Street and a sprinkling of nearby homes. She wanted to know how many people had died of cancer. In 32 houses, she discovered, the number was 17 people in less than 20 years.
"You pray you will not be next," she says. "What else can you do?"
After four of Cheryl Elum's six children were diagnosed with asthma, she armed herself with information, learned what triggered attacks and asthma-proofed her home of such items as carpet and stuffed animals. Her efforts improved her family's health, and she rarely has to make emergency room visits. Her youngest daughter, Maiya, 9, suffers most and requires daily breathing treatments.
"It's a funny thing. When I first moved here from Inkster 23 years ago, I knew one person with asthma," says Elum, 52, who lives near Mark Twain Elementary School. "Everybody you bump into around here has asthma. Of all the kids on the block, at least every other one has asthma or a bunch of respiratory problems. I've never seen anything like this is my life."
Detroiters have a higher prevalence of asthma than adults in other parts of the state, according to a report by the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Elsewhere in Michigan, nine percent of adults have asthma. But in Detroit, 13.7 percent of adults have it.
Asthma affects 29 percent of Detroit children, three times the national average. It's the leading cause of school absenteeism and preventable hospitalizations for children younger than 18, the report states.
Donelle Wilkins is on a mission to educate Detroiters about these environmental health concerns. Wilkins, 52, is the CEO of the environmental group Green Door Initiative in Detroit, an organization that works to help educate Detroiters about the environment and sustainability, and trains workers for "green" jobs such as hazardous material removal, lead abatement and green landscaping. She says problems are just as bad on the city's East Side where lead ground contamination is pervasive, but residents there are not as informed or organized.
"The air you breathe might be the reason you are sick," she says. "People see someone protesting the incinerator and don't make a connection to sitting with their grandbaby through an asthma attack or a kid playing basketball and dropping dead from an asthma attack. This is so abnormal, but it's commonplace in our community."
Residents and community activists accuse city officials of not doing enough to protect them from the industries that made Detroit the Motor City.
Last year, City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta organized a southwest Detroit task force to address residents' complaints. He spent six months hearing residents' testimony and helped get five resolutions passed that address some of the immediate issues. In doing so, he discovered that much more work needs to be done.
For example, he learned that several heavy industrial sites near homes are zoned for light industrial use, and that some areas zoned for residential use only are being used for industrial purposes. When he wanted to stop more industrial companies from opening, he learned that legally it can't be done.
That's why, he says, some Detroiters will need to have a conversation with themselves.
"Do they want to continue to live in the midst of the industries out there that are contaminating the air, soil and their homes or do they want to move out?" he says. "I personally would not live there. I would not live in that community or in that situation, and would not suggest that anyone else live in that community or situation."
Instead of placing the burden of relocating or rectifying damages caused by corporations on residents, State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) is offering suggestions placing the onus of action on industrial polluters. She is spreading the word about her plan for Green Buffers, a proposal requiring more distance between industrial companies and residents. She also wants to introduce an initiative to get corporations to buy out residents out so they can move to cleaner environments.
The degradation of the environment in various sections of Detroit merits conversation and action that not only enables residents to move out of homes that make them sick, but also addresses cleaning the city's air, water and soil. Organizations such as The Sierra Club, East Michigan Environmental Action Council and Green Door Initiative are working to make residents aware of the relationship between the environment and their health, and are working with companies to get them to clean up their act.
More help to address these issues may be on the way, says Melissa Runge-Morris, director of Wayne State University's Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Her office has applied for a nearly $4 million National Institutes of Health grant focused on resolving Detroit's environmental and urban health issues.
Black migrants left politically and socially sick towns in the South at the beginning of the last century for a better life, yet too many of them wound up in environmentally toxic neighborhoods in Detroit.
"We see Detroit as a poster child for other rust belt cities going through the same economic and dynamic challenges as we shift from heavy industry," says Runge-Morris. "Those of us living and working in the city need to address all of these issues before they get out of hand and we lose track of what's important for our future."
KIMBERLY HAYES TAYLOR IS A DETROIT-BASED JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR WHOSE LATEST BOOK IS "GET IT UP!: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO OVERCOMING ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION."