At the start of this celebration of Black History Month 2022, I am reminded of the Warren County Environmental Justice Movement. I also remember all the beautiful views and beliefs that informed my understanding of Warren County and especially the Afton community.
I remember Warren County as a beautiful county with beautiful, caring people. It was once known for its remarkable natural springs and free-roaming wildlife of deer and wild turkeys. The county once had over 14,000 slaves, about 600 free blacks, and 4,000 white citizens. I remember Warren County’s population has always been predominantly African American. I remember many African American homeowners in the Afton community inherited their homes and lands from their ancestors.
I remember how I felt in 1978 the day I learned that Ward Transformer of Raleigh had illegally dumped 30,000 gallons of toxic oil containing PCBs on over 210 miles of North Carolina roads in 14 counties, including Warren County. I remember with great pain that under the direction of Governor Jim Hunt, the State of North Carolina was considering building a toxic waste dump in the Afton community of Warren County. I also remember the emotions of the citizens of Warren County, especially those living in the community of Afton, which then spilled over into the neighborhood. At that time, my emotions ran the gamut – from feeling helpless to anger and bitterness to experiencing great fear! But despite my sometimes conflicting feelings and sometimes tears in my eyes, I could clearly see and deeply understand why Warren County had been chosen as the home for this toxic waste dump.
First, Warren County and the Afton community were predominantly African American communities. Second, the county was made up of poor and politically powerless people. Third, the state of North Carolina assumed that because Warren County lacked economic and political power and resources, citizens would not fight back. But the state has grossly underestimated the spirit of the African-American ancestors who have continued to survive among the residents of Warren County! For my part, I remembered to remember what my grandparents and my parents taught me, and I felt that other citizens of Warren County also remembered to remember this their parents had taught them: “When they give you lemons, don’t cry with bitterness, but make lemonade.
Some people have made lemonade using the legal system; three lawsuits have been filed against North Carolina. Courts have dismissed cases. However, an agreement was reached with the state to return to the county 125 acres of the 150 acres of land the state had purchased. I believe this agreement prevented Warren County from becoming a regional toxic waste dump. Some people have made lemonade by registering people to vote, increasing the political power of African Americans.
As a community and social justice activist, I chose to make lemonade by organizing and engaging in civil disobedience. I knew I had to sweeten the lemonade with all the tools, knowledge and skills I had learned from my participation in the fight for social and racial justice. I was a member of the Oak Level United Church of Christ, whose pastor was Reverend Leon White. I have also served on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.
So in the fall of 1982, the community staged protests every day for six weeks with hundreds of people gathering at the Coley Springs Baptist Church in Afton, marching to the dump site and blocking filled trucks soil containing PCBs. I called on nationally known preachers, civil rights leaders, environmental leaders, students, and justice-loving everyday people from across the state and country to join Warren County citizens of all races and creeds, of all ages and genders, in the movement for environmental justice in Warren County. The Washington Post called the protest “the biggest civil rights movement since the 1960s.” I was arrested five times along with over 500 other activists arrested for civil disobedience, including obstructing traffic. Together we created the Warren County Environmental Justice Movement.
I remember everyone who died in Warren County and across the country who helped make that lemonade and birth a movement for environmental justice. I remember all those who prepared meals and fed us, who paid bail to get us out of jail, those who prayed every day for our safety, as well as those who walked and went to jail with we. Among these was my late daughter, Kimberly Burwell, who, through her courage even as a child, attracted many people to join our movement. Whatever role you played, you were important, and I will always remember you and the sacrifices you made for racial and environmental justice.
So during this Black History Month and this year 2022, the 40th anniversary of the Warren County PCB toxic landfill protests and the birth of the environmental justice movement, never forget to remember that when you give lemons, make lemonade. I know we will be given a lot more lemons, and we will have to make a lot more lemonade for racial, social and environmental justice. We must always remember to remember our story and we must always remember to tell our own story.