Photos | Shane Rice
Two currents run in the river of Ruth Ballard’s life: Africatown and cancer.
The 85-year-old former nurse spent her life in the small majority-Black community north of downtown Mobile. Founded by the last captive Africans brought to U.S. shores for enslavement, Africatown’s hard-earned perseverance is its bedrock. Disease is part of that legacy.
“I have a sister and two brothers who died as a result of cancer. Then my brother, myself and another brother are twice survivors of cancer,” Ballard said.
She has been clear for 14 years. One brother was only 65 when he died.
The illness is commonplace in the one-square mile neighborhood ringed by metal recycling, paper mills, petroleum tanker farms, power, asphalt, cement and chemical plants.
“I am from Detroit, but my husband was from Africatown, so we moved here,” W. Mae Jones said. That was a half-century back. Her husband died of cancer almost four years ago.
When state trooper-turned-pastor Chris L. Williams, Sr. arrived at Africatown’s Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church in 2006, he inherited a morbid itinerary. His membership of 200 was thinning.
“We had about 20 funerals right in a row that year, most from cancer. It wasn’t normal,” Williams said
He talked to residents, sent out a questionnaire. Two phrases appeared repeatedly: “International Paper” and “smokestack ash.” Stories about daily ash showers were passed down like family heirlooms, stretching back to International Paper’s (IP) 1929 mill opening.
Jones said the ashfall was like “a snowstorm or dense fog” where “you couldn’t see five feet in front of you.”
Retired United States Marine Corps Major Joe Womack remembers the onslaught, “every day, like clockwork” as he and playmates dropped what they were doing and dashed across the yards to help their mothers.
“If you didn’t bring the clothes in off the line, you would get little brown and grey spots and have to wash everything again. The odor was terrible,” Ballard said.
Others noted the corrosive effect on clothes, houses and cars.
“I had a brand-new automobile and in two years it had rusted out from that ash,” Jones said.
“It not only ate the paint but whatever the car was made out of, it ate that, too. Whatever the chemicals falling, it was that potent,” Ballard said.
Ballard said the mills — Scott Paper built a plant next to IP decades later — offered free car washes to Africatown residents, “anytime, day or night.” It made no difference.
Rev. Williams digested his discoveries. He contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They told me it’s not a cluster. They said it had to be this or that…. They know what they’re talking about, I guess.” Williams said.
According to 2018 figures from the American Cancer Society, 21 out of every 100 men and 18 out of every 100 women, globally, will develop cancer before age 75. CDC website data for 2017 lists 438 new cancer cases per 100,000 Americans. For Alabama, it was 446.9 per 100,000 residents. That would extrapolate to less than eight cancer cases expected that year in Africatown.
CDC website definitions state clusters must “involve the same type of cancer, or types of cancer, scientifically proven to have the same cause.”
Undaunted, the reverend held community meetings and sought legal counsel. Lawyers always started hopeful, positive of a case.
“They take soil samples, then go and talk to whomever and come back and say, ‘nothing’s there.’ Then they wouldn’t answer the phone anymore,” Williams said.
In 2017, the north Alabama firm Stewart and Stewart signed on. Their initial action against IP listed 248 plaintiffs.
For activists like Womack, it’s nothing new. IP is gone now, but what’s left is the latest chapter in centuries of endured toxicity, both physical and mental.
The Meaher brothers built fortunes in timber, land and river traffic as Mobile rode the Cotton Boom’s upswell. Second eldest sibling Timothy’s ruthlessness was notorious.
As Meaher relentlessly pushed the crew of his passenger river steamboat Orline St. John toward Montgomery in 1850, the increased heat ignited the ship. Of the passengers, 39 died, including all women and children. Meaher collected the $16,000 insurance.
According to Hardy Jackson’s “Rivers of History,” it was said a strongbox holding between $15,000–$250,000 worth of passengers’ gold went to the river bottom, but that someone — possibly Meaher — came in with Caribbean divers and retrieved the sunken loot.
In 1859, Meaher wagered he could defy the 50-year-old ban on importing Africans for enslavement. When Capt. William Foster guided Meaher’s schooner Clotilda and its inhumane cargo into Mobile Bay under darkness in July 1860, it secured the venture.
The 110 Africans were offloaded on Meaher land in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, then Clotilda was taken upriver and scuttled. The captives were divvied between the brothers.
Rumors of the crime quickly spread. Initial charges against Meaher were dropped. Foster was on his way to prosecution when the Civil War’s outbreak ended matters.
The Confederacy’s surrender brought emancipation, so the Africans asked Meaher to return them home. He refused. Meaher did agree to sell them land from his vast holdings in Plateau. The freed slaves incrementally secured small parcels between the woods and bayous where they hunted and fished, not far from the banks of the Mobile River.
The Africans built an independent community mostly apart from American-born Blacks. With the self-determination learned in their native lands, they organized a town, a governing system, a business district and schooling. They imported and adapted their native cultural components.
In her 2007 award-winning book “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” author Sylviane Diouf tagged Africatown “the first [town] continuously controlled by Blacks, the only one run by Africans.” That confidence chafed locals. Former History Museum of Mobile Director David Alsobrook postulated 1906 and 1907 lynching on Africatown’s western edge was a warning for the residents to “know their place.”
Just before the stock market plummeted America into the Great Depression, IP broke ground on their mill site beside Africatown. Originally leased from the Meaher family, Mobile County Probate deeds show IP finally purchased the land decades later.
Scott Paper also signed leases with the Meahers for an IP-adjacent site. In the late 1960s, Scott would expand and tout their operation the largest paper mill in the world.
A 1967 report in the regional civil rights newspaper, the Southern Courier, claimed city of Mobile sewer, water and garbage pick-up didn’t reach Africatown. Denizens complained about outsiders dumping trash in their neighborhood.
A change in city code required the Meahers update rickety dwellings they rented to Africatown residents. The Courier said Tim Meaher’s grandson, Augustine, Jr., demolished them instead.
In 1968, Augustine Meaher, Jr., told a Southern Courier reporter Blacks would instinctively “try and go back to African tribal life.”
“People have lived happy and healthy for years without running water and sewers,” Meaher said. “He don’t need garbage service… He don’t need a bathtub — he’ll probably store food in it. Wouldn’t know how to use it.”
The Southern Courier reported that Scott Paper expanded over the old shacks’ footprint. Other heavy industry became predominant as well.
The Meahers still own more than 260 acres in the Africatown area.
When the growing tractor trailer and tanker truck traffic needed a new Mobile River-spanning bridge in the 1980s, its expanded dimensions bludgeoned through Africatown’s central business district. Stores, barber shops and other capitalistic lifelines were erased and never replaced.
Africatown natives like Womack and pro baseball legend Cleon Jones estimated its population as between 4,000 to 10,000 by the late 1960s. It’s less than 2,000 now. Four extant churches, and the ruins of another, in its small area give weight to their estimates.
City-data.com gave Africatown’s median income as $25,000, around $14,000 less than Mobile’s overall median.
The IP mill released more than 200,000 pounds of carcinogenic chloroform, normally associated with paper and pulp mills, into the air in 1989. Scott Paper released 630,000 pounds of chloroform in 1992, according to the Birmingham News.
In 1995, Kimberly Clark assumed operations of the Scott Paper site.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists said a dozen dangerous pollutants were found in the air near Africatown in 1999. Chloroform was 100 times higher than safe levels. Among the volatile organic compounds were chloromethane, hexane, naphthalene, toluene, benzene and ethylbenzene.
The 1990 Clean Air Act began to regulate highly toxic dioxins. In 2000, IP announced the closure of their Mobile mill.
“Ten years is about the time you would expect the largest paper company in the world to explore litigating, getting around those types of regulations and in the end deciding they’d rather close shop than conform,” Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) President Ramsey Sprague said. Exasperated Africatown residents formed MEJAC in 2013.
The empty space where IP once stretched is all scrub brush and broken concrete now. Its eastern third is occupied by Berg Pipe Company.
“IP bulldozed everything, the whole plant, left everything in the ground,” Womack said.
Typically, remediation plans are required for dismantling toxic industry, especially those involved with dioxins and furans. Sprague travelled to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s (ADEM) Montgomery offices to find those plans.
“I met with [ADEM Director] Lance LeFleur and asked about IP’s plan. He said, ‘It’s here’ and looked but couldn’t find it,” Sprague said. “He called his solid waste guy in to look also, and they couldn’t find it in any of their electronic or physical files.”
Lefleur recalled no one-on-one meeting with Sprague but noted records of Sprague’s inclusion in group assemblies in August 2015 and June 2016. ADEM’s online e-file system revealed no remediation plans for the IP site.
“There are only certain circumstances where hazardous waste was either in the ground water or in the soil where a formal remediation plan is required,” LeFleur said. Determination is made by ADEM inspection.
Earlier EPA citations didn’t faze LeFleur. He sees a difference in toxic levels as crucial.
“You know I live in an older home and they used to burn coal for heating and put ashes out in the backyard, so there’s coal ash in my backyard, but it doesn’t rise to the level of hazardous waste,” LeFleur said.
Womack believes casual attitudes about Africatown’s welfare are commonplace. In 2013, backhoes showed up at the neighborhood’s Mobile County Training School. They were set to dig up and replace a Plains All-American tar sands pipeline beneath the schoolyard.
Sprague explained the pipeline had carried the toxic slurry from Mississippi down to a tanker farm beneath the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge – on what had been Meaher land – for years. The plan to reverse flow from the tanks toward Mississippi meant the noxious sludge would flow against the pipe’s established polarity. Structural compromise could result.
“That was probably the smart thing for Plains to do,” Sprague said.
“The school system knew about [the pipeline] all along,” Womack said, his voice rising. “So did a couple of people in the community, but they never had the guts to stand up and tell anybody about it.”
The publicity resulted in Plains All-American’s $75,000 donation to the school. It paid for a new roof and baseball diamond.
Diving for proof
When Dr. Raoul Richardson was invited to Five Rivers Delta Resource Center, it was to view a film on tar sands. It led the chemist to Africatown stories about disease and pollution.
He asked Dr. M. Allam Baaheth, his work partner at Baheth Research and Development Laboratories (BRDL) to initiate sample collection around Africatown for Phase I, third-party evaluations, including topographical and historical studies for PCB generators and effects on water, soil and wildlife.
“That’s what made a case for $1.8 billion,” Richardson said.
IP’s revenue was $21.743 billion in 2017 and $22.4 billion in 2019.
Not long after, reporter Ben Raines electrified the world when he discovered the Clotilda wreckage in the delta’s muddy waters. Archeologists, ambassadors and historians homed in on Africatown.
Zora Neale Hurston’s book “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo” was published at nearly the same time. Based on her 1927 visit with last surviving Africatown founder, Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, it took 90 years for publication.
Locals pushed for a museum and welcome center. A recreational trail on waterways – a blueway – was conceived.
The lawsuit’s plaintiff list grew beyond 1,000. Asphalt plant H.O. Weaver and Sons was added as a defendant. In May 2017, the case was remanded from federal to Mobile County Circuit Court.
BRDL completed their work and, according to Baaheth, sent it to a second lab for verification. Baaheth told of the breathy expletive that fell from lead plaintiffs’ attorney Donald Stewart’s mouth as he read the results on the lab’s conference table.
“We found tremendous amounts of contaminants we know are known carcinogens that would definitely adversely impact their health and safety,” Richardson said.
BRDL paperwork mentioned “persistent organic pollution,” or POP, levels of 3,000 micrograms per kilogram in soil and water samples. That included eight dioxins, furans and PCBs in its congener group.
“The EPA and World Health Organization have determined that concentrations greater than 0.00003 are known carcinogens,” the report read.
A 2016 World Health Organization report described dioxins as tied to elevated cancer rates. Their half-life was defined as long-lasting, between 7 to 11 years. Chlorine bleaching of paper pulp was listed as a major source.
Toxins can settle from the air to permeate water, soil and more. Across from Ballard’s modest brick home – between the neighborhood and the old IP site – is a five-acre community garden. By letting Africatown residents farm beneath the overhead power lines, it saves Alabama Power the trouble of upkeep.
“They have sugarcane, greens, turnips, collards, mustards, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, butterbeans,” Ballard said.
Dioxins are lipophilic, drawn to fatty tissue.
“If you eat the vegetables, if the last time you ate it was in 2000 and 2005, that stuff would still be in your body. In fish from the waterways, there would be more, in chickens more, in pork even more,” Richardson said.
“POP effects are cumulative. Cumulative!” Baaheth said and thumped the report page with his index finger.
Long-term concentrations are only detectable via blood and human milk samples. Richardson said they never got to do those tests.
“If you’re eating the fish out of Hog Bayou up there, you’re going to die,” Baaheth said bluntly.
After a copy of the report went with Stewart and Stewart, Richardson said he heard they hired another lab to look at things.
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, plaintiffs heard about a proposed settlement. A letter from Stewart and Stewart dated May 29, 2020 told one plaintiff: “When we began working on this case, we believed that we wound [sic] find significant amounts of pollution in the community. However, this did not prove to be the case. First, the soil testing we performed showed that the dioxin and furan pollution was merely at background levels, meaning the amounts were no different on the Africatown property than from anywhere else.”
The letter suggested the plaintiff agree to the “satisfactory settlement.” Amounts varied among plaintiffs. One recipient said the highest figure they heard mentioned was $8,000. Rev. Williams said others received as little as $200.
Settlement terms required 95-percent of plaintiffs to agree and sign a release barring future action. The letter said without the minimal percentage, no one would collect settlement funds.
No specifics for attorney fees in the letter. Plaintiffs said the firm initially estimated fees up to 40 percent of the final settlement.
Amidst the pandemic’s economic downturn, 1,090 plaintiffs signed off. A joint dismissal of complaint was filed Nov. 2, 2020.
“As we have stated since this case was filed, we categorically deny the allegations made by the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, we determined it to be in IP’s best interest to resolve their claims. The terms of this resolution are confidential and may not be disclosed by the parties,” Tom Ryan of IP said in a Jan. 11, 2021 statement.
Stewart and Stewart declined numerous inquiries for comment on this story.
Meaher family real estate company assets were cited at $35 million, including 22,000 acres of land, timber plus rental income and cash in 2012 court records. Tax records show their corporation paid $20 million in property taxes. A state park on Battleship Parkway holds their name.
The Meahers declined comment for this story, continuing their customary approach to matters pertaining to the Clotilda and the descendants of those it brought here.
Mobile Chamber of Commerce literature on the Mobile River’s “chemical corridor” of 25 plants, including those around Africatown, boasts of ADEM’s “fast-track permitting.”
Ground for the new Africatown Heritage House was broken Feb. 18, 2021. When completed, the 5,000-square foot museum will feature Clotilda artifacts in carefully curated display tanks. From its site, you can look across the schoolyard with the tar sands pipeline and onto the old IP site.
A new welcome center will be built across from the Old Plateau Cemetery/Africatown Graveyard. Community founders – Cudjo Lewis included – are buried there. It is sandwiched between an asphalt plant and four lanes of roaring cargo truck traffic.
Meanwhile, Womack calls attention to lots where houses once stood. He claims the Meahers purchase the tracts, then leave them untended and he’s concerned about their intentions. He’s also worried about Mobile’s new zoning code regulations, whether they will be used to introduce more dirty industry to Africatown.
Among his compatriots in rallying awareness are Ballard and Jones. When asked about the lawsuit, they were underwhelmed.
“It wasn’t what everybody thought it was going to be,” Jones said in resignation. “I’ll just put it in the bank, I’ll guess.”
Ballard was more wistful.
“It was bittersweet. It didn’t do anything for my siblings who died,” Ballard said.
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