CDS explores environmental racism in the South through new exhibition

<p>The Center for Documentary Studies exhibition&nbsp;"In Conditions of Fresh Water" examines environmental racism.</p>

The Center for Documentary Studies exhibition "In Conditions of Fresh Water" examines environmental racism.

Danielle Purifoy, a Ph.D. candidate in the Nicholas School of the Environment, wants you to know that, under the painful exterior of cyclical poverty, there is beauty. There is strength. There is history.

Lowndes County, Ala. is the buckle of Alabama’s Black Belt. Positioned just south of the line linking Selma and Montgomery, it is a land rich in culture and community. Before the Black Panther Party was called the Black Panther Party, it was called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.

But economies do not run on community bonds or historical significance. The 2015 Census estimates show that, in the three-quarter black Lowndes County, the average household hovered just above the federal poverty line. Some areas in Lowndes did not get telephones until the 1970s. Most notably, many still do not have proper wastewater infrastructure.

About 550 miles away, but in many ways, a turn of the page of history away, predominantly black Mebane, N.C., boasts churches, like the Cross Roads Presbyterian Church and Cemetery, which date back to slavery. Yet citizens who have paid taxes for 35 years lack access to city water and sewage. Some live on poorly-draining dirt streets. Just like in Lowndes, environmental injustice can mask centuries of tradition.

Danielle Purifoy, with the help of visual artist Torkwase Dyson, wants to lift that mask, to gaze upon the resilient humanity underneath the neglect. When, on March 2, they open their Center for Documentary Studies exhibition, "In Conditions of Fresh Water," they intend to stare history in the face. And they intend not to blink.

“These kinds of issues have followed us well into the 21st century, and they’re not going to go away,” Purifoy said in an interview.

Electrical infrastructure in Mebane has become so poor that it cannot accommodate modern washers and dryers. Water pipes are so shoddy that water is not always forthcoming when a faucet is turned. 

Omega Wilson would know: as the president and the project manager of the West End Revitalization Association, he’s been fighting this battle for a long time.

“A lot of younger people are hearing about this with awe and shock as if this has just happened, like a natural disaster,” Omega said. “But we’ve been working on these issues that have been around for over a century, for decades.”

He’s not the only one. Catherine Coleman Flowers, who lives in Montgomery and runs the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, has seen precious little progress since her childhood days in Lowndes, when, in order to call someone, “You had to stand at the door and call their name and hope they heard you.”

She says many of the mostly rural Lowndes citizens still have home plumbing that does not function with the thoughtless ease of the suburb.

But still, through local and federal lobbying efforts—anyone who will listen, really—she fights.

“People have a basic human right to water sanitation,” she said.

The answers to the problems of environmental injustice may not come easily, but through "In Conditions of Fresh Water," Purifoy and Dyson intend to ask the questions.

Dyson, who has done lots of visual work with space and environments, said that the project is a true collaboration: Purifoy, with the help of Flowers and Wilson, has documented many of the spectators to the history of, among other places, Lowndes and Mebane. Dyson has kept the creative fire of the project at a steady burn.

With the help of the witness, that flame can sear the important lessons of the South into the minds of the Duke student. The story of the environment of Lowndes and Mebane is complex, but it is beautiful. And it is worth telling.

“The story is not all of disadvantage,” Purifoy said. “There are lots of really important institutions that have developed, and are still developing in those places that we can learn from now.”

A previous version of this article misstated that the Lowndes County was between Salem and Montgomery. It is actually between Selma and Montgomery. The Chronicle regrets the error.   


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