Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Eight places have long been vulnerable—and without them, we may not have the language, knowledge, and tools to fight environmental injustice in the age of climate change.
For more coverage of environmental justice in the Carolinas and Hurricane Florence, see “The Black Communities That Have Fought for Their Right to Exist in the Carolinas.”
When it comes to the environmental justice movement in the U.S., few states can lay claim to as many origin sites, case studies, and defining landmarks as North and South Carolina. The historical narratives of African Americans across both urban and rural landscapes in these two states constitute much of the canon of the environmental justice movement.
These communities and cities not only have endured racism of both the policy-driven and violence-driven variety, but many of them are also located deep in the most defenseless zones of the Carolina floodplains, or in regions that are inundated with toxic pollution sources: large industrial animal feeding operations, open-air lagoons where volumes of animal waste are kept, storage facilities for coal-ash waste, landfills and other massive garbage disposal stations.
The guaranteed upheaval of climate change puts these communities in even more precarious positions. There are many communities of color that fit this description. Below is a list of eight of those places whose existences are threatened under the weight of environmental disasters past, present, and into the future:
Wilmington, North Carolina: African Americans have been fighting for their right to exist in the port city going back to at least the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, when white authorities stripped away black people’s rights to vote and hold office through deadly force. This despite the role of African Americans in building most of the city’s major landmarks. In 1971, racial tensions over the lack of protection for African Americans in the face of hostile desegregation efforts led to a riot and the false arrests of several black activists who’d become known as the “Wilmington Ten.” One of those activists, Ben Chavis, would later become a pivotal figure in the birth of the modern environmental justice movement. Wilmington is usually one of the first cities hit by hurricanes off the Atlantic coast, and its environmental risks are increased by its proximity to hog farms, nuclear reactors, and coal-ash ponds—one of which has already spilled over due to Florence.
Princeville, North Carolina: Founded by formerly enslaved black people after the Civil War, and one of the first cities in the country chartered by African Americans, this city was originally known as Freedom Hill. Because of its location in one of the deepest floodplains of the state, along the Tar River, it has withstood numerous major hurricanes and floods, each one making it more difficult to recover from. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew reportedly slashed Princeville’s population of 2,000 in half, and even more residents are vowing to leave after Florence. The exodus could be owed not just to the hurricanes, but to the state’s unwillingness to accept the science around rising seas, favoring more coastal development instead, which left places like Princeville more exposed to impending devastation.
Royal Oak, North Carolina: Another place founded by formerly enslaved African Americans, Royal Oak sits today in perhaps one of the most parlous locations in the state. It is surrounded by waste facilities of virtually every genre, and what makes its location even more unstable is that it is an unincorporated community. Although it’s located within the city of Supply, Brunswick County refuses to extend water and sewer service to it. With the help of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, Royal Oak residents were able to sue to stop the county from expanding one of the landfills last year. Given its proximity to Wilmington, it’s vulnerable to many of the same hazards, including flooding, coal-ash spills, and nuclear-reactor discharges.
Belews Creek, North Carolina: A predominantly black, unincorporated community that sits farther inland is currently the rallying base around the state’s failure to adequately contain coal-ash contamination of water. Last December, black residents there sued Duke Energy for dumping untreated coal ash in the creek that they depend on for drinking water. The small community has drawn high-profile activists such as Rev. William Barber and former Vice President Al Gore to advocate on its behalf. For Florence, Duke Energy had to lift flood gates to prevent an accident happening at its Belews Creek plant, but that shows that the hurricane impacts were not just contained to the state’s eastern shores.
Warren County, North Carolina: This area helped launch the environmental justice movement when, in 1978, African Americans protested and laid down in the streets to stop trucks from delivering tons of poisonous PCB-contaminated materials in a landfill near their homes and farms. Among those activists was Ben Chavis from The Wilmington Ten, who coined the term environmental racism in describing how toxic-waste facilities were disproportionately placed near communities of color.
Around the same time, several African-American urban planners, engineers, and architects were drawing up the plans for a black municipality called “Soul City.” The campaigns to stop the toxic dumping and to launch Soul City both failed, and landfills still dot the Warren County terrain today. Hurricane Florence did not bring significant flooding due to its last-second turn south. Yet this remains one of the more vulnerable locations in North Carolina due to the spread of waste and trash around it.
Charleston, South Carolina: Gadsden’s Wharf was the entry point for nearly half of the enslaved Africans imported to America. While slave labor built the city and produced the wealth amassed in it, African Americans have since suffered from racial violence, government neglect, and continuing efforts to displace them to make room for new luxury housing. Charleston was spared by Florence, but the city has been pummelled several times over the last few decades—most recently by Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, which caused several billion dollars of damage.
Spartanburg, South Carolina: Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took up environmental justice as an official policy goal, it is has proudly spotlighted the city of Spartanburg, South Carolina, the pilot site for one of the federal agency’s most esteemed EJ programs. The EPA seeded it with a $20,000 grant almost 20 years ago, and helped the city leverage that into millions of dollars in new investments to help clean up some of its most blighted neighborhoods. The funding also helped the city set up new health centers, which helped people ailing from pollution from an old fertilizer plant and waste dump. In 2015, it won an award from the American Planning Association. Under Florence’s wrath, more than 2,300 people lost power in the city.
Geechee/Gullah Nation: This is a population of African descendants who dwell along the barrier islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. That means they are typically on the frontlines of disaster when hurricanes strike. And yet they’ve been able to prove resilient by relying on traditional African methods of building and planning for inclement weather events. The larger challenge for the Geechee/Gullahs is perhaps the encroachment of beachfront luxury development on the lands that they’ve inhabited for hundreds of years now.