As waterways and their environs undergo the process of being restored and deemed valuable in the eyes of a variety of stakeholders, the multitude of their “values” has become apparent as residents and other interested parties seek to define, solidify, and justify their connections and right to these natural resources. How do we utilize them? What roles can the natural world play in our lives? This issue explores education along waterways. Education can be defined as “the process of giving or receiving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” It can also be defined as “an enlightening experience”. As communities look to a future in which equitable access to reclaimed natural resources is one of the foundational pieces to healthy, sustainable communities what kind of educational experience is owed the people living along our urban waterways? Do either of the above definitions suit the task before us or is it a combination of the two?
The contributors of this issue present a variety of models for how our natural resources can be used as an integral part of the transmission of skills and values needed to ensure informed civic engagement in the variety of issues facing communities as they work to create a sense of belonging to and equal access to their natural world. UW Newsletter 9
The last stop on our Gulf Coast tour was the historic town of Bayou La Batre, made famous by the movie Forrest Gump. Here local activist and former 3rd generation shrimper Paul Nelson leads efforts to improve services for the town which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina when the highest storm surge ever recorded in the area (16 ft), and then again by the BP oil spill, 5 years later.
Mr. Nelson had a prosperous oyster business back in 2005, and a processing plant, the foundation of which is pictured below. No stranger to rebuilding a business, Mr. Nelson restarted his fishing business as a younger man after another disaster, but says of this time, “I am too old to begin again.” Now, the foundation of his oyster processing plant is a home to an RV and trailer, which provide permanent housing for Mr. Nelson’s relatives, 10 years after Katrina first made shore.
We stopped at the local cemetery, where Mr. Nelson’s own stepson is buried. He died at the age of 28 of an unknown health issue. Mr. Nelson has been active in advocating for the disbursement of Katrina/BP funds to help with the health issues he reports all around the Bayou La Batre – Coden communities. He has written passionately on behalf of his family and neighbors, detailing the continuing travails in the community. In a December 2010 letter submitted to ehumanrights.org, he writes:
Coden has never seen so many people pass away in such a short time. My neighbor Delaphine Barber, age 75 lost her home and died from a heart attack about a year after Katrina. Other neighbors who died, trying to survive in the [formaldehyde emitting] FEMA campers, and hoping to see their homes rebuilt were: Sally Dismukes, age 72, died of a heart attack; Tommy Barbour age 56, died of lung cancer; Michael Goleman, age 36 father of two teenage daughters, suicide; Shirley Clark, age 65, complications from a staph infection; Randy Hall, age 45, lung cancer; Nancy Maples, age 57. Most have spouses or children who are still hoping to see their family homes rebuilt. My mother Hilda Nelson died after living in a FEMA camper over a year and hoping for assistance to rebuild the family that never came…
Mr. Nelson locates many of the community’s health problems to after an oil dispersant was sprayed over the Gulf Coast shores in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The dispersant was meant to put the oil on top of the water at the bottom of the ocean.
Today Mr. Nelson continues to advocate on behalf of his beloved Bayou La Batre. The first day we went to see him Mr. Nelson never showed up. He was in the hospital dealing with complications from diabetes and blood clots. Despite his illness, Mr. Nelson insisted we come back the next day, finishing the tour in his modest pre-fabricated home, where Urban Waterways researcher interviewed him for several hours.
All the interviews and audio we collected our available by making an appointment with the Anacostia Community Museum Archives. We encourage you to visit our archives and use our research for your own studies.
Africatown, Alabama was the location of our penultimate stop along the Gulf Coast for this segment of the Urban Waterways Research Project . Africatown, which is also known as AfricaTown USA or Plateau, is located just 3 miles north of downtown Mobile. The origin story of Africatown is inexorably tied to the story of slavery in the U.S. The slave trade had been outlawed in the US in 1808. Just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, a group of wealthy southern landowners wagered a bet that they could defy federal law and import a boat of slaves undetected into the US. Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, financed the last known ship of enslaved Africans, the Clothilde, to Alabama after betting an alleged $100,000 that he would do so undetected.
Meaher lost his bet, but avoided conviction, likely because of the start of the Civil War. The majority of the slaves stayed in the area, first as slaves owned by investors in Meaher’s folly, and later as a free people following the outcome of the Civil War.
They settled on Meaher’s land, designing a community very much like that of their West African homeland, retaining their language, traditions and culture well into the 21st century.
Today, the city of Mobile has built up around Africatown. Access to the Mobile River, including the site where the Clothilde’s passengers first disembarked – a site of historical significance known as Magazine Point, is populated by a tank farm which holds tar oil sands imported from Canada.
According to local activist, Joe Womack, this site is slated to be expanded, and is just one of many afflictions to this area. He reported in the community website, Bridge the Gulf:
Another tragedy occurred when the Africatown Guardians were convinced to let the Alabama Highway Department rebuild The Cochrane Bridge after it had been damaged during a hurricane. Before then the Africatown residents had always resisted efforts to rebuild the bridge. The Highway Department told Africatown they would change the name of the Cochrane Bridge to The Africatown Cochrane Bridge and the residents fell for it.
Today that bridge that used to be about one quarter mile long is now about 2 miles in length and half of Magazine Point had to be destroyed or moved to accommodate this new bridge. That area was next declared a flood zone and now to get a permit to repair older homes, residents must first raise their house to a certain level and most residents can’t afford to do that. Consequently, houses are not being repaired. Miraculously, residents manage to maintain their homes as best they can.
Tragically, during the 1990’s an asphalt company decided to relocate from West Mobile to Magazine Point almost in the middle of the night and without going through all the proper channels. After local resident complained and the newspaper did a story on it, the owner’s comments were,”I didn’t think I needed any permits to relocate in this area”. The business was allowed to continue construction after paying only a small fine and is still polluting the area today.”
Ironically, Magazine Point is also the final resting place of this last shipment of slaves because Africatown’s Cemetery is located in Magazine Point. Their graves face eastward, towards their African homeland.
In my travels throughout the country, I am sometimes dismayed by the disregard given to the decaying reminders of a shameful shared history. I encourage all communities to re-examine their history, and pay homage by preserving the memory and the object that defines our historically significant moments. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The community of Africatown represents the resilience and community organizing spirit of a people brought to America against their will, and who survived, adapted, and perhaps thrived, not because of but in spite of (to paraphrase William Faulkner).
This is part one of our Africatown sojourn. To be continued . . . .
A third stop on our tour of the Mississippi/Alabama coast was the small town of Moss Point, Mississippi. A small community with a population less than 20,000 people, Moss Point was hit by the strong eastern side of Hurricane Katrina, when it passed 30 miles east of central New Orleans. Much of Moss Point was flooded or destroyed in one day, by the strong hurricane-force winds which lasted several hours and a storm surge exceeding 20 feet in some areas. You can see some of the devastation at Moss Point in the wake of the hurricane here.
We were coming to tour the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, a part of the National Audubon Society: a non-profit organization focused on promoting conservation and education about birds and wildlife and the habitats that support them. Perched on the watershed of the Pascagoula River, one of the last, large, free-flowing river systems in the contiguous United States, a state of the art green building houses the center. This place is a birder’s paradise, with over 300 species of birds enjoying the ecosystem there.
Mark LaSalle is the Director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. Mark is responsible for coordinating the continued development of the Center and expanding Audubon’s educational and citizen science programs in south Mississippi. Mark is a wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.
Mark’s passion for his work is palpable as he shows us around the Center and the many sustainable environmental practices they have implemented. He also saved an original 1930’s boy scout cottage on the center’s site which is used for small group meetings. He was instrumental in helping the community leaders of Turkey Creek protect that body of water from further development.
Together, Audubon and community leaders in Gulfport, Mississippi are protecting Turkey Creek‘s rich cultural and natural history. When LaSalle became director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, 30 miles from Turkey Creek, he brought with him a commitment to the community’s plight. With local activist Derrick Evans, Mark began small with simple events like Creek Sweep focused on getting people into the “creek” to remove decades of debris.
Promotion of the Great Backyard Bird Count and a one-day Biological Inventory of the creek helped to highlight just how special the area was as a refuge for common birds and wildlife and as an important stopover for migrating birds in spring and fall. The value of the site for birds led Audubon and the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society to recognize Turkey Creek as a site on the Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail.
“The Turkey Creek community has long recognized Audubon’s role in helping it raise attention about the value of our natural areas for birds and people and for being the first group of naturalists to do so. Being identified on Audubon’s Coastal Birding Trail by Judy Toups, Don McKee and Mark LaSalle, provided a pivotal boost to our credibility and confidence as a place that is important beyond our immediate borders.”– Derrick Evans
Many other organizations have joined forces with the Turkey Creek Community Initiative , established by Derrick in 2003 with a mission “to conserve, restore and utilize the unique cultural, historical and environmental resources of the Turkey Creek community and watershed for education and other socially beneficial purposes.”
I left inspired by the good work that Mark LaSalle and his staff do at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi: from preservation to education, advocacy and coalition building, the center is doing good work to preserve the environmental resources for future generations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
In early December the Anacostia Community Museum Urban Waterways project headed to Gulfport, Mississippi to continue fieldwork on communities facing a myriad of issues on the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts. Long before Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil spill created environmental havoc on this major urban waterway of the Gulf Coast, communities like Turkey Creek, MS, and Africatown, AL, were being formed by newly freed slaves (Turkey Creek), and by slaves that were brought to this country and released before they were sold (Africatown).
Today the damaging legacy of the Jim Crow south where racial inequality informed urban planning has been compounded by natural and man-made disasters which threatens the communities researcher Katrina Lashley and I visited.
Turkey Creek, Mississippi is the subject of a documentary by Leah Mahan, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. The film follows local Derrick Evans’ struggle to defend the coastal Mississippi watershed where his ancestors settled as former slaves. Following his journey for ten years, Derrick and his allies confront blatant racism of city officials and short-sighted plans for development that would destroy the ecology and culture of Turkey Creek only to face our nation’s most devastating, natural and manmade disasters: Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster.
By finding community stakeholders, like bird lovers, Turkey Creek was able to tell its story on the national level, by partnering with migratory birds and the Audubon Society, awareness was raised and action taken to protect the watershed.
Today, Turkey Creek is a small community sandwiched between the Gulfport International Airport, and strip malls. Like many successful communities, Turkey Creek negotiated a livelihood for its residences when it established a Creosote Plant to employ its residents. The Creosote Plant is long gone, but we toured one of the buildings associated with the plant that the community is seeking to preserve.
Listening to the stories of what these communities struggle with, and witnessing their coalition building as they gather support among like-minded communities along the Gulf was a powerful lesson before the winter holidays. I was poignantly reminded about how fragile our history is, the depth of human suffering, and the power and necessity of partnership in speaking truth to power. It is through recording and disseminating stories like those of Turkey Creek and the Gulf Coast that the Anacostia Community Museum seeks to share and store history and culture for the betterment of communities in the future.
This forum aims to bring residents together to explore the traditional image of environmentalists, the assumptions made about communities of color in regards to environmental and sustainability issues, and the truth behind such prejudgments. Do minorities feel represented? Is there a lack of trust between traditional environmentalists and communities of color? How do communities define environmentalism and their relationships to urban waterways? What steps have been taken to make the table more inclusive? What are the possible social and political consequences of such inclusion?