Hazel Johnson – Environmental Shero
It started with her husband. Hazel Johnson’s sweetheart of seventeen years died an early death from lung cancer. Within ten weeks of diagnosis, he’d passed away.
As Mrs. Johnson began to look for answers she discovered she wasn’t alone, a significant number of people in her Southeast Chicago neighborhood were and had been dying from the disease. A high percentage of infants were born with tumors and defects.
It wasn’t genetics, it wasn’t lifestyle, it was the very air they were breathing, the water they drank and the homes in which they lived. The environment was silently altering the very bodies within which they lived.
After educating herself about pollution, toxins, and contamination, she put her newfound knowledge to work and started PFCR (People For Community Recovery).
With her leadership, things started to change. Surrounded by toxic dumps, incinerators, and disposal sites, PFCR galvanized the community and successfully challenged some of the largest corporations and politicians in America to take notice and clean up the area they’d been ignoring for years.
Let me start from the beginning. How I actually got involved was my husband had died of lung cancer and at the time they didn’t know what was the cause of it. hen a few years later I heard that our area had a high incidence of cancer and I wanted to know why. We had a lot of people being ill and I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know what it was at the time.
I started making telephone calls to the health department and was fortunate enough to get in touch with Dr. Reginald Jones. He was well abreast about the area. He explained to me what was going on in the South East side of Chicago . . . about all the contaminants and things. He told me of an organization that was dealing with the environment. I made numerous calls and found out about the Environmental Action Foundation. At that time they had a young man whose name was Kent Silva. I questioned him on a lot of things, about different types of chemicals. He sent me a lot of literature so I could read up on it.
PCR (People for Community Recovery) started in my bedroom. I did a lot of studying to see what the problem was that we were dealing with out here.
When I first started a lot of people thought I was crazy. People said I didn’t know what I was talking about because this was something new to everybody. They weren’t talking about the environment then as they do today.
In our apartment, in the attic, we have what I call angel hair. I called for them to remove the angel hair from the attic of our apartment. The kids would climb up in there and come out crying and stinging, you know, from the fiberglass. We had that removed.
After that, we started fighting against Waste Management across the street because the odor was horrible . . . You had the garbage smell. I started doing a little research on Waste Management and learned how they were dealing with chemicals with the incinerator; how they were burning chemicals from many parts of the United States.
And the garbage . . . I’d never been concerned about the garbage before until I got involved with the environment and what was going on. This was all in the early eighties. You know, you put your garbage out, and you don’t think about it no more. After I got involved dealing with the environment I got to be more concerned about the garbage and the whole recycling bit of it.
The Waste Management over there. (Nods outside.) I waited until my fifties, in July of eighty-seven, before I went to jail for stopping the trucks that were going in there. We had the media . . . we had a lot of people. In fact, we had over five hundred people participating with this stopping the trucks from coming in. We had planned it. We had big garbage cans. Some people were out there barbecuing, with sandwiches and stuff. We had a party. After all the media left Waste Management called the police on us and seventeen of us decided to go to jail for “trespassing”.
When it came to court the judge didn’t know what to do, because he complimented us on what we were doing. Then he called the lawyer and talked to her in the back, in the chamber and when he came back he just said, “Stay away from the property for six months.” After that, we were next door to the property, on the expressway, with big signs and truckers and cars passing by were honking, blowing their horns and carrying on. We really had a lot of excitement going along the expressway. Waste Management called the police on us again, but there was really nothing they could do. We weren’t on their property.
We were saying how we didn’t want another landfill right across the street from a high school and everything, because of how it would affect the people.
And at Miller Manor they had some well water, which was so contaminated you couldn’t even drink it. It smelled just like a rotten egg. It was horrible! And they’d been paying taxes for water they couldn’t even use. There were about six families of older people. A lot of people didn’t believe the city of Chicago had wells because everybody thought they had all the new system. When the EPA came to check they find out the city has over two thousand wells! After they got so much publicity for that the mayor came in and helped those people out. They didn’t even have a hydrant. If they had had a fire the place would have burned down automatically. So they went in and installed a water system and a hydrant and stuff and they started getting regular water, which they didn’t have to pay for since they’d been paying all those years before and couldn’t even use it. It made a big difference.
The media picked up a lot of things I’ve been doing. I think that’s made a lot of these success stories that I talk about. The media participated a lot in it too. One little girl, I like her very much, her name is Deborah Nargent and she’s on ABC. She was a great help with the asbestos problem and gave me little tips on what to do and how to be successful with what we were doing.
Sometimes it gets frustrating getting folks to do what they should have in the first place. Like I’m telling my daughter and everybody right now, I am worn out. I am tired. At one point I’d never get home until ten or eleven o’clock at night. I’m working here during the day, then in the evenings, we’d have meeting after meeting. Now I’m exhausted. I’m an older woman. At one point I was in the air two or three times a month, going to universities and speaking to meetings or before Congress talking about the environment.
I’m on the CSI (Common Sense Initiative), dealing with the industry people in Washington. I asked my daughter Josephine if she’d like to be on the board for that because I’m tired. I don’t want to do any more running around here and there. A lot of people think that’s pleasure. To me, it’s not because when I come back I’m worn out. I have to rest two or three days returning from wherever.
But I’m fortunate to say that the majority of the things I’ve fought for are really successful. When I first started a newsman from the local ABC came and asked me, “How do you think a small minority group like yours can buck up against a Multi-million dollar corporation?” I said, “You never know what you can do until you try.” About a year or two later I wrote him a letter outlining all my accomplishments, but he never returned or called saying he’d received the letter. Later on, when we were having a protest about the airport they were talking about building, he was there. I asked him, “Did you receive my letter?” He said, “Yeah, I received it.” But he made no comment on it.
Then we fought for the lagoons to be cleaned up and they cleaned up three of them. They had over 30,000 contaminants in them. Some of the stuff that was put in there had been there for so long that they couldn’t tell what it was. A few barrels had paint solvent; some had baby sharks and baby pigs that had been used for medical research, that were in formaldehyde. They had problems trying to clean it all up because whatever was down there was such a mess it would clog up the trucks taking it out. They had to go back and get more money because it took a lot longer than they’d expected. The Southside of Chicago was a forgotten area. Nobody was saying anything about the South East side until I got involved.
I’ve discovered that there are more waste sites and dumps around people of color and in poor areas than in other communities; not just here, but all around the country. We’ve brought this issue to national and international attention. I went to the world summit in Brazil. e had women from around the world discussing the problems in our communities. They had people from more than a hundred and twenty-five countries. It was the first time they’d ever gotten so many dignitaries from different countries to sit down and take a picture together.
Looking back at dealing with the environment, I don’t see anything that I’d change. We did a lot of protesting and we had a lot of people working with us. When I started out it was just me. Later, we started organizing, we got people of color in, started working together, you know? We all work together, whether you’re white, black, brown or whatever and one group does not make a decision alone; we do it collectively.
We were at a University of Chicago meeting and one media person came and was really surprised that not one person was trying to make any decision on what was going on . . . that we talked it over and discussed it . . . and it worked very well. He said he’d never seen that done before. We still do that today. Somebody needs support we are there and if we need support they are here.
I wasn’t educated or nothing. I self-taught myself. I have a girlfriend who just died a couple months ago and I was talking to her about my personal problems. You know when you’re stressed out you want somebody to talk too? She’d always be the person I’d talk too since I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. She said, “I’ll be your sister.” She said, “God has you here for a reason.” You see I’m the first of four children and the other three didn’t live past a year. So she always said, “God has you here for a reason.”
When I started getting into the environment and questioned people about different things, everybody was willing to share information with me. A lot of times when you’re doing things you look for a little negative or something that throws you off, but I never did have that. By people being so willing to share information with me, I thought about what my girlfriend said and thought, “Maybe this is my purpose in life.” Then, as I went along, things started going well for us. I decided this must really be what I was here for. Even though I had a lot of negatives, I didn’t let it stop me because I felt this was something I had to do. That’s what makes me continue working as hard as I’ve worked. I’ve had some problems with the politicians and I say, “Forget them. I’m going to do what I have to do.” I felt I had to do it and I did it. Like four or five o’clock in the morning, I had little visions of somebody, like an inner spirit would say something to me about how to go about doing things. That’s when I really started thinking that this was my mission in life. A lot of things could have fallen apart, but they didn’t. Not everybody can say they’re successful, but I can say that.
Sure, I’ve cried on many days from the situation I was dealing with. It was giving me a big headache, but I didn’t let it stop me. One of the most painful times was when my husband died, just ten weeks after he’d been diagnosed. That’s what really pushed me out because I looked at him then later looked around and saw some of my neighbors that had died of cancer and it got me wondering, “Why are all these people having cancer?” I wanted to know why. I wanted to know what was actually going on. There were so many people. In one given week I knew of eight people that died from cancer. At another time we had seven infants that were born with tumors and died very early. One of them was a boy and the rest were girls.
We’d been married seventeen years. He was a construction worker. He was on a job and they called me and said he’d took ill and gone to the hospital. It was way on the North side. So I went to the hospital. During that time the hospitals were packed with senior citizens. They even had them in the lobby. Some kind of illness was going around that year. They didn’t have a room available to put him in. Then we took him home and he stayed there awhile. Then we took him to Rosen hospital, not to far from us. He stayed in there a week, came home, stayed a week, then went back in the hospital and that’s when they found out he had cancer. The reason I remember it all so well is the day he took ill was my oldest daughter’s birthday. She’d just turned sixteen. Ten weeks later he was gone. He had lung cancer.
We have seven children. The oldest one was sixteen, and the youngest was two when he died. The youngest is thirty now. I have eight grandchildren and one great grand. I’m sixty-two. That’s why I’m tired and ready to retire. I’ve been working all my life.
My husband’s death was my first major loss as an adult. My mother and my little brother died and my father too, when I was young. I don’t have hardly any relatives, but I have some good friends and two of my husband’s sisters and I are really close. There were a few neighbors of mine that really stuck with me during that time. When they called and told me about my husband, they didn’t tell me he expired, they just said come to the hospital right away. I called my husband’s brother and my neighbor, who by the time I got a ride she came with me.
Come to think of it, I’ve always been helping other people. Just thinking about Lionel . . . that was a hurting thing for me. I had sit up with him that night and went home about twelve o’clock. I’ll never forget that. By the time I got home from staying with him in the hospital I got a call saying he’d expired. And that really hurt because having just left him he looked pretty well. I’ve been finding out that many people who are real ill, that just before they expire, they do a lot better. That happened in my husband’s case and in this young man’s case. He was like a son of mine, you know? In fact I’ve had a lot of sons. You’d be surprised. (Laughs). Um hum. And now they all call me granny.
And I’ve always been helping older women. Um hum. An older friend of mine just passed last January, who I’d been looking out after. Her name was Irene. Before her, was Ms. Austin and before her was Ms. Bessie. Maybe I catered to these older people because they were like a mother to me. You know, a mother figure. Mine died when I was twelve. And dealing with older people, they can tell you things that happened when they were young. Some very interesting stories they’d be telling. I’d like to listen to their stories and the things they used to do.
I grew up in a Catholic school. Years ago the Catholics were much stricter than they are now. I think that really helped me to be more of a religious person. I guess it just stuck with me. The majority of the things I’ve done had to be with the Almighty’s help in order for me to be successful.
I feel good now with a program we have that trains young people how to remove lead and how to respond to an emergency crisis. Some of them got jobs from that. We’ve been doing this for three years. We help them to be certified by the state of Illinois. We have a list of contractors that we call and tell them about our trained folks and they get work.
We’ve also been getting into rehabbing apartments. This is our first try. We’ve just about completed it, and the city likes what we’re doing so now they’re going to give us some other apartments to do. They’re really happy with the work the people have done.
We’ve been pretty fortunate. The only thing I wish is that we had a little more money coming in so we could do more. But when money is like peanuts, you can’t do the things you’d really like to.
Some universities have been ripping off community people. I was at a meeting in March and a lot of people were complaining about the same things. Here I was having problems with a big time local university. A lot of times they write these proposals and the community don’t know anything about it. They get money for a supposedly joint project with the community and we don’t even know anything about it. So I went to NEJAC (National Environmental Justice Advisory Counsel) and proposed some issues to help resolve the problem we were having with universities. And I spoke to a lawyer who helped me out a lot. Now I’ve got to fight to make sure it gets enforced. Because a lot of times they’ll come up with something then just leave it there and it does no good. That’ll be my next project.
If I died tomorrow I’d want people to remember that I tried to make a difference for the enhancement of folk’s lives. That’s how I’d like to be remembered. The way I look at it is that maybe by me doing some of the things that I’m doing it may help other people. It can’t help those that have already expired, but it will help make people aware of some of the problems like the lead program, where we’ve had the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) go into the apartments and remove the lead. That’s my biggest concern now, is how lead poison is affecting so many children. They eat the paint because it tastes sweet.
Another thing we’re soon going to be working with is water pipes. A lot of our pipes have been installed so many years ago that they’re starting to deteriorate.
My daughter’s interested in helping also. We’ve been here fifteen years, and she’s been working with me ten. She knows the inside and the outside of everything that’s going on.
It’s not really that important to me. The thing I’d like to see is people standing up for their rights. That is my biggest concern. People don’t know that they can move mountains. I want people to see that if they stand up for their rights a lot can be accomplished.
Some people say, “Watch out, you say that stuff and they’ll put you out!” People are afraid to do some things, but I’m not. I don’t care who you are. If I feel that you’re violating me, then I’m going to stand up to you. And I don’t do it in no nasty way. I tell people, “You can like me the next moment if you want to or dislike me, it doesn’t make no difference.”
Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.
Interview with Hazel Johnson Born: January 25, 1935, Died: January 12, 2011).