Altgeld Gardens loses an environmental leader

January 21, 2011

By Linda Paul

Download Story
Photo by Richard Cahan
Enviornmental activist Hazel Johnson died recently.

Funeral services are scheduled for tomorrow for one of the pioneers of the national environmental justice movement. Hazel Johnson was 75 when she died last week.  She was the founder of People for Community Recovery, an activist group based in Altgeld Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority development on the  far South Side. 

Johnson has often been described as the 'Mother' of the environmental justice movement. Her fight against toxins and contaminants being dumped in the backyards of poor communities and communities of color started in a humble way, when her own husband died of lung cancer at the age of 41.

JOHNSON: And I was lookin' around and I'm hearin  'This person had cancer. That person had cancer. '  I wanted to know why so many people was havin' cancer.

Johnson had heard on the local news that the Southeast Side had more cancer than anywhere else in the city. She started to do her own research, asking state and city agencies for information and knocking on neighbors' doors, asking them to fill out complaint forms to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. She came to describe her community as a "toxic donut"  because it's surrounded on all sides by  landfills, a sewage treatment plant and a polluted river.
 
JOHNSON: I have told people some years ago, do not go over to that river and fish. Because it's a little of everything that's in that water. That water is highly contaminated.

Through the decades she testified before Congress and led politicians and academicians on  "toxic tours' of her neighborhood. Her work was formally recognized by the first president Bush and also by president Clinton. In addition, she met a young man who would later become the 44th president of the United States.  Barack Obama did some of his early community organizing work at Altgeld Gardens alongside Hazel Johnson.

JOHNSON: When I was working with him, I never had no idea. I knew he was an ambitious young man. He was nice, polite, very mannerable. I know he wanted to go beyond what he was, already. But I had NO IDEA he would go that far.

Hazel Johnson grew up in a time when blacks had to sit at the back of the  bus. She never thought she'd live to see a black president, let alone know someone who would become America's first black president. But in his formative years, Obama collaborated with Johnson on the campaign to rid Altgeld Gardens of asbestos insulation in the development's attics. It left a favorable impression.

JOHNSON:  We didn't have that many men. And to see a real young man to come out and work with a bunch of womens... I thought that was awesome. 

During her activist years, she fought against neighboring toxic waste dumps and a municipal garbage incinerator. And she recalled another fight with Waste Management over its nearby landfill.

JOHNSON:  In fact I went to jail. Me and Greenpeace groups, there was seventeen of us .. We chained ourselves and we stopped 57 trucks that day from coming in. But after the media left and everybody left, Waste Management had us arrested for tresspassin' .

Johnson had many opportunities to leave Altgeld Gardens, but she never wanted to.

JOHNSON: How can I fight something when I don't know what goin on? But if I'm HERE, I can fight the problem. I know what's goin' on.

Funeral services for Hazel Johnson are set for 11 tomorrow at the St. Ailbe Catholic Church. Hazel Johnson had many accomplishments, but they weren't lucrative. In lieu of flowers her daughter has appealed for funds to help pay for tomorrow's funeral.