Meet the South’s Black climate changemakers

When politicians and the media talk about environmental justice, the discussion often revolves around temperature change, sea-level rise, erosion, and hurricane strength. Those most vulnerable to these elements, usually people of color and the working class, are too often portrayed as helpless waiting for governments and companies to act.

But here’s the thing: many people experience environmental racism and their communities aren’t just sitting back and waiting for the ills of climate change to consume them. Not only do people of color have a front-row seat to our manmade climate disaster, but they are also doing something about it.

Here are four Black Southern climate changemakers and groups you need to know about:

1. Dr. Robert D. Bullard, the father of environmental justice.

Robert Bullard is the father of environmental justice and author of 18 books, including The Wrong Complexion for Protection and Dumping in Dixie. For over four decades, the 75-year-old professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University has helped pave the way for other Black climate changemakers.

His early research in the 1980s uncovered how Black communities in the South were far more likely to be in areas with dangerous environmental hazards than their white counterparts, subsequently experiencing serious negative health consequences as well.

He is currently a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

His work began thanks to his wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, who asked him to conduct a study as part of a class-action lawsuit, Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corporation, a groundbreaking environmental justice case. Subsequently, the husband-and-wife duo was the first to lift the lid on the extent of racial injustice at the nexus of the environment and heavily polluting industries.

“Black and other vulnerable and marginalized communities who have contributed least to the problem feel the pain and suffering first, worst, and longest,” Bullard told Reckon. “Climate change is the number one environmental justice issue of the twenty-first century. Therefore, Black and other frontline communities need climate justice right now.”

Over his decades of research, Bullard has observed that to make that change, Black people must also lead the change.

“My research reveals when Black leaders, institutions, organizations, and networks follow, instead of leading, Black people get left behind,” he added.

2. Savi Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, a North Carolina-based public interest organization that provides legal services, technical assistance, and community education.

The Land Loss Prevention Project was established in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers. In the beginning, it fought to curtail the epidemic losses experienced by Black farmers in North Carolina, who, like in other parts of the country, were discriminated against by local USDA officials -- denying them the same farming loans and debt restructuring given to white farmers.

As a result of the discrimination, which resulted in a class-action lawsuit against the USDA that was settled in 1999, Black farmers lost land to tax sales, eminent domain, voluntary sales, and bankruptcy.

But today, the Land Loss Prevention Project has a broader mission: to prevent all Black people from losing their land. And at the center of that fight, is climate change.

“Climate change is causing the coast of North Carolina to move westward with rising ocean levels, thereby making beachfront property valueless in 50 years,’ said Horne.

That means that cheaper land further west toward the mountains and the Black Belt is being bought up in huge chunks. Higher property taxes have forced Black families, many of which have lived on the land for generations, to sell up. But in many cases, they don’t have the financial ability to buy an affordable property of equal size, meaning that many Black families are being displaced and historic Black communities destroyed.

Horne said many affordable areas are often already blighted by polluting industries. And even though the USDA admitted fault, Black farmers are also being displaced and forced to buy up what land is available and affordable. Unfortunately, it’s usually on flood plains and marshes, said Horne. As hurricanes become stronger and come further inland, those farmers watch as their soil and crops are washed away. And one bad season can mean the end for a farmer.

“Landowners of color have borne the burden of many years of racism, in social, political, and economic forms as well as direct physical forms,” said Horne. “The basic human rights to life and health are violated by the perpetually polluting industries that operate with seeming impunity in communities made up of residents that are people of color or have low-income levels. Environmental racism often forces people off the land (if they have money to move) and it often freezes local economic development. There is an enclosure of BIPOC folks here that feels untenable. We owned 15 million acres of rural land in the South as of 1910, and by 1997 has declined 90%. We are now at 3.9 million acres. "

“This was done through many nefarious strategies,” she added.

In 2020, the organization helped handled 300 legal matters and preserved property with a tax value of nearly $4 million.

3. Lenora Gobert, genealogist for the Bucket Brigade, a Louisiana-based grassroots environmental that fights to force the petrochemical industry and the government accountable for pollution.

When defending fence line communities, which are neighborhoods next to heavily polluting industries and often home to minorities and low-income people, being resourceful is an important tool.

African American families often find themselves cast aside in the name of progress and economic growth. In Louisiana, that usually means more polluting industries. Over decades, Black communities have been bought out by large industry, which then plows over their homes and the burial sites of formerly enslaved people.

But now they are fighting back.

Lenora Gobert, through her genealogy work with Black communities in Louisiana, is part of an inventive strategy that is being used to defend against the ever-expanding petrochemical industry in Louisiana.

If those communities can establish that the area is a site of historic significance, then the company building the chemical plant must come up with a plan to minimize harm. Under the law, known as the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, the Army Corp of Engineers can deny a permit if the proposed project cannot avoid harming the sites.

But documenting the burial sites of formerly enslaved people, which is the preferred mode of defense, is very difficult and time-consuming. Not all burial grounds are marked and not all former slaves have documentation tying them to the area or if they were even buried at that location.

Through her resourcefulness, Gobert has found evidence through long-forgotten records sitting in dusty boxes in places like the Louisiana State University. In one case, a plantation owner hired someone to run a plantation. That person kept records on each slave, which provides names and ages, and their ultimate fates.

But how do you prove those people were buried there?

“We’re working hand in hand with archaeologists,” said Gobert. “I’m doing the genealogy work in the area, but the archaeologists are determining definitively where the sites are. And you can’t have one without the other. And that connection has been helpful in stopping these plastic companies from destroying these sites.”

Gobert also found old slave mortgage records from the Consolidated Bank of Louisiana Planters, which operated from 1827 until 1888. Those records are now held by LSU. In one mortgage record linked to the Buena Vista Plantation in Louisiana, which is the proposed site of a Formosa Plastics plant, Gobert found the name of a girl named Rachel. Next to her record, it noted she had died.

“If she died at Buena Vista, then she must be buried there,” said Gobert. With help from archeologists, it was established that a formerly enslaved cemetery at the plantation did exist. The construction of the plant has been delayed.

4. Defend the Atlanta Forest Project.

The forest, sometimes known as the Atlanta Forest or the South River Forest, is the subject of a battle between the Atlanta Police Department, the city, and advocates who want to halt the building of a near 400-acre police training facility that locals are calling “cop city.”

The facility, which will be known as the Institute of Social Justice, would include a mock city, helicopter landing base, shooting ranges, and burn tower sites.

Located in the majority-Black DeKalb County, protesters claim the proposed training center means that citizens there will experience the worst effect of policing and ecological destruction. They also claim that cop city will divert $33 million away from housing and social support projects.

According to protestors, the $90 million proposal will harm the local ecosystems while also ruining the serenity of the largest green space in the city and the largest urban forest in the country.

“If you know anything about Atlanta, then you know the places that flood the most are on the south side,” Kwame Olufemi of Community Movement Builders told local tv news in a recent interview. “In destroying the forest they’re going to exacerbate those issues they’ve already had with Peoplestown flooding. “We’re at the same time simultaneously building up our own institutions to provide safety for our communities.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.