North Memphis

The Pandemics: Decades of environmental racism is making COVID-19 more deadly in Black communities

Here's what we know. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black Americans nationwide are dying of COVID-19 at 2.5 times the rate of whites.

The question is why.

A lot of it has to do with pre-existing conditions. According to the Shelby County Health Department, some 80% of the county's COVID-19 fatalities were people with a heart condition of some kind.

But why are Black Americans more likely to have pre-existing conditions? And why do we see these health disparities play out across whole neighborhoods?

Inadequate access to healthy food, places to exercise, and medical care are often cited. What's less often acknowledge is the environment itself. 

Frank Johnson is a community organizer who tracks contaminated sites in North and South Memphis and documents the potential hazards they pose to the surrounding communities. Both communities are home to abandoned and active industrial sites.

“Let’s take asthma for example. We know that asthma is caused by living next to a lot of these sites. So think about it. If someone has asthma and then they get COVID, what will happen?,” Johnson asked.

Research has proven direct links between communities with heavy toxicity burdens and higher rates of chronic conditions in surround communities. Air pollution, for example, can cause a buildup of calcium in the arteries, which can increase risk of heart attacks and strokes.

North Memphis' history of environmental contamination has left its residents more susceptible to respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and weakened immune systems.

“These are some of the dangers that are already present in Black communities. [They] will lead to Black communities basically dying at higher rates because they have already been exposed to other contaminants that have weakened their immune system,” said Johnson.

Marquita Bradshaw is best known for her current campaign for a Tennessee seat in the U.S. Senate, but she's a longtime environmental justice organizer with deep ties to North Memphis.

Bradshaw said living in poverty for any part of your life is itself a pre-existing condition.

In its heyday, North Memphis boomed because of its factories and the jobs they provided. In their absence, the neighborhood hit a sharp economic decline in the early 1980s. Businesses, essential services like doctors offices, and wealthier families left the neighborhood en mass.

Now, plenty of pollutants but far fewer jobs remain. 

“When you talk about environmental justice, it’s always tied to economic justice. How our communities are developed, how environmental laws are enforced,” Bradshaw said.

Industrial-Sized Racism

Study upon study has shown that environmental hazards—chemical plants, manufacturing facilities, incinerators, water treatment, landfills, and toxic dumps—are concentrated in poor communities of color. Race, not income, is the biggest determinant. Even moderate-income Black communities are at higher risk for toxic siting than their majority-white counterparts.

It's not by accident.

Lower-income Black communities have fewer resource and less political know-how and clout to fight sitings. Corporations knowingly exploit those deficits. Once zoning is established and the first few factories move in, it's nearly impossible to reverse industrialization.

Bradshaw said the state of Tennessee contains 1,100 superfund sites both active and archived, meaning they've been decontaminated according to EPA standards. She said 220 are in Shelby County, the only majority-Black county in the state.

“We have a burden that we are experiencing in Memphis that no other county is experiencing," she said. " would expect that [the sites] would distributed evenly, but that shows you how it’s disproportionate. We’re carrying 20% of the burden of Tennessee, and that manifests in health outcomes.”

Rita Harris agrees. Harris is a retired organizer who worked for Mid-South Peace and Justice Center prior to spending 18 years as one of the first and longest-serving environmental justice organizers for the Memphis chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Memphis is almost a textbook case for environmental racism and environmental justice issues," said Harris, who attributed those issues to a culture of white supremacy that "devalues African American people and communities."

In the course of her work, Harris noticed that even if environmental laws were on the books, they were not equally enforced in nonwhite communities.

“Our communities are not invested in at the same rate that other communities are invested in,” said Harris.

Environmental activities and community organizer Frank Johnson stands in the Smokey City neighborhood of North Memphis. Behind him looms the iconic smokestack of the now-defunct Firestone plant. The neighborhood takes its name from the smoke that rose from the stack decades ago. (Ziggy Mack)


North Memphis' history of companies working with or producing dangerous pollutants began in earnest in the 1930s. It's still heavily industrial, especially on its eastern end, but most of its well-known brands left the area in the 1970s through the early 1990s.

The Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. plant opened in 1935 and gave one North Memphis neighborhood, Smokey City, its name. The factory is gone now but the smokestack that inspired the name still towers over the community and the 72-acre property.

In the mid-1950s, the plant was the largest tire-making plant in the world. Firestone estimated that one in 17 U.S.-made tires came off the line in Memphis. It closed in the 1980s, and has seen several cleanup efforts since then. There was an attempt to open a golf course and youth golf program on the site, but it's otherwise sat vacant.

North Memphis' Hollywood and Douglass neighborhoods were home to global plastics manufacturers Velsicol and Chemtura. Cosmetics giant Maybelline was also headquartered and manufactured products in Douglass at the old Schering-Plough facility. Merck later housed their consumer research divisions for Coppertone and Dr. Scholl's on the site. It's now owned by Shelby County Schools.

The North Hollywood Dump

The 171-acre North Hollywood Dump is located near the Wolf River at the northern edge of North Memphis. It was used to dispose of multiple companies' industrial waste. 

“During the time that [the North Hollywood Dump] was open, you had a lot of factories in the area. They would dump [there], and the practice at that time was just to cover it with dirt,” said Harris. “A lot of the stuff that was going on at the North Hollywood dump was before the EPA was even started. Companies just kind of did what they wanted to do.”

The North Hollywood dump ceased operations by 1967.

The site was listed as an EPA superfund site in 1983, but its 46-acre retention pond was left unfenced and without any posted warnings until environmental activists brought the issue to the public’s attention in the early 2000s.

Residents used the pond for recreation for over 35 years. Residents with limited income or transportation to reach a grocery story also fished the pond to supplement their diets as recently as 2003. 

Suffer the Little Children

One of Bradshaw's biggest environmental concerns is for the children of Memphis.

She doesn't believe that superfund sites deemed decontaminated by the EPA are necessarily safe, and there are plenty of hazardous locales that aren't on the EPA's radar. But even if every contaminant was removed tomorrow from North Memphis and neighborhoods like it, Harris said the damage is already done.

“A lot of the chemicals that are in our neighborhoods are mutagenic, which means that it not only affects how the DNA is structured right now in a person’s body but it also affects the children and the grandchildren,” she said.

“You see in the classrooms a lot of kid with developmental learning problems, you see severe asthma, severe congenital effects, you have high mother-and-child morbidity during childbirth."

She said when experts talk about infant mortality and high rates of maternal death during pregnancy and birth, they rarely look at pollution. 

The pandemic is much the same. With so many potential suspects contributing to fatality rates, waste incinerators and chemical plants aren't top of mind. 

“You basically have no medical facilities within proximity of many of those communities, so you’re not getting access to good healthcare already and you’re already sick from living next to these sites," said Johnson.

[This is part one of a three-part series funded by Google on the intersections of race, environment, healthcare, and the novel coronavirus pandemic. Keep an eye out for part two in September.]
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