Take Back Black Health Toxics Tour Planned for Tennessee Town

National Campaign to Spotlight Deadly Impact of Environmental Racism

On Thursday, November 29, a coalition of national leaders, representing environmental justice, civil rights, scientists, women’s health, academia, faith-based and religious groups, legal, and elected officials, including congressional staffers, from around the country will meet at Nashville’s Fisk University and board a bus to Dickson, a small town located about 35 miles to the west.

The national leaders will travel to Dickson and participate in the “Take Back Black Health Toxics Tour” and see for themselves a slam-dunk case of environmental racism. The tour is sponsored by the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University (EJRC), Race Relation Institute at Fisk University (RRI), Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University (DSCEJ), Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. (WEACT). Tour organizers hope to educate and pressure Congress and other elected officials to make the elimination of environmental hazards in low-income and people of color communities a national priority.

The tour will highlight the devastating impact of toxic contamination of the Harry Holt family whose wells were poisoned with the deadly chemical trichloroethylene or TCE by the nearby Dickson County Landfill. The Dickson case has been featured in numerous national media outlets, including CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, People, Essence, and Crisis. The Holts’ story was also profiled in a recent United Church of Christ Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty study released in March. The study authors tagged the Dickson case as the “poster child” of environmental racism.

Generations of Holts and their relative in the Eno Road community survived the horrors of post-slavery racism and “Jim Crow” segregation, but may not survive the toxic assault and contamination from the Dickson County Landfill. Toxic chemicals from the county-owned landfill are slowly killing the Holt family who has owned their 150-acre homestead for four generations. Harry “Highway” Holt, founding member of the Nashville gospel group the Dynamic Dixie Travelers, died on January 9, 2007 after a long bout with cancer. He was 66. He is buried in the old Worley Furnace Baptist Church Cemetery, located on a hill just above the old dump, alongside dozens of his relatives. Some grave markers in the cemetery date back more than a century. His daughter, Sheila Holt Orsted, is recovering from breast cancer surgery performed just last month.

The leaders will tour the historically black Eno Road community, a community built during the “Jim Crow” era. They will stand at the Dickson County Landfill fenceline, located just 54 feet from the Holt’s property line. Drums of toxic wastes were dumped at the landfill in 1968, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. Government officials first learned of the TCE contamination in the Holt family wells as far back as 1988—but assured the family their wells were safe. TCE is a probable human carcinogen.

The tour will give national leaders an opportunity to see with their own eyes how toxic racism has not only destroyed a hard-working African American family’s health but will also see how toxic contamination of their land by a government facility has diminished the family’s transformative and intergenerational wealth (loss of their land values). The toxic assault continues. Dickson County solid waste department currently operates a recycling center, garbage transfer station and a Class IV construction and demolition landfill at the Eno Road site, where 20-25 heavy-duty diesel trucks enter the sites each day, leaving behind noxious fumes, dangerous particulates, household garbage, recyclables and demolition debris from around Middle Tennessee. The garbage transfer station alon e handles approximately 35,000 tons annually.

In 2003, the Holt family sued the city and county of Dickson, the State of Tennessee, and the company that dumped the TCE. The family is represented by the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. (LDF). The case is still pending.

Dickson County covers more than 490 square miles, an equivalent of 313,600 acres. Yet, the only cluster of solid waste landfills in the county is located in the small Eno Road community. African Americans make up less than five percent of the county’s population and occupy less than one percent of the county’s land mass.

Numerous studies reveal that Dickson is not an isolated occurrence. Unfortunately, Dickson epitomizes differential exposure and unequal protection facing African Americans and other people of color across this land. Nationally, African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. African Americans and other people of color make up the majority (56%) of those living in neighborhoods within two miles of the hazardous waste facilities and over two-thirds (69%) in neighborhoods with clustered facilities. This unequal burden problem was the subject of two congressional hearings this year.


Thursday, November 29
· Press Briefing — Staging areas at Fisk University Race Relations Institute (1604 Jackson Street, Nashville, TN) — 12:00pm-12:45pm

· Tour Bus leaves for Dickson at 1:00pm

· Tour of Holt family homestead, Dickson’s Eno Road community landmarks, and Dickson County Landfill — 1:45pm-3:45pm

· Tour ends; bus leaves for Nashville, Fisk University Race Relations Institute (1604 Jackson Street, Nashville, TN) — 3:45pm

Robert D. Bullard is the Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable and Livable Communities (APHA Press 2011). He can be reached at: drrobertbullard@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert D., or visit Robert D.'s website.