Charlotte’s Checkered Environmental
Justice History

Home to over 800,000 people, Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and the 14th largest city in the United States. Yet it ranks in last place out of the 50 largest U.S. cities in economic mobility for its residents. Charlotte is a vibrant and diverse “New South” city, but contains underlying, obscured histories of economic and racial inequality forged at the intersections of segregation and policing, extractive industry, and environmental precarity.

Image of river clean up in CharlotteSewage spills in Sugar Creek lower the quality of life for residents of the neighborhood and for the creatures that use the creek to sustain life. Air pollution among neighborhoods divided by redlining, freeway construction, and “urban redevelopment,” along with coal ash and oil spills in suburbs of Charlotte such as Lake Norman, Huntersville, and Mooresville, have caused cancer clusters and health issues for their citizens. And, surprisingly given Charlotte’s benign image, the 2020 Huntersville Colonial Pipeline spill in the Oehler Nature Preserve was the largest in the nation. The giant spill was only discovered accidentally by two local teenagers. And, despite initial beliefs that the spill was minimal, by 2022 nearly 1.5 million gallons of oil had been recovered.

Such environmental hazards lower the quality of life for everyone who lives in the Charlotte area, but the disparate impacts on the poor and in communities of color are especially harsh.

Nevertheless, if you mention Charlotte, North Carolina, to someone, they would likely only think of its towering uptown skyscrapers, craft beer, lively nightlife, and booming banking industry — not ongoing environmental injustices. Even fewer would recognize Charlotte as a significant location in the creation of the environmental justice movement. In fact, the term “environmental racism” was first coined by UNC Charlotte alumnus Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. in 1982. When Chavis arrived at UNC Charlotte in 1967, he was the only African American majoring in chemistry. He founded Students for Action and co-founded the university’s Black Student Union before graduating in 1970 and continuing with his civil rights activism. In 1987, Chavis published a groundbreaking report in partnership with the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” which found that three out of five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in a community that, according to EPA standards, posed a significant risk to human health and life.

image of mural in CharlotteAnother notable UNC Charlotte alumnus, Thomas James “T. J.” Reddy, used art to draw attention to the unjust gentrification of Charlotte’s historic Brooklyn neighborhood — a self-sustainable, predominantly Black community that thrived before falling victim to the city’s urban renewal plans in the 1970s. Reddy co-founded UNC Charlotte’s Black Student Union along with Chavis, and helped create the university’s Africana Studies program. His artwork, pictured here, advocated for the Black community of Charlotte, as in his 1995 painting titled, “Brooklyn and Blue Heaven, Remembrances of Charlotte’s Second Ward.”

Why, then, are so many people seemingly unaware of, or perhaps uninterested in, environmental justice in Charlotte? There are many possible reasons. Maybe some simply don’t know. Maybe those who do know aren’t sure how to take action. And perhaps scholars and students like me aren’t presenting our research in the most accessible, digestible way. These are the issues I will be tackling throughout my Rachel Carson Council Fellowship: “Environmental Justice in Charlotte: Study and Practice.” This webinar series will bring together students, scholars, and activists to discuss the history of environmental justice in Charlotte, strategies for organizing, and methods for teaching ethically about the topic. By the end of the series, I hope that both participants and viewers will have made connections, learned about their city, and become motivated to do the necessary work to combat injustice. The series will then also become part of an upcoming museum exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, Climate Refugee Stories: Charlotte Histories, Just Futures. The exhibit, led by UNC Charlotte history professor, Dr. Tina Shull, will be a traveling public memory project that aims to uncover the roots of environmental injustice in Charlotte and share strategies for resilience. The exhibit will run at the Levine from May to September of 2023.

Alyssa Martin

RCC Fellow Alyssa Martin is a graduate student at UNC Charlotte and President of the university’s Graduate History Association. She is currently working towards a Master of Arts degree in History, concentrating on environmental history and Southern history. She is passionate about making research accessible to educate the broader public about environmental justice.


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