Environmental justice movement remembered in Warren County

Aug. 1—WARRENTON — As part of the countdown to their upcoming conference and in anticipation of the 40-year anniversary of the PCB Protests, organizers from the N.C. Black Alliance traveled to Warrenton this weekend for an interview with Shauna Williams, president of the Warren County Community Center.

Williams spoke about the "strength" and "resilience" of the community center's founders. The community center was first opened because, among other reasons, there were no bathrooms for Black people in downtown Warrenton at the time. She added that the organizers of the PCB Protests displayed those same traits.

In 1978, the state of North Carolina bought farmland in Warren County to use as a landfill for polychlorinated biphenyls, which had been illegally dumped in Afton earlier that year. Residents and civil rights activists gathered in 1982 to protest the project, citing health, legal and economic concerns. Over seven weeks, around 500 protesters were arrested, including 15-year-old Consherto Williams, Shauna Williams' stepdaughter. In the following years, Consherto Williams' mother Carolyn Williams died of cancer at the age of 36. Shauna Williams suspects the landfill was the cause.

Though they didn't stop the construction of the landfill, Shauna Williams said the protests had a "beautiful outcome" — three disparate communities, African-American, white and indigenous people "fought as one."

"That's something to be commended," she said. "If we work together, we can accomplish so much more."

Many environmental justice organizations can trace their roots back to Warren County and the PCB Protests, Williams explained, an idea which inspired Saturday's "ground commitment ceremony."

Attendees planted paper cards containing wildflower seeds outside the community center. N.C. Black Alliance's Deputy Director of Programs La'Meshia Whittington said planting the seeds was a way to "educate" about and "bring notice" to where the environmental justice movement first started 40 years ago.

Williams is the keynote speaker at the upcoming Environmental Injustice and Healthcare Summit, which will take place on Aug. 12 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admittance is free but registration is required. More information can be found at ncblacksummit.org/EJH.

"This trailblazing event offers environmental justice and healthcare champions a unique opportunity to connect and collaborate on strategies that particularly impact Black communities," per the alliance's website.

"The focus of this convening gives voice and credence to the challenges experienced by those who are disproportionately displaced and disrespected."