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The Broadside (Transcript): Place, Erased: Environmental ghost towns

Anisa Khalifa: Any kind of environmental crisis — whether it's caused by an act of God or big industry — can upend a community. That's especially true for the smaller, more rural towns that dot the landscape of the South. In the past century, natural and man-made environmental changes have transformed and even erased some of these places. Recently, two reporters based in the Gulf South ventured to some of these communities to hear their stories and to ensure that they aren’t forgotten.

Drew Hawkins: There's more than meets the eye here. It's much more complicated than it might have seemed as, oh, this thing happened. This pollution happened, this decision was made by this company, and or this big storm happened. And these people no longer live there. It's way more complicated than that.

Anisa Khalifa: I’m Anisa Khalifa. This week on the Broadside, we find out what happens to a small town when it meets a BIG opponent? And who fights for these communities to be preserved — or at least, remembered — when the dust settles? About a year ago, reporter Danny McArthur was traveling with some colleagues around New Orleans.

Danny McArthur: And we drove by this community, like the diamond community that's in Norco, Louisiana.

Anisa Khalifa: As they passed through, something caught Danny’s attention..

Danny McArthur: That was a community that got bought out by Shell. And it was like a mostly Black community. And so I started thinking about what other places in Louisiana that have also been, like, bought out by companies. And there are quite a few different examples. And then I just started thinking about what are other reasons places have been, like abandoned, are no longer like how they once were because of environmental reasons.

Anisa Khalifa: Danny is an environmental justice reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom. After this trip, they linked up with a colleague, Drew Hawkins. He’s the health equity reporter for the newsroom. Together, they traveled through the Gulf South, looking for towns that had been upended — and sometimes wiped out entirely — by environmental changes.

Drew Hawkins: The idea was looking at an individual town from each state in our region, and exploring what it was that drove that town, essentially to extinction. So in each instance, it's going to be a different question that we're trying to answer… Specifically looking at the individual differences between them.

Anisa Khalifa: Their series profiled three towns in the Gulf South – one each in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. It started in Easonville, Alabama. Back in the 1960s, the town was washed away by intentional flooding after Alabama Power built a hydroelectric dam nearby. Here’s Danny.

Danny McArthur: Easonville was a small farming town. You know, it was pretty white. And, you know, as a small town. It was not like, super rich by any means. You know, there were some nice houses and there were some not so nice houses. But it was also like a classic like, small community type of thing where you could be a kid and you could roam the whole community and your parents would have no idea where you were, but you know, they trusted that you're going to be safe.

Anisa Khalifa: So today Easonville looks a lot different than it did in the mid 1900s, because the dam that they built, as you said, forced so many people out. How has the construction of this dam shaped you Seville and the surrounding area?

Danny McArthur: Yeah, well, it drowned Easonville out. I guess what's interesting about it is because it led to like, Logan Martin Lake. And the lake itself is actually now like a big tourist attraction. So it's added to the community. And the interesting thing was when I was doing research for this was how many articles would be talking about Easonville and what happened, but then they were like, but this is the cost of progress. It's so bad that this happened. But this is, you know, but look at what we got in return. I just thought was interesting. Do we have to sacrifice communities in order to advance like, is that? Are those two things in conflict?

Anisa Khalifa: Yeah. And you spoke with somebody who grew up in Easonville and still lives there today, Mike Wadsworth. What did Mike tell you about his memories of Easonville and the impact that the dam had on his community?

Danny McArthur: He explicitly remembers a man who was crying because he didn't think he was gonna get enough money to be able to afford to move. And so that, to me, really illustrates just how much choice you know was behind this. People kind of were taking what they could get. It's almost like Alabama Power was getting this land for like bargain prices. It's like, not really like a bargain. It's more, that's what these people have to take.

Mike Wadsworth: They literally just pushed up tens of thousands of trees and burned them. It was just like Hades at night, just fire everywhere. It was sad. You know, you'd go by these old home places that old relatives had lived in and the house would be there one day and the next day it'd just be in ashes.

Anisa Khalifa: How is it that these, you know, big industry giants can come in and make these towns unlivable to the point that residents have to leave? Like, what allows these companies to do this? How does that work?

Danny McArthur: Something like Easonville, what we found was like, during that time period of time, there were less environmental protections around for like communities to have input. And so it was like, you had a lot less resources to fight back in the first place. And it also was a time where it was a lot easier to just decide, as a company, you were going to build a dam… Around the time of me doing this reporting, there was another community, Chandler Mountain, which we go over in the series, where they were fighting almost a similar fight, like Alabama Power was talking about having an hydropower plan where they were, and it was going to displace like hundreds of homes. But the difference here was that this community did actively, like fight back and have a say, in Alabama Power did like actually back off the project.Anisa Khalifa: Yeah. And then you have Revilletown in Louisiana? Drew, this was the second place you profiled for the series. What happened there?

Drew Hawkins: In Revilletown, this was a community that was founded by formerly enslaved people. And this big, gargantuan company called Georgia Pacific that operated railroads across the country, they came into town, and they were part of things like the war effort. So they had all this national money coming in. But interestingly, they also didn't employ any local people from Revilletown. So I think in that instance, you're looking at just pure racism, right? They were able to get away with so much, simply because the community that was next door was predominantly, if not entirely, a small Black community..

Anisa Khalifa: Hmm. Let’s talk more about Revilletown, and the third place y’all visited, after a quick break.

Anisa Khalifa: We’re back with the Broadside. Next, let’s talk about Revilletown, Louisiana. Drew, I know you spent some time talking with residents about a cemetery there. Can you tell us more about this?

Drew Hawkins: So reveal town is in Plaquemine, Louisiana, about 20 miles outside Baton Rouge, the state capital, and it no longer exists. It really is a true ghost town. Now. All that's left today is the cemetery called the Revilletown cemetery.

So in the early 90s, the EPA came in, through efforts that were really pioneered by a legendary environmental justice icon named Janice Dickerson, who was actually from Revilletown. So this is one of her first investigations, one of her first projects in the environmental justice space. And they found that they were being exposed to toxic levels in the air, the water and the soil, basically, on all fronts. A judge ruled that the chemical company, they had to pay to relocate people. So no one lives there today, because it's too toxic and too dangerous.

Marla Dickerson: And so what was happening is because a lot of people grew gardens, everyone who was like my grandmother's age grew a garden. But plants started to die, grass started to die. And so the water would turn different colors.

Drew Hawkins: So what's left now all the remains is the cemetery, but the residents from there, and their descendants are still in an active legal battle for control of the cemetery because the chemical company that's literally right next door, it's not hyperbole, it is up against the fence, there was a massive chemical plant is saying that they control that they own the land, the cemetery is on. so even to access the cemetery, so like for example, when Danny and I went out there we went with Marla Dickerson, the daughter of Janice Dickerson, and just to get to the cemetery, we have to call the Westlake company, so that they can open an automatic gate to allow us to get access to the property.

Marla Dickerson: Basically not understanding exactly what this whole compound was doing to the environment and exactly what it was doing to us being close to it. My mom started to do some research, and eventually a suit was filed. And so from that suit, we were relocated.

Drew Hawkins: And so today, what's happening is the descendants and the family members whose loved ones are buried there are still actively trying to settle control to be able to visit their loved ones so that they can rest in peace.

Anisa Khalifa: Yeah, and you said in your story, that that cemetery isn't just a place where people are buried, it's an active place full of life, but obviously, if you have all these barriers, you're not going to be able to go there. And do, you know, the traditions that you want to do with your loved ones. When you spoke with Marla Dickerson, what did she tell you about the importance of the place and what it means to her and her family?

Drew Hawkins: Well, Anisa, I mean, you hit it right on the head. I know that in the south broadly and definitely in Louisiana specifically, cemeteries aren't just resting places. They're also places that people visit their loved ones or go to spend time. And Marla Dickerson said was no different, and for her family, it was no different.

Marla Dickerson: It was something that we did all the time with my grandmother, she liked to walk.

Drew Hawkins: She talked about a story that her grandmother told her that when they would walk past the cemetery on their way to and from school, her grandmother and her great uncle, her grandmother's brother, would stop at the cemetery to kind of take shelter from the racism they would experience

Marla Dickerson: Because he didn't want to have to deal with everything that was going on. So she would, we would have walks and we would come here and we would just sit down and she would point out where all the family members were buried. So it wasn't ever a sad occasion, it was just something that we did, to celebrate our family. So… excuse me.

Drew Hawkins: So for her, it's, it's a really major part of her life, it's a very big location in her family. And, to be denied access to that. And to make it difficult to visit your loved ones is more than just an inconvenience, it's really, it's really a personal affront, it feels like to her.

Anisa Khalifa: One of the things that stands out in your story is the juxtaposition of how the chemical plant and the community has claimed ownership over the space. Whereas the community is claiming ownership through tending the space, cutting the grass, their emotional connection, and then you have the chemical plant, which has put a fence around it and restricted access. What does this tell us about how the idea of property ownership has changed over the last century, as industry has moved into these rural areas that were once really like, overlooked and undervalued?

Drew Hawkins: I don't know if I could come up with a metaphor that's better than the actual thing that exists, right? Where this company puts a fence around it, so they own it, but the people whose loved ones are buried there, that tend to the land, that take care of it, are struggling to have access to it, right. I think it says so much about just the history of Black land theft in the country as well, in addition to Black cemetery erasure, which, unfortunately, is not something that's unique to this story, or the region or the country.

So I think that those two juxtaposing images and philosophies, speak to the larger discussion that has been going on in this country, since it was founded. The people who care for the land and take care of it and tend to it, have it taken from them by people who put up fences, and say that they own it, even if it doesn't necessarily have any quote, unquote, intrinsic value to them. You know, that little patch of land, it's not sitting on some massive oil reserves beneath it, it's not blocking a potential pipeline that would mean millions of dollars for this company, which is an international company worth billions. It's essentially useless to them. It's just, you know, in the story, I call it a patch of grass and bones. That's really what it is. It only means something to the people who care for it, and the people whose loved ones are buried there.

Marla Dickerson: It's a connection. You know, they're not here in the physical sense anymore. But their bodies are here. And while I can feel them spiritually, my soul can connect to them wherever but here, I like to come here because they are here. They are here. And I want to make sure that they're always going to be safe, and we can always come here.

Anisa Khalifa: Moving to Clermont Harbor, Danny, the last place that y'all covered was Clermont Harbor in Mississippi, which is an unincorporated town and you wanted to explore whether or not Clermont Harbor should be considered a ghost town. First of all, how do you define a ghost town?

Danny McArthur: Yeah, that was the interesting question. Because for me going in, when I was reading about Clermont Harbor, it was like other people who were saying Clermont Harbor is a ghost town. Some of the stores that used to be there aren't there anymore, because they all got destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. But if you go to the people who live there, people rebuilt, like people came back. And so it looked like a ghost town on paper, but then going there, it was like, No, there's still a community here.

Anisa Khalifa: You spoke to Jimmy McGuire, who's lived in Clermont Harbor for decades and seen lots of storms come through. What has he experienced while living in the town?

Danny McArthur: So to him Clermont Harbor is one of the most beautiful places in the world. He was pretty much a brand new resident to Clermont Harbor before, like, he, I think he moved in, in April. Then by August, that's when you have Hurricane Katrina. So he had just started, like, he had just started his life in Clermont Harbor, really.

Jimmy McGuire: Katrina came along and just totally destroyed my home, my brand new home. I still hadn’t hung things up on the wall and it was just a tragedy.

Danny McArthur: He doesn't really remember a ton of what Clermont harbor was, like, you know, before Katrina. He was one of those people who chose to rebuild, like, he chose to come back to Claremont harbor, and, you know, build a new home and start over. And so he's watched, like the act of it growing back. For him, he thinks Clermont Harbor's a growing community, like he's like, you know, there are houses coming up all the time, you know, people moving in. And then like me and Drew, we went to Harold and Lillian's, which is a bar that's been in Clermont Harbor for like over seventy years. And so for them, it's just, it's home like, this is where generations of families have lived. And so you don't want to just leave that kind of legacy behind.

But then I try to think about the perspective of maybe former residents like Florence Jordan, who she doesn't think Clermont Harbor is the same. And for her, she grew up in Clermont Harbor, like she actually lived there until Hurricane Camille happened in 1969.

Florence Jordan: We were all in the room, and we jumped and said what is that! So we run out the room and tell Daddy, Daddy, there’s water in the house. And they’re trying to put rags and stuff, towels, to try and keep the water out but it just kept coming in.

Danny McArthur: She actually was glad to leave Clermont harbor. Like one thing about Clermont Harbor is it's a pretty white area, and so Florence Jordan, she was like one of the few Black people who lived in Clermont Harbor. And so for her, it was literally like, feeling less lonely, leaving.

Anisa Khalifa: Yeah. So what were your biggest takeaways after doing this series? What surprised you or will stick with you about this now that you've done this story?

Drew Hawkins: For me, what was really the most surprising was just the passion of the people that lived in these places. So when Danny and I went to Revilletown, we met with Marla Dickerson, and we saw how important this is to her. And how important being able to visit their loved ones at the cemetery really, really is to them. It's not something that's just trivial or passing, it's not ancient history to them. This is very, very real, right now. And in Claremont harbor. When Danny and I got out there, you know, Danny mentioned going to Harold and Lillian's, this small bar that has managed to survive for 50 years, we're talking massive storms.

And there's this really great line that the bartender told us, that the first places that open are the churches and the bars because you need to, you need to say a prayer and you need a drink after the storms. And when we went out there, and we point blank asked people at Harold and Lillian's is Clermont Harbor a ghost town, there was a resounding — I don't know if the language is appropriate for a podcast, but it was definitely no. And it is very much a real real place to everyone that's still there. So for me, the most surprising thing was just the passionate energy that still exists in these places, even if they're not on a map, or even if they're not formally recognized as municipalities or, or actual cities. The people that live there are very much alive and well and it still is very real to them.

Danny McArthur: For me, just how much these instances weren't one-offs. Like, like these themes that we were dealing with. They were chosen for very specific reasons. Because these are issues that are very prominent in our region, you know, like being displaced by industry, or Clermont harbor, like just having to deal with natural disaster, natural disaster, are you going to bounce back? And so for me, it was very interesting to think of these as illustrations of the problems and the issues that our region has to deal with, and grapple with going forward. And how are we going to respond?Anisa Khalifa: Thank you both so much for joining me. This was wonderful.

Drew Hawkins: Thanks for having us Anisa.

Danny McArthur: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Anisa Khalifa: You can check out Danny and Drew's series "Place, Erased" at the link in the description. This episode was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker. Sean Roux and Al Wodarski provided audio engineering support. The Broadside is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or tell a friend tell a friend. I'm Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening, y'all. We'll be back next week.