In mid-October, advocates for social and environmental justice gathered at Attucks Park to commemorate men impacted by the former Koppers wood-treating plant with an honorable monument showcasing their hardwork.
Koppers allegdely caused environmental pollution by contaminating soil and water systems near a predominantly black community that the facility mostly employed during its operation from 1902 to 1991.
Shelia Brown, daughter of former Kopper’s worker Willie Neil Brown and a keynote speaker, said the community asked her to speak at the event because they know her father started the fight for justice.
Brown said she was born and raised north of the former Koppers wood-treating plant where her family cared for apple trees, corn, beans, and a wide range of pets and livestock.
“My mother, brother, grandmother, aunts and uncles all lived out there,” Brown said. “When my uncles and them graduated and went about their way, we were still there.”
Brown also said her mother’s garden was near the Koppers site.
“My mother planted corn and beans…everything,” Brown said. “We had pigs, dogs, cats and a horse out there.”
Brown said when their dogs would get the mange spots in their body, they would take the dogs out near the Koppers plant where there was a pond of creosote and dipped the dogs in it.
According to PetMD, an online authority for pet health, mange is an inflammatory disease in dogs caused by the Demodex mite.
“When the number of mites inhabiting the hair follicles and skin of a dog rapidly increases, it can lead to skin lesions, skin infections and hair loss,” according to PetMD.
Brown said the people in the neighborhood would dip their dogs in the pond to get rid of the mange.
“Not only would they dip those dogs in there, but a lady that lived in the back of the Koppers plant where the Dillingers had a pond… all the fish died,” Brown said.
The Dillingers reportedly owned a farm north of the Koppers plant along with three other farmers.
“When we found out the plant [property] was contaminated, we brought the people together and marched,” Brown said.
The community marched from Knight Street to Thomas school, where they had their meetings, coming together to raise awareness of the Koppers’ property contamination near their homes.
However, the Environmental Protection agency visited one of their meetings and said that the Koppers propoerty was not polluted with cancer-causing chemicals such as creosote.
Brown said that when the city of Carbondale and current owners of the Koppers property, Beazer East Inc., took soil samples to test for land contamination, they did not go down far enough.
“It wasn’t pleasing to us,” Brown said.
Melvin Holder, also known as Pepper, said the EPA and others started this problem of allowing the black community to be potenitally exposed to chemicals emanating from Koppers.
“I want you to think about something…in 1901 [and] post-civil war…the United States was growing in order to take the [wood-treated] cross-tie to one place or the other,” Holder said.
Holder said Koppers was the largest operation globally by creating these wood-treated cros- ties for necessities such as telephone poles.
“All this while creosote was the proponent of keeping it all together,” Holder said.
Holder said he did not work on the ground at the Koppers facility during its operation. However, he transported cross-ties to other local southern cities and across the country.
“I’m trying to demonstrate that our participation in slavery…before World War I…we were here making these things to progress America in doing what they have done, but who did not go with them,” Holder said.
Holder said this community of black people did not make that trip and have not received any reward or repair for the things that helped America go forward.
James Chappell, a keynote speaker, said the community created and installed this monument to remind us of what the people of Carbondale went through.
“I’m glad I got to make it down and thank everyone who made it out today,” Chappell said. “I didn’t think it’d be this many people.”
Chappell often said people forget, but it is good to see many people talking about the history of Koppers and its workforce.
“People on Facebook were telling me…my dad used to work out there…my uncle used to work out there…,” Chappell said. “I remember a lot of those people.”
Robert Lee Ollie, also known as Mr. Ollie, a former Koppers worker, and keynotw speaker, said many of his friends are dead and gone due to suspected chemical exposure while employed by Koppers.
“I had three sons that passed away from the same thing,” Ollie said. “We just have to keep praying and I thank God.”
Dan Johnson, the event organizer who created the monument, said Rodney Morris called him after being referred by an art professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who thought he would be an excellent person to create the sculpture to remember the workers of Koppers.
“I said I would be honored to do it and at that point I had done drawings of the art and the committee approved it and that’s how we got the ball rolling,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the whole world is there.
“You just have to want it in terms of art,” Johnson said. “I thought I had more of an intimate look at what these guys were going through, and that was the heart of it.”
Johnson said that’s why he did those silhouettes of the workers at the plant as the center of the monument.
Johnson also said we poured a concrete base but then had to get the sculpture up on top using a truck provided by the Attucks park district.
“It was nice in terms of coordinating and getting that city truck to come put the piece up,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said he had all kinds of people telling him stories about their fathers and uncles who worked at the plant.
“They talked about playing at the plant as a playground as kids…they’re up there on the ties, running through the boxcars…can you imagine they had no idea what was going on,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that he became very educated about the situation of Koppers as he worked on the monument.
“I also had a friend…when I told him about building this thing…[who] remembers the creosote,” Johnson said. “[He] had a very bad experience with the railroad tie parking lot installed once for boy scouts.”
According to the friend’s note, Johnson said he broke out all over his body in a wicked rash and was nauseous for a day.
“I’m sure it came from that facility,” Johnson said reading from his friend’s note. “So horrible people worked in a factory producing that kind of stuff which led to illness and death.”
Johnson said he thinks a monument is a tool for education and a testament to these workers and the community around those workers.
“I hope that it functions in that way…that it kind of educates both the community and other people who come,” Johnson said.
Rodney Morris, a keynote speaker at the event, said everybody had an idea the community put together to give to Johnson.
“And Dan [Johnson] made a masterpiece,” Morris said. “I’m kind of emotional…this represents hard working people that are here and that are gone.”
Morris said he does not want people to look at this and think this is a tombstone for the people that lost their lives working at Koppers.
Morris also said the community wants the city of Carbondale, Beazer East Inc. and the EPA region five-division located in Chicago, Illinois, to know that this is the starting block.
“This [monument] to us is a starting block because we are not going to stop this fight until the northeast side of Carbondale is clean of all contamination,” Morris said.
The northeast side community launched a website called carbondalekoppersjustice.com, where there is more history about the facility.
Healing Illinois funded this website project through the Southern Illinois Community Foundation.
Claire is a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management graduate student with a specialization in multimedia journalism. She currently teaches web publishing, media arts performance and introduction to media production. She is a student managing editor of the GJR weekly digital newsletter reaching over 2,000 online subscribers. She is conducting research on an environmental and racial justice issue in Carbondale, IL for her thesis project.
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