Over the next few blog posts, I will post a series of in-depth reviews of Ellen Griffith Spears’ excellent book Baptized in PCB’s: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town. I’ll examine the origins of “Slow Violence” in the Northern Alabama town of Anniston, the intersection with the racial violence of the 1060’s, and the continuing impact of both.
When the town of Anniston, Alabama was founded in the 1880’s, it was supposed to be an escape from the “toxic burdens of southern history, the duel legacies of slavery and defeat.” Anniston was founded in “the best, healthiest, and most invigorating climate in the world” according to an article written in the Atlanta Constitution in 1883. Anniston’s “mountain air and pure water… insure the health and comfort of the workman and his family.”
The story that leads from this nineteenth-century portrayal of Anniston as a healthful Eden to its twenty-first-century designation as “Toxic Town, USA” is neither uncomplicated narrative of adversity overcome nor simple chronicle of environmental decline.
The North Alabama hill county had both coal and iron making Alabama first among southern states in iron production and fourth in the nation. Subsequently, the Woodstock Iron Company was established in 1872, and the town of Anniston officially opened in 1883. It was soon dubbed “The Model City of the Southern States”
Railroads contributed to post Civil War African-American mobility and by 1900, African-American comprised 40% of Anniston’s population.
Migrating from the Carolinas, Dock Bigsby chose Anniston not only because of opportunities for work but also for its clear flowing creeks.
Most African-American and working class whites lived on the west side of town, within sight, smell and walking distance of the giant iron mill. “Amid the dust and fumes of polluting factories, next to the din and odors of the smoking furnaces.”
All of this turned Anniston in the 1890’s – 1900’s an economic power on 3 fronts – agriculture, manufacturing, and military. They exported iron pipe and cotton.