Environmental and community activist
When Margie Eugene-Richard was a child in the rural community of Belltown, Louisiana, she loved to play in the beautiful countryside and follow her father and grandfather around as they worked on their small farm, growing corn and peas and tending the pomegranate trees. She was only ten years old when the petroleum refining plants moved into her town, and she watched in horror as her beautiful home became part of an industrial area that would soon be nicknamed Cancer Alley. Toxic emissions and frequent fires and explosions not only made life unpleasant in the mostly African-American neighborhoods surrounding the plants, but they also caused a wide variety of severe health problems.
As conditions in her hometown grew progressively worse, Eugene-Richard began to fight back. Inspired by her parents' example of community service, she organized her neighbors and confronted the oil company that had made their homes unlivable. After many years of struggle, the residents of the community known as Old Diamond won their fight and Shell Oil paid for their relocation to a safer area. However, the struggle for environmental justice was far from over, and Margie Eugene-Richard has continued to work for the rights of poor people and people of color to a safe and healthy environment.
Grew Up in Historic Community
Margie Eugene-Richard was born on December 21, 1941, in the historic Southern city of New Orleans. She grew up in the tiny, close-knit African-American community of Belltown, the fourth generation of her family to live on the fertile strip of land beside the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Her father, Theodore D. Eugene, was a farmer and skilled laborer, and her mother, Mabel Smith, worked in the home and as a cook in a local restaurant. Theodore Eugene had attended college at the historically black Xavier University in New Orleans until his father's death forced him to quit school to take over the family farm and care for his younger brothers. Even though he did not graduate from college, he became a community leader, offering support and counsel to those who needed it and becoming one of the first black sheriff's deputies in the area. He would make sure that his two daughters received the education that he had not been able to complete.
As a young child, Margie Eugene-Richard spent as much time as she could outdoors, trailing after her father and grandfather as they tended the fields, orchard, and animals on their small farm. She especially loved caring for the family's horses and watching the ships on the river as they sailed to and from the port of New Orleans. Though the Eugenes did not own much land, they made productive use of what they did own, growing vegetables, melons, and fruit trees to provide food for the family and to sell in the French market in New Orleans. However, when young Margie was ten years old, things began to change in the town where her family had lived for more than a hundred years.
The African-American communities of Belltown and Wattstown were sometimes also called Old Diamond, after the Diamond Plantation that had been located there during the days of slavery. In 1811, Diamond Plantation had been the site of one of the largest known slave revolts. After the end of slavery and the plantation system, many freed blacks remained in the area. Their descendents, bound to the land by deep historical roots, formed tightly knit African-American communities, where they farmed and built businesses and schools. Beginning in the 1920s, the Royal Dutch (later Shell) Oil Company began constructing oil refineries in the area. The company name, New Orleans Refining Company, or Norco, eventually became the official name of the town. The refining company continued to expand, and, in the early 1950s, Shell Oil began buying up property in the town of Belltown. The mostly African-American residents had little choice except to sell their homes at the low prices offered by the oil company and move to Wattstown, a half mile down the road.
Returned Home to Teach
Margie Eugene-Richard attended Mary McLeod Bethune High School in Wattstown. She had great admiration for Bethune, who was a well-known African-American educator and activist from the early 1900s through the mid 1950s. Inspired by Bethune's achievements and by her respect for her own health teacher, Eugene-Richard decided to become a health and physical education teacher. After graduating from high school, she attended Grambling State University, a historically black college in northern Louisiana, where she majored in health and physical education and minored in social studies.
After earning her bachelor's degree in 1965, Eugene-Richard returned home to Wattstown to teach at her old high school. She married Peter Richard, her childhood sweetheart, and devoted herself to her family and her community. Through her long career at Mary McLeod Bethune High School, she taught health, phys ed, and history. She especially loved making history come alive for her students by taking them on field trips and teaching, not just the dates of battles and the names of presidents and kings, but the history of ordinary people.
In addition to being an educator and mentor to her students, Eugene-Richard took an active role in her community. She taught community enrichment courses in such subjects as substance abuse prevention and treatment and how to turn a hobby into a home business. She also taught parenting classes and, following her divorce from Peter Richard, she helped her neighbors through their own divorces.
Became Environmental Activist
As the years passed, the oil refining industry surrounding the small African-American community of Wattstown, also known as Old Diamond, grew larger and larger, and the danger and toxicity grew along with it. The stink of poisonous gasses filled the air, and the health of local residents began to suffer, including Eugene-Richard's sister, who died at the age of forty-three from a rare condition called sarcoidosis. There were so many industrial accidents, explosions, and fires that, in the early 1970s, Eugene-Richards began sleeping in her clothes so that she could run away quickly in case of emergency. To add even more distress to the situation, Shell hired very few black workers, so that local community members did not even benefit from the plant in that way. Many residents had moved away, but many others could not afford to move, especially since no one would want to buy their houses because of the conditions caused by the huge refinery.
At a Glance …
Born Margie Eugene on December 21, 1941, in New Orleans, LA; married Peter Richard 1965 (divorced); children: Caprice, Ericker. Education: Grambling State University, BA, health and physical education, 1965.
Career: Mary McLeod Bethune High School, teacher, 1965-95; environmental activist, 1988-.
Selected memberships: National Black Environmental Justice Network, founding member; Concerned Citizens of Norco; Advocacy for Human Rights and Environmental Justice, board member; Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, board member; Christian Women Worldwide.
Selected awards: Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership, Crowning Women of the Environmental Justice Movement Award, 2002; Goldman Environmental Prize, 2004, AARP Impact Award, 2006.
Addresses: Office—33 Edgewood Drive, Destrehan, LA 70047.
In 1988 an explosion at the refining plant caused the deaths of seven workers and released a cloud of toxins into the surrounding community. Margie Eugene-Richard decided it was time to fight back. The Eugene family had long been caring and active members of their tiny community, so, it seemed natural to Eugene-Richard to take a leadership role to fight the mighty oil company that was poisoning their home. In 1989, she founded a community group called Concerned Citizens of Norco, whose goal was to force the Shell Oil Company to relocate the remaining citizens of Wattstown, paying fair market value for their homes and giving financial support the a new community far away from the refinery's toxic emissions.
Working with others in her community, Eugene-Richard enlisted the help of national environmental organizations and other activists. A state-wide group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade helped the citizens of Wattstown measure the air pollution in their neighborhood, and Eugene-Richard installed a web camera on her home to broadcast the visible emissions that were released by the nearby plant. In doing this work, the Concerned Citizens of Norco became a part of a much larger national movement for environmental justice.
The environmental justice movement works to publicize the fact that a disproportionate number of people of color live in areas that are polluted by industry. Environmental justice activists point out that factories, mines, and other industries that emit toxic waste are almost never located near wealthy white neighborhoods, but near neighborhoods where poor people of color live. The Secure Tunnel website cites the startling statistic that, "Seventy-one percent of African Americans live in counties that don't meet federal air pollution standards." As part of this movement, Eugene-Richard began not only working for her own community, but also to support other communities seeking safer living conditions and more fair environmental policies.
Won Battle with Shell Oil
Concerned Citizens of Norco kept applying pressure to Shell Oil. In 1999, Eugene-Richard helped found a national activist group called the National Black Environmental Justice Network. She spoke before Congress, pointing out that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorized them to legislate racially fair environmental laws. She traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to testify before the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and she went South Africa to speak at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
Finally, the hard work of the CCN began to pay off. By 2000, the company promised to reduce the level of the refinery's emissions, and in 2002, they finally agreed to relocate the three hundred families who still lived in the Old Diamond neighborhood. As Eugene-Richard and her group had demanded, Shell agreed to pay market value for their homes and give financial support to a new community a safe distance from the plant.
Though she had achieved the goal that she and her neighbors had set in 1989, Eugene-Richard has continued to work for environmental justice, advising other communities on strategies and tactics to fight polluters in their own neighborhoods. When hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast in 2005, she worked to help victims of the storm and to publicize the environmental effects of the disaster, which, once again, most severely affected poor communities of color. One of her many future goals is the establishment of a New Orleans hospital to study illnesses caused by environmental pollution.
Eugene-Richard has also continued to set personal goals. Always a deeply religious person, she had taught Bible school classes since the age of twelve, and later in her life she felt called to enter the ministry. In 1996, a year after she retired from teaching, she enrolled in the School of Urban Mission, a Bible college in nearby Gretna, Louisiana, where she earned her two-year certificate in theology. From her new home in Destrehan, Louisiana, she continues her work in her community, in her church, and in the environmental justice movement.
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Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2004, p. B4.
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"Margie Eugene-Richard," Goldman Environmental Prize,www.goldmanprize.org/node/100 (August 7, 2007).
"Margie E. Richard: Pollution Fighter," AARP the Magazine,www.aarpmagazine.org/people/impact_awards_rich.html (August 7, 2007).
"Norco Profile: Community Group: Concerned Citizens of Norco," Louisiana Bucket Brigade,www.labucketbrigade.org/communities/norco/profile/index.shtml (August 7, 2007).
"Oppression in the Air: The Threat of Environmental Racism," Louisiana Weekly,www.louisianaweekly.com/weekly/news/articlegate.pl?20010910e (August 7, 2007).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Margie Eugene-Richard on June 21, 2007.