RIVERDALE — A beloved Chicago activist is one step closer to receiving her due, several years after her death.
Hazel M. Johnson spent half of her life fighting for environmental justice on the South Side from her home in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Altgeld Gardens, a five-minute walk from the street that now bears her name.
For Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl, it is a move that is long overdue.
“Congressman Rush and my mom go way back, since the [Harold] Washington administration, when he was an alderman. He was supportive of some of the environmental issues she was addressing back then,” said Johnson, who is continuing her mother’s work through People For Community Recovery, the organization the matriarch founded in 1979.
Becoming an environmental activist wasn’t something the New Orleans native had set out to do, but when her husband, John — a bricklayer — was felled by cancer in 1969, she knew she wanted to do something. Johnson was no stranger to the work; she spent years organizing youth programs and fighting for capital improvements for Altgeld Gardens, a housing project originally built for black World War II veterans.
When she learned that residents in South Side zip codes had higher incidents of cancer than those in other parts of the city, she wanted to know why.
“She started talking to different neighbors, and noticed a pattern, a cluster of so many people from the same neighborhood diagnosed with cancer,” Johnson said. “That’s when she learned about the environmental problems in our area.”
Through her own research she was able to identify 50 documented landfills in the vicinity of the housing project. She also discovered that the area was one of the more highly polluted neighborhoods due to emissions from the industrial corridor nearby, nicknaming it “The Toxic Doughnut.”
Soon after, she mobilized fellow residents to force CHA to address the hazards plaguing Altgeld, from the asbestos-lined walls to the contaminated drinking water.
Doing that didn’t win Johnson any favors.
“Chicago and the Midwest had been decades behind on environmental issues,” recalled Johnson. “When she was advocating for the cleanup of Lake Calumet she was labeled ‘crazy,’ and told she didn’t know what she was talking about. But she was determined, you know?”
Johnson and her organization even launched a successful campaign to help the residents of Maryland Manor (a tiny subdivision bordering the city) by forcing the city to test its drinking water, and pushing them to install water and sewer lines.
While her work made her a target for local policymakers and elected officials, she was nationally lauded by two presidents, receiving the President’s Environment and Conservation Challenge Award from President Bush in 1991, and recognition for her organization’s work in environmental justice from President Clinton in 1996.
Johnson also mentored a young Barack Obama when he was just starting out as a community organizer. He worked with her and the People For Community Recovery to remove layers of fiberglass and asbestos installed in attics of the housing project units.
“The last time she saw him in person, he was stopping by the house to tell her he was going away to law school,” her daughter recalled.
Johnson would continue her efforts until the day she died of congestive heart failure in early 2011. Today, her daughter carries on her legacy.
“Today, in 2019, Chicago still doesn’t have an effective environmental policy or ordinance in place to protect the public from industrial pollution,” said Johnson.
A 2018 report from the American Lung Association tells the tale; the city received an “F” last year for its declining air quality, and it currently ranks 22nd out of 26 of the most-polluted cities.
Still, she fights on with the hope that one day, change will come.
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