Down Wind

How the repercussions of racist housing practices travel down through generations.

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When my father was fifteen he packed his clothes in a cardboard suitcase, and, over his mother's tearful objections, caught the bus from Elton, his tiny hometown in the heart of South Louisiana's rice country, across the border to Port Arthur, Texas, a port town at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. It was home to the nation's largest oil refinery. He moved in with his uncle, Madison Baszile, and finished high school in Port Arthur.

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Madison was the most important man in my father's life. He initiated him into the world of men offering advice on everything from love, sex, and marriage ("Before you marry, go three deep," which meant before you tie yourself down, research the person's family back three generations, so you'll know what kind of people you're really dealing with) to financial matters ("Never touch the lump" — which meant save your money, spending only the interest you earn, if you have to, but never the principal — an idea he overheard while moonlighting as a cook for the white oil executives at Texaco).

By day Madison worked as a handyman at Texaco, stenciling warnings on the massive chemical tanks. By the time my dad moved in, Madison had worked at Texaco for almost fifteen years. He was married and had five daughters. He was a good husband and an attentive father. But like the other black families in Port Arthur, redlining limited Madison's housing options. He never had the luxury of researching his environment three deep. He bought a modest wood-frame house six miles downwind of the Texaco refinery. Day and night, a white plume billowed from the refinery's smokestacks. Sometimes the stacks spewed fire. The air reeked constantly — a sulfurous odor that you smelled as soon as you rolled into town.

Day and night, a white plume billowed from the refinery's smokestacks. Sometimes the stacks spewed fire.

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Madison's oldest daughter, Alphamel, died in 1964. She died from fluid around her heart. She was 25 years old. Her weight could have been a factor in her death, but so could the toxic emissions — sulfur dioxide, benzene, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants — she inhaled daily growing up in Port Arthur.

Madison's next daughter, Fayetta, was 43 when she died of breast cancer in 1993.

Sandra, Madison's third daughter, died of lung cancer in 2000, most likely because she smoked.

Charlotte, Madison's fourth daughter, was 60 years old when she died of breast cancer in 2003.

Of five daughters, only his youngest, Madiola, is still alive.

Before he passed away in 2000, I asked Uncle Madison if he was alarmed that, at that point, three of his five daughters had died. He was ambivalent about linking their deaths to the refinery. I was dumbstruck, but I got it. Like so many Port Arthur residents who depended on the oil and gas industry for their livelihoods, Uncle Madison was reluctant to blame the region's largest employer for his suffering. But it's hard to ignore the evidence.One in five Port Arthur households has someone in it struggling with heart problems, skin ailments, and respiratory illnesses such as asthma or bronchitis. Cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County, which includes Port Arthur, are 15 percent higher than in Texans in the rest of the state. The cancer mortality rate among African Americans in Port Arthur is 40 percent higher than among African Americans elsewhere.

The cancer mortality rate among African Americans in Port Arthur is 40 percent higher than among African Americans elsewhere.

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Today Port Arthur sits in the shadow of the 4,000-acre former Texaco plant, now known as Shell/Saudi Aramco, the nation's largest oil refinery. The facility is on the receiving end of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, producing 636,500 barrels of crude oil per day. Port Arthur used to have a bustling downtown with restaurants and department stores filled with white patrons, many of whom worked for the refinery. Today Port Arthur's population is mostly black. Austin Avenue, the main street, is all but abandoned. Since the 1980s, Shell/Saudi Aramco's white employees have moved north of Port Arthur to mid-county communities along Highway 287, towns like Nederland, which has a multiplex and a Best Buy, three seafood restaurants and a Smoothie King.

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But my family's story isn't over.

By 1964, my father had moved from Port Arthur to Los Angeles, married my mother, and moved from Leimert Park to Carson, a suburb thirteen miles southwest of downtown. Like Uncle Madison, my father was a good husband and attentive father. He too wanted the best for his family.

Carson wasn't my parents' first choice of neighborhoods. They wanted to move to a new housing development in Torrance, a neighboring city closer to the ocean, but the builder refused to sell them a house. Emboldened by widespread redlining practices, the builder steered them and other black families to the Del Amo Highlands housing tract in Carson, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County formerly home to landfills, refuse dumps, and auto-dismantling facilities. Carson sat in the shadow of Stauffer Chemical Company, maker of, among other things, herbicides for corn and rice.

My parents paid $32,500 for a four-bedroom, three-bath house on Cliveden Street. Every afternoon around three o'clock, the winds shifted, blowing fumes over our neighborhood, skunk-smelling fumes so powerful they turned the paint trim on people's houses a different color after a year. One of my earliest memories is of looking out of my bathroom window in the afternoons at an orange sky.

My family lived in Carson until 1971, when my parents drove fifteen miles south and put down a deposit on a new house in Palos Verdes, a community overlooking the Pacific Ocean known for its good public schools and clean air. For 37 years my parents believed they had outrun the effects of inhaling toxins spewing from the refinery. They believed the price they would pay for upward mobility would appear only on their mortgage statement.

They believed the price they would pay for upward mobility would appear only on their mortgage statement.

In 2008 my dad was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of soft tissue cancer called leiomyosarcoma. That Thanksgiving he stood in my kitchen in San Francisco and I felt the mango-seed-size lump that had grown on his rib cage. It was visible under his skin, and I couldn't help but think about Uncle Madison's warning. Until the cancer, my dad's health had been good. He died in 2011.

Is it possible my dad's death resulted from all those years in Port Arthur and Carson? I don't know. But it's hard to ignore the evidence. The Carson area has the highest concentration of refineries in the state of California. The benzene, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxins emitted from the refineries have been linked to asthma, chronic rashes, and leukemia. It's hard to forget that federal housing authorities sanctioned redlining in communities like Carson as early as the 1930s. Residents there, most of whom are black or brown, finally won their battle with the refineries in 2015 when they received a $90 million settlement from Shell.

But the damage had already been done. What I do know is that aside from Uncle Madison's family, we didn't have a history of cancer in our family until my dad's diagnosis. I know his siblings never moved to Port Arthur or Carson. They're still alive.

Natalie Baszile is the author of Queen Sugar, her debut novel, which is being adapted for TV by the writer and director Ava DuVernay and coproduced by Oprah Winfrey for OWN, Winfrey's cable network. She lives in San Francisco.

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