Militant Journalism

Pipeline through Memphis part of long history of Black exploitation

“He feels like it’s slavery all over again. My father worked this land for 64 years, and now they want to take it,” said Marie Odum, advocating for her 80-year old father who is a longtime resident of Boxtown, but was raised on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. 

In the Memphis, Tennessee neighborhood of Boxtown, the transnational oil giant Valero and its Byhalia Connection have been lying and using the corrupt institutions of the state to steal land from Black residents to lay an oil pipeline, for the past five months.

As previously covered by Liberation News, the Byhalia Pipeline is a proposed 45 mile project carrying Valero’s oil across the city. The project stands to benefit only the oil companies and contractors, while putting the health and safety of local communities and the environment in danger.

Organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation recently joined Memphis Community Against the Pipeline to speak with residents about the project near the pipeline’s proposed route. 

PSL and MCAP organizers doing outreach in Boxtown to raise awareness about the pipeline project.

Many of the residents were unaware, despite the project running only feet from their own backyards. This comes as no surprise as the company has used Nationwide Permit 12 to avoid conducting environmental impact assessments and exempt itself from reporting its plans to the public. 

Many of the residents who are elderly or parents of young children are outraged that the company is attempting to sneak this project into their backyards.

Boxtown’s long history of exploitation 

Over the past four months, Valero has secured permits from the Tennessee state government and acquired easements from Boxtown residents using eminent domain, forcing landowners to sell their lands despite their firm opposition. With the complicity of the local governments and the NGOs, Valero and its affiliate have been able to proceed apace.

Boxtown is a predominantly Black neighborhood, and its working-class residents have been subject to a long history of exploitation. 

The neighborhood of Boxtown gets its very name from the abject poverty its residents faced in the apartheid South. Early residents were forced to use discarded boxcars from the nearby railroad to patch their homes because they had no money for materials. Many homes in the area did not even have running water until the 1980s, and inadequate public services, low-paying jobs, and economic oppression persist today. 

For centuries, Black workers in the Delta and Memphis have been robbed of their labor. Slave masters became plantation owners, plantation owners became factory owners, and their children have become the developers, investors, and corporate officers responsible for Valero’s latest efforts to displace Black families. 

Boxtown and surrounding neighborhoods have historical significance for many of the residents. In a city where so many Black residents are dispossessed and forced to rent from corporate slumlords, Black homeownership is a bastion against white supremacy. 

Despite the oppression that the Black community historically faced, many residents managed to gain ownership of the land and slowly built up their homes and neighborhoods. However, the Boxtown neighborhood’s safety and the value of residents’ homes and land are under severe threat from the Byhalia Pipeline project. 

The pipeline company has been found responsible for 12 separate oil spills in the past 16 years, leaking thousands of gallons of toxic oil into Black and brown communities. 

The pipeline may also damage local wildlife and pollute the Memphis aquifer, running right through the Davis wellfield, which supplies the area’s drinking water. However, local regulatory bodies have ignored these facts, and have awarded permits to the pipeline. The local public utility – Memphis Light, Gas, and Water – has refused to comment.

Corruption, deception, and fraud

Local resident Marie Odum spoke to a PSL organizer about how her father was able to purchase land in Boxtown nearly 65 years ago, after spending his childhood picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation. 

Over the months, her father has been receiving visit after visit by Byhalia Pipeline representatives, who offer measly sums of money for a part of his land. Her father was unflinching in his decision to not sell the easement that the company officials want, and reportedly said to them, “I keep telling y’ all no. I don’t want you there, period. Just leave it [my land] alone.”

In retaliation, the company came back with a condemnation petition from the court, claiming that the property, which he has maintained for decades, should be condemned, “simply because the company wants it.” The company is wielding the courts and the police to serve its own ends. 

When the Odum family went to their first appearance in court, Marie Odum and her father learned that the corporation has gone so far as to forge his signature on a document granting Valero the easement. The courts have done nothing to punish the company for this criminal act.

“Not the path of least resistance”

On Jan 23rd, landowners, homeowners, and residents spoke out against the pipeline at a rally organized by the MCAP to support the community’s fight back. 

Residents spoke of a long history of birth defects, abnormal cancers, and other disastrous health impacts resulting from toxic projects the state puts in their neighborhoods. Residents pointed out how the very environmental damage and health effects of these projects were then used by their purveyors to pathologize and demonize the community.

Boxtown residents and community organizers protesting the pipeline at the speak out on Jan 23.

Above all, residents and organizers expressed unity in their resolve to fight back. 

On Feb 5, residents who have resisted the pipeline are being called back into court. Through the efforts of community organizers, they now have legal representation, as well as the support of some local and national politicians, the Sierra Club, Protect Our Aquifer, and the Southern Environmental Law Center

The PSL along with MCAP organizers and local residents will gather at 9 AM on Feb 5 for a solidarity rally and picket outside the Shelby County Circuit Court, where residents will be arguing their case. 

A common refrain from activists and the community has been that neighborhoods like Boxtown are “not the path of least resistance,” referring to comments made by Valero representatives, who hoped to avoid resistance by putting dangerous, toxic projects in economically and politically disenfranchised communities. 

However, in Boxtown, as in other communities across the United States, the people are realizing their collective power to stop corporations like Valero. Just as previous generations fought back against plantation owners and the racist ruling class of Memphis, Black youth and families are once again getting organized to fight environmental racism.

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