Chicago’s Mother of Environmental Justice Movement Hazel Johnson Passes Away

One of the most significant Chicagoans in environmental history has died. Hazel M. Johnson, who organized her South Side community against environmental illnesses passed away January 12 from heart failure. She was 75.

Mrs. Johnson, a longtime resident of Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens public housing development, was spurred into environmental activism after her husband, John, died of lung cancer in 1969.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she hit the streets and began documenting illnesses in her community as evidence that air and water pollution were causing chronic health problems.

She founded a group called People for Community Recovery and put pressure on the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens. In the mid-1980s, Mrs. Johnson was introduced to a young organizer named Barack Obama, who also worked on the anti-asbestos effort….

Mrs. Johnson was instrumental in convincing city health officials to test drinking water at Maryland Manor, a Far South Side neighborhood dependent on well water. After tests conducted in 1984 revealed cyanide and toxins in the water, officials installed water and sewer lines.

Her work in Chicago led to the national stage, where she joined a group of activists in urging President Bill Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice order, holding the federal government accountable for urban communities exposed to pollution.

For her efforts, she became known as the mother of the environmental justice movement.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Ailbe Catholic Church, 9015 S. Harper Ave., Chicago.

The Sustainability Studies program at Roosevelt University would be inconceivable without Hazel Johnson’s example. Her attention to urban environmental hazards, social and environmental inequalities, and community organizing are at the heart of our social justice mission and of the way our courses are organized. We salute Mrs. Johnson’s highly accomplished life and mourn her passing.

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