“We Birthed the Movement”: Exhibit Showcases Historic Environmental Justice Protests in Warren County, N.C.

What do you do when the state of North Carolina turns your home into a dumping ground for toxic waste?

An ongoing exhibit in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery in the West Duke Building explores a community’s historical response to the planned construction of a landfill for cancer-causing PCBs. 

Titled “We Birthed a Movement: The Warren County PCB Landfill Protests, 1978-1982,” the exhibit focuses on a multi-racial, multi-generational protest against the dumping of 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil in Afton, a small, majority Black town in rural Warren County.

Two girls walk down a rural road holding protest signs as other protestors follow
Wanda Andrews Saunders (left) and Consherto Williams carry signs during a 1982 protest. Photo credit and copyright: Jerome Friar.

“We Birthed a Movement” was originally displayed in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the protests in 2022. Curated by library staff members Biff Hollingsworth and Stephen Fletcher in collaboration with the Warren County community, the exhibit features photographs and archival documents, such as flyers, pamphlets, and correspondence.

Now displayed in the West Duke Building, the exhibit is a way for Duke University students and visitors to learn about historic events that took place less than an hour’s drive away.

“This exhibit depicts a key moment in environmental justice history,” said Kay Jowers, director of Just Environments at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability. “It also underscores the power of community-led advocacy. It’s important for the Duke community to understand the story of Warren County and other grassroots movements so that we can incorporate environmental justice into all of our sustainability efforts, including the Climate Commitment.” 

The exhibit takes the viewer on a journey beginning with N.C. Governor Jim Hunt’s 1978 decision to move 60,000 tons of soil contaminated with illegally dumped PCB to a Warren County landfill. Alarmed by the dangers to human health and the environment posed by this incoming landfill, communities in Warren County organized and pushed back. 

Young activists lie in the road, blocking lined up dump trucks. Highway patrolmen stand over them as others look on.
Unidentified protestors lie down in the road to block incoming dump trucks in 1982. Photo credit and copyright: Jenny Labalme. Labalme was a Duke student who photographed the protests as part of a course she was taking at the Center for Documentary Studies.

After political maneuvers and legal battles failed, nonviolent direct action ensued in 1982. Citizens lay in the road to prevent the trucks from transporting the contaminated material to the landfill. Nearly 500 people were arrested during the protests. Ben Chavis, prominent civil rights activist and member of the ‘Wilmington 10,’ coined the term “environmental racism” to describe the events.

Though the protests were ultimately unsuccessful at preventing the landfill, their legacy has endured. Forty years later, they are widely considered the beginning of the environmental justice movement.

The exhibit’s force comes from its focus on the community that led this movement, turning a difficult period of struggle into a show of the strength of coalition organizing. The photographs depict people of different races and generations coming together to fight injustice. But, as the exhibit notes, this work is far from done — giving us even more reason to learn from the not-so-distant past.

Join the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and the Warren County Environmental Action Team for a public viewing of the exhibit on Saturday, October 14 at 4 p.m., featuring speakers from the original Warren County PCB Landfill Protests. Dollie Burwell and Wayne Moseley will share their stories, and Rev. William Kearney will reflect on the movement’s legacy and moderate a subsequent discussion. The event will be followed by a light reception.

A crowd gathers around a minister in a field before a protest
A photograph from the exhibit shows Dollie Burwell (center, holding her hand against her neck) and Wayne Moseley (left, in striped polo shirt) as they gather with a crowd before a 1982 protest. Photo credit and copyright: Jerome Friar.