“Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret”
Author: Catherine Coleman Flowers
Foreword by Bryan Stevenson
Publisher: The New Press
Price: $25.99 (Hardcover)
“Waste” is both a study of the horrific sanitation problems in rural Lowndes County and a memoir, the story of a very determined Alabama woman.
Flowers, manager of the Race and Poverty Initiative at Bryan Stephenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, has been an activist since girlhood and in Lowndes County, Alabama there was always plenty to be active about.
“Bloody Lowndes” as it was known in the Civil Rights Era, the county one passed through on the Selma to Montgomery march, was the site of the murder of Jonathan Daniels in Hayneville in 1965.
While still a student at the Lowndes County Training School, a segregated institution for black students, Flowers realized the school was deficient, not preparing students properly for college.
Flowers determined to oust the principal, Dr. Robert R. Pierce. She saw him as, paradoxically, both anti-black and a sexual predator. Flowers studied some education law, and kept a notebook of infractions at the school. The principal was suspended then resigned, but there was some blowback.
“The Black teachers association filed a federal lawsuit on Pierce’s behalf,” she writes, and many of the students also liked school life just as it was, easy and pleasant.
Next, Flowers determined to change the name of the school—Training School is clearly demeaning, and replace Hulda Coleman, the superintendent, too. Coleman resigned and the school became Central High School—avoiding entirely the name of William Yancy Lowndes, Confederate slave owner.
Over time, at several different colleges, in several states, Flowers gathered formal education and became a ferocious teacher, actively engaging her students with social justice issues, taking them on field trips and bringing guest speakers on the issues of the time.
In 2000 she returned to Lowndes County and became involved with the sanitation issue.
The situation in the countryside was foul in a variety of ways.
Many house trailers and some regular homes either do not have septic tanks or they have stopped working.
Either way, waste from the toilet ends up on the ground.
(Although it was not stressed, outhouses, with a deep hole and set far from the house work better, but nobody wants to walk to the privy in the cold.)
This is in fact against the law and poor people were being cited, fined, even jailed, but living on 800 or one thousand dollars a month, they cannot afford even the $400 perc test, never mind the ten or 15 thousand dollars for a septic tank and fields—especially expensive because the soil is clay, which does not drain water swiftly. Sometimes specially engineered systems are required.
(This soil was great for the roots of cotton plants but not for sanitation systems.)
Newly built houses can be sold with no septic system, on the assumption one will be installed.
The inspection requires that the toilets flush, not that there be pipes beneath the toilet.
Flowers has enlisted help at every level. She has met with politicians and ecologists, with senators and congressmen, Al Gore and Jane Fonda.
Research has shown that the problem is worse than merely foul; hookworm and other parasitic diseases are making a comeback in Alabama and other rural warm areas, moving these places back to third world status.
Help is needed from government at the state and national level and will be expensive, but having read Flowers’ life story I am sure change will happen.
Catherine Flowers is a force of nature and was recognized just weeks go with a 2020 MacArthur “genius” award.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.