Update: Cleaning Up America’s ‘Dirty Secret’ in the Black Belt

In rural Alabama, Catherine Coleman Flowers took on a problem no one was touching: environmental injustice.

Cleaning Up America's 'Dirty Secret' in the Black Belt

For more than 15 years, Catherine Coleman Flowers has worked as an advocate in America’s Black Belt, where improper sewage treatment is putting people at risk of diseases usually found only in the developing world.

Flowers has deep roots in the rich soil of Alabama. She grew up in a small community between Selma and Montgomery, in Lowndes County. The rural county, known as “Bloody Lowndes” during the civil rights era, had a long and violent history of whites retaliating against black residents to maintain segregation and prevent voter registration. It was no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. chose a route straight through Bloody Lowndes as he led the famous march from Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery in 1965.

A teaching career took Flowers to work in cities like Washington, DC and Detroit. But in 2000, when she returned to Lowndes County for the 35th anniversary of the Selma march — with her Detroit high school students in tow — childhood friends tracked her down and pleaded for her help. As Flowers explains in this video, she learned from her parents, who were local voting rights activists in the 1960s, that she had to tackle problems head-on, “to lift up voices of people from my community and find solutions.”

Flowers listened to her old neighbors and discovered what she calls “America’s dirty secret.” The rural county is still mired in poverty and lacking appropriate infrastructure for the majority of its residents. City sewer systems reach only 18 percent of the people. Everyone else is required to have an on-site septic systems, but few can afford them. When Flowers learned that residents were facing arrest and eviction because they were too poor to install proper sanitation, she dove in — stopping the arrests and raising funds to install 40 septic systems — only to learn that the conventional septic systems couldn’t handle the unique conditions of the soil and failed. The local soil, with an abundance of clay and sand, and a high water table, requires more adaptive septic systems that can cost $5,000 to $30,000. Flowers retrenched and began focusing on the long term.

In 2004 Flowers founded the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, known as ACRE. The community development group grew out of her collaboration with the Woodson Center, a nonprofit in Washington, DC that funds projects in low-income communities. Flowers is building coalitions to tackle the problems in Lowndes County — calling upon community members, academics, business leaders and government agencies to develop sustainable solutions together. “I think if I can do it,” says Flowers, “faced with the type of inequality as an African-American female in this country, anyone can do it.”

Update, Sept. 5, 2107: When we first reported on Catherine Flowers she was waiting for the results of a study on hookworm done in cooperation with Baylor University to be published. The results of that study have just been released and the situation is as dire as Flowers expected, in Lowdnes County — where the study was based — some 34 percent of the residents surveyed have evidence of hookworm infection and almost 73 percent told researchers that they were exposed to raw sewage when their waste systems backed up in torrential rains. The Guardian has an intensive look at the results in “Hookworm, a disease of extreme poverty, is thriving in the US South. Why?”

See more stories in our Making Change series.

Gail Ablow


Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.