COLUMBIA, MISS. -- Years after Miss Rawls integrated her famous Roundtable eatery and the last "colored" bathroom was closed, it took a force more powerful than the Supreme Court to unite blacks and whites on an evening last September.
Hundreds piled into a community center to give witness to the cancer, miscarriages, kidney disease and festering sores that plague Columbians irrespective of race, and to fix blame for their common miseries on the pollution of an industrial site on the town's south side that traditionally served as a dividing line between blacks and whites.
Reichhold Chemical Co. occupied the site until its plant blew up in 1977. It never reopened, ending 50 years of industrial activity by Reichhold and other companies. But a legacy of toxic substances -- carcinogens, fetal toxins and other poisons -- persists in the soil and ground water.
The unusual black-white consensus struck that September evening spread to the aisles of the Winn Dixie and people's living rooms, crystalizing in the first integrated organization of this small town. Its 1,000 members have elected a biracial leadership, stood side-by-side in the once-segregated Columbia high school to press cleanup demands on federal officials, and criticized the mayor for inaction. Now they are picking a slate of sympathetic candidates for the 1988 congressional elections.
The uniting forces are fear, frustration and a deep sense of betrayal -- by the industries, by city officials worried that the stigma of pollution will scare off industrial suitors, and by the Environmental Protection Agency, which uncovered lethal substances only to leave town for three years.
"Usually blacks and whites are on opposite sides throwing slanders onto each other," said Maudessa Pittman Smith, a longtime black community organizer here. "Now, they've got a cause that keeps them together. The cause is their life, what they breathe, what they eat and drink."
Geraldine Turnage, a white housewife, explains the rare racial collaboration this way: "They know what we're going through. And we know what they're going through."
Columbia, in the pine belt 85 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, has a few wealthy families in gracious antebellum estates. But most of the town is populated by those who work in factories or the shops of Main Street and occupy small frame houses. The average family income is $12,000 a year. Forty percent of the 8,200 residents are black.
Long after Columbia was forced to integrate, blacks and whites worship in separate churches and live in separate neighborhoods. Their children share the same classroom but play sports in separate parks. State politicians come here twice to campaign -- once for the white vote, once for the black vote.
Nowhere was the division sharper than the area encircling the 81-acre industrial site. The modest houses of white Columbia form the northern and eastern boundaries, with the black Webb's Quarter of cinderblock houses and trailers skirting the southwest. A short distance apart, but worlds apart culturally, the residents of each community might have gone a lifetime without entering the others' neighborhood.
Occupied since the 1930s by manufacturers of pine derivatives, the site was acquired in 1975 by Reichhold, a New York-based firm. It produced wood preservatives, resins and specialized chemicals, using hazardous ingredients. In March 1977, the facility caught fire and exploded, jolting adjacent communities.
Reichhold pulled out after the fire. According to depositions filed in a lawsuit, the company paid local contractors to bury barrels and sacks of chemicals on the site. One worker recalled how liquid oozed out of containers dumped into holes from a truck. Another told of filling up a "long, silo-like trench" eight feet deep. Even before the fire, chemicals were allegedly buried, discharged into a drainage system of concrete gutters and spilled onto the ground.
Former Reichhold contractors named some of the chemicals in the depositions: formaldehyde, a respiratory carcinogen; toluene, a fetal toxin, and pentachlorophenol, which causes kidney damage and dermatitis.
Reichhold, citing pending litigation, declined repeated requests for interviews.
It took residents a few years after the blast to complain of health problems. Pets had died mysteriously in the past, and people had chronic ailments, but no one blamed pollution. Then, in 1983, heavy rains flooded ponds and drainage ditches on the industrial site, forcing runoff into adjoining yards and houses. Children developed blistering, red sores typical of the rashes caused by toxic chemicals.
"After the flood, more people stepped forward," recalls Turnage. Her neighbors on Chinaberry Avenue, which flanks the northeast boundary of the site, compared notes and discovered that they shared diseases more serious than rashes.
Turnage, 40, began to inventory the illness on her block. At last count, there were eight cancer cases, and kidney disease is rampant. Turnage has irregular heartbeat and diverticulitis; her daughter has Bells Palsy; her son has shingles, and they all have kidney infections. Bonnie Bristar, 38, who lives next door, had skin cancers and kidney stones removed last year. In the next house, the entire Terry family -- husband, wife and two daughters -- has gall bladder problems or kidney disease.
"When people move in here, they're healthy looking," Turnage said. "After a few years, they're having cancer cut off their face or having their bladder operated on. It's just too much illness for it not to be related to something."
Unknown to whites at the time, their black neighbors were experiencing similar health problems. They also had an alarming rate of miscarriages. In one home, for example, a mother and two daughters have lost a total of seven babies in 10 years.
Dr. Gloria Frelix helped bridge the two worlds. A black woman who grew up here during segregation -- she was once refused treatment by a white dentist -- Frelix left Columbia as a teen-ager. Earning her residency at George Washington University, she returned in 1985 to open a clinic downtown. Only black patients came at first, but soon whites streamed in to see the young doctor who was willing to listen to their mysterious health complaints.
Frelix, 34, said she was initially struck by the high rate of anemia, and tests ruled out iron deficiency and sickle cell disease. She was puzzled by the large number of cancers and kidney ailments among patients from healthy families and by the epidemic of rashes in a population not exposed to poisonous plants.
Then Frelix, drawing on training as an oncologist, recalled that chemotherapy can depress the immune system, causing symptoms similar to those of her patients.
"Once I started finding out what kind of chemicals were there, I thought, 'Why not? These chemicals can do that,' " Frelix explained.
Mississippi officials discovered toxic chemicals at the site in 1984, acting on a tip from a former federal inspector. The state informed the EPA, which investigated. Its survey of surface water and soil found 30 of the 126 pollutants the EPA considers among the most dangerous, heavy metals and chemicals capable of destroying every part of the human body -- skin and lung carcinogens, embryo and fetal toxins and poisons to the kidney, liver, stomach and central nervous system.
The EPA responded by draining two polluted ponds and removing 630 leaky barrels, some filled with toxic wastes. In late 1984, the EPA slated the site for "Superfund" cleanup, but ruled out chemicals as the source of illness because they were not found in excessive quantities in drinking water or the air. Then, the agency effectively disappeared.
"We heard someone had this, someone had that, but we couldn't associate it with the site," recalled EPA project manager Gena Townsend. "Nothing dangerous appeared to be moving off the site."
But the EPA survey only heightened community fears. Since the site is near the city's acquifer, Columbians living miles away were convinced that their water was poisoned. More people began reporting illnesses -- 18 cancer cases in 14 homes on Broad Street, for example. When Mayor Steve Pittman dismissed the health concerns as unsubstantiated and produced water tests showing no contamination, he was accused of pandering to his political allies in the Chamber of Commerce.
In an interview, Pittman acknowledged his "greatest immediate fear" is that industrialists considering Columbia will say, " 'People are afraid to drink the water. We'll keep going.' "
It took another flood last spring to transform fear and frustration into action. Community leaders invited the Arlington-based Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste to organize here. By September, Stop Toxic Onsite Pollution (STOP) was formed, and Jennings Gilmore, a white hairdresser, emerged as president. Gilmore invited the black community to a meeting and called for "the tightest coalition between black and white that this country has ever seen."
"Let's not forget, this is Mississippi, and wouldn't it be wonderful if the rest of the country had to follow our pattern on this cleanup," he told a large, integrated audience.
STOP elected a black vice president and a biracial executive board and prepared for its first challenge.
The EPA was ready to return after a three-year hiatus that Townsend blames on necessary "paper work." An in-depth study reaffirmed that while there are toxic chemicals, they pose no imminent risk. The agency would clean up the site, but not until late 1989. In the meantime, the EPA decided to dig up the 200 to 300 barrels it estimated were still buried there. A meeting was called for Sept. 22 to air the findings and plans, with work expected to start two days later.
But STOP had its own agenda. It wanted the EPA to move nearby homeowners during the barrel removals and used the meeting to press its demand. Nearly 1,000 angry, jeering residents attended and threatened to block the work if there were no evacuations. Officials left town without moving a barrel.
Returning Nov. 5, the EPA agreed to relocate 300 families during the dustiest phase. The agency acceded to another STOP request for a health study here.
Contractors in moonsuits have unearthed 10 times more barrels than the EPA expected. Most of them were leaking and most contain toxic waste. Also uncovered were a pair of 10,000-gallon tanks of liquid and a 10-foot deep, 120-square-foot pit filled with white and reddish powder. The contents are being tested.
STOP, meanwhile, whose insignia shows black and white figures standing side by side, continues to lobby the EPA to speed up permanent cleanup of the site and to consider buyouts of neighbors.
"I'm from Alabama, and I was surprised to see the coordination and cooperation between black and white," said Kelly McCarty, the EPA's site coordinator. "At the very first meeting, it wasn't black and white sitting on different sides of the room as you'd expect. They were intermixed.
"They had to work together to get our attention, and they did," she said.