After her husband died from lung cancer in 1969, Hazel M. Johnson started a fight against all the things making her neighbors and loved ones sick. She founded the organization People for Community Recovery, and later met a young organizer named Barack Obama. The two worked together to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens, her public housing community — a fight they won in 1989.
Obama later wrote about that fight in his memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. As detailed in Johnson’s Chicago Tribune obituary, Obama was criticized for leaving Johnson out of the story. Johnson passed away in 2011, leaving behind an inspiring legacy that too many people know nothing about. Chicago took a step toward changing that when it renamed 130th Street on the South Side Hazel Johnson EJ Way.
The recognition that marginalized people shoulder too much of the burden from environmental threats inspired Johnson’s life’s work. She was radically ahead of her time. “It’s all very well to embrace saving the rain forests and conserving endangered animal species,” she said, “but such global initiatives don’t even begin to impact communities inhabited by people of color.”