Climate Migration, Anthropology, Human Rights

an exhibit at Rice University Solar Studios
on view now

featuring work by Willow Naomi Curry, Ginger Jeudy, Danny Russo, Ukombozi Fellows Chelsy Aledia, Nia Buckley and Kennedy Henderson and oral histories from Sandra Edwards, Walter Mallett, Dolores McGruder, Vivian Mcklevy, and Joetta Stevenson

at the corner of Alumni Dr. and College Way
Open: Wednesdays 12 - 6 pm
Saturdays 12 - 5 pm

HCJM Contributors: Aaron Ambroso, Willow Naomi Curry, Sarah Davidson, Noura Jabir, Tiffany Jin, and Skyler Smith

John Doe

Aug 17

The Houston Climate Justice Museum & Cultural Center presents “Creosote Stories: Seeding Planthroposcenes in Northeast Houston,” at the Rice University Solar Studios. An opening reception will take place Friday, November 4th from 6:30-9:00pm, accompanied by a reading and conversation with author Kathryn Savage and Houston-based writer and artist Willow Curry from 7-8pm. 

Creosote Stories invites visitors to explore the legacy and future of the creosote plume in Northeast Houston through the different narratives that made the wood-preserving industry possible. Tracing the story of how the industry developed in the American South takes us to the expansion of commercial logging and the closing of the frontier, the USDA Forest Service that in large part was developed to conserve forests out of economic concerns, and the pseudo-science of race and the African American labor that was used to treat railroad ties.

The first study linking creosote to cancer was documented in 1775: through the reconstructed room of an 111-year-old resident of Northeast Houston, the exhibit highlights the oral histories and present-day struggle between local community activists and the financial interests of multinational companies. Another room questions the role that institutions, governmental agencies, and philanthropic foundations have played in keeping the general public in the dark about the health impacts of the wood-preserving industry. As Northeast Houston residents grapple with the contamination and ongoing legal battles, they lead us to consider questions that get to the heart of our environmental crisis: How can we hold vested interests accountable for the slow violence that their wealth is predicated on? How can storytelling be a method for survival? How do we create environmental alliances across culture, class, age, gender, and other forms of difference?

As part of the opening reception, author Kathryn Savage will read from her debut book Groundglass (2022) which draws on her own experiences growing up on the fence lines of industry and explores how past environmental actions reverberate across landscapes and in our bodies. Kathryn and Willow Curry will discuss the process of using personal stories to investigate brownfield and superfund sites, and the ways that stories can be used for critical inquiry.

Registration is recommended for the opening reception and conversation

Opening Reception
Friday, September 24, 2022, 6:30 - 9:00pm

7:00 - 8:00 PM a reading and conversation with author
Kathryn Savage and Houston-based writer and artist Willow Naomi Curry

followed by drinks and light fare

at Rice University Solar Studios

6100 Main Street

corner of Alumni Drive and College Way

Houston, TX  77005

To attend the in-person event, register for tickets here.

framed photographs of creosote workers in the 1940's, from the online archives of the Library of Congress.

Creosote can cause burns and scars to the skin with prolonged contact, and is currently known to be a human carcinogen by the NTP, a probable carcinogen by the IARC, and a probable human carcinogen by the EPA. As the industry developed in the early decades of the 20th century, the long-term impacts of creosote were yet to be studied, but the effect on workers was well known - this is evidenced by the numerous court cases, injuries, and accidents that were recorded. A few notable doctors and scientists at the time promoted the idea that people with darker skin were immune to the harmful effects of creosote.

Creosote facilities, especially in the American South, came to rely on black wage laborers “to perform some of the most grueling and hazardous jobs in wood-preservation. They consigned black laborers to the lowest-paid, unskilled positions such as handling and loading creosoted wood, which ensured that they faced regular, direct exposure to toxic chemicals and ultimately bore a disproportionate share of the pollution associated with this industry.” [Nicole C. Cox, Toxic Treatment: Creosote, the Wood-Preservative Industry, and the Making of Superfund Sites, 2017]

The framed photograph above shows an unnamed African American male handling a railroad crosstie, doing so without any protective clothing or gear. We also see that this photo was taken at a low angle - giving us an idealized version of the worker, who stands stoically, almost contently staring above the photographer and us the viewer. This image begins to provide a window into the way that race was produced in this industry and how myths of the Black laborer were created.