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Synthesis/Regeneration 41   (Fall 2006)

Ivory Perry and the Fight Against
Lead Poisoning in St. Louis

by George Lipsitz

A Pioneer Opponent of Environmental Racism

In each part of his life Ivory Perry faced conflicts and issues that helped prepare him for what was ahead. Born to sharecropper parents in 1930, Ivory grew up in rural Arkansas and later Pine Bluff. His family was near civil rights activities, but never participated in them.

The segregation and racism that Ivory experienced as a teenager in Arkansas meant that he was not surprised to serve in a segregated unit when he joined the army in 1948. But toward the end of his time in Korea, he found racism in the military intolerable and began to object to it, though he did not join protests.

Ivory came to St. Louis in 1954 and was drawn into civil rights protests within a few years. When the extensive picketing for jobs at Jefferson Bank began in 1963, he became one of the most reliable activists on the picket line. It was during this time that Ivory was often in the press when he was arrested for actions such as lying down in front of cars.

Protests of the 1960s objected to the exclusion of Blacks from American life — from jobs, from voting, from being served at lunch counters. But when Ivory became an employee of the Human Development Corporation in the late 1960s, he faced a different aspect of racial injustice — Black people being crowded into substandard housing. Ivory’s experience in demonstrations served him well as he organized for tenant rights, including the rent strike of 1969.

While visiting renters in their homes, Ivory noticed recurring health problems among children. He discovered that they could be traced to lead in the paint of old homes. Previously, Ivory had been a dependable foot soldier for events that others called. But with lead, Ivory was the person who drew attention to a major problem. His work was instrumental in persuading the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to pass the city’s first legislation on lead in 1970.

Ivory Perry had broken new ground in making the link between social justice and human health issues. By the end of the decade, problems such as these would become known as “environmental racism.”

Children are still being lead poisoned in St. Louis.

Seventeen years after Ivory Perry’s death, and more than 35 years since his activism provoked the Board of Alderman to pass an ordinance designed to remove poisonous lead from the blood streams of children and from the places where children live, six new cases are discovered every day. At least 1800 children develop lead poisoning every year.

Lead poisoning causes serious damage to children. It retards their intellectual development and inhibits their ability to learn. It can lead to permanent and irreparable damage. Even though lead poisoning is completely preventable, the city of St. Louis still refuses to spend the money needed to make children safe. Instead, the city treats our children like human lead detectors, waiting until they actually develop signs of lead poisoning before removing toxic lead based paint from the places where children live and play.

Ivory Perry would have known what to do to defend our children. He was a fearless and tireless activist, a man who addressed the hurts and concerns of his community by organizing campaigns, demonstrations, and protests. Ivory Perry thought that there was important work to be done in the world and that it was up to us to do it. Dr. King used to say that some people are like a thermometer; they only register the temperature around them. They accept passively the conditions that exist, and try not to have any opinions different from the people in power.

But some other people, Dr. King went on to say, are like thermostats. They turn up the heat through their actions. Ivory Perry was a thermostat, and if he knew that children in St. Louis were still suffering from lead poisoning, he would expect us to turn up the heat and demand that city officials scrape and paint the walls and remove the window and door frames that are hurting our children.

No one invited Ivory Perry to fight against lead poisoning; he invited himself. As a housing specialist and community outreach worker for the Human Development Corporation’s Union-Sarah Gateway Center, Perry noticed that many children in the neighborhood seemed to have colds, even in the summer. Water dripped from their eyes and noses constantly. They picked at peeling plaster on the walls of their dwellings and put it in their mouths. With the help of Wilbur Thomas who worked for Dr. Barry Commoner at the Center for the Study of the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University, Perry discovered that the symptoms the children displayed might be coming from lead poisoning. But he had to test their bloodstreams to see if this diagnosis was correct.

Many physicians and health professionals ridiculed Perry’s concerns about lead poisoning. He did not have even a high school diploma, much less the kind of specialized medical education necessary for evaluating lead poisoning. But he found out what he needed to know by organizing, by creating a coalition that included parents, community residents, students, nurses, research scientists, and doctors to test children for the presence of toxic lead in their bloodstreams. He bought a kit that enabled him to see if paint on inside walls contained lead.

He proved that there was a lead poisoning epidemic among poor children in St. Louis, and he mobilized a campaign to change that situation. Because of the community pressure that he generated, the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance that made it possible to end lead poisoning in St. Louis. But for 35 years, the city of St. Louis has refused to enforce its own laws and to allocate sufficient funds to detoxify the bloodstreams of children and to remove lead hazards from their homes, playgrounds, and schools.

National studies reveal that poor Black children have a far greater degree of contracting lead poisoning than poor white children. Among the working poor, Black youths are three times as likely to develop lead poisoning compared to their white counterparts. Medical authorities in St. Louis in 1998 discovered 1,833 new cases of childhood lead poisoning, and estimated that somewhere between 20% and 25% of local youths had toxic levels of lead in their bloodstreams — nearly six times the national average. In some Black neighborhoods the figure was closer to 40%. Yet the city of St. Louis spends only enough money to screen fewer than half of the children who need to be tested every year.

Shortly before Ivory Perry’s tragic death in 1989, Lorna Godwin interviewed him for a program on the local educational television station. Aware of Perry’s pioneering work in the fight against lead poisoning, on behalf of affordable housing, and in support of tenants in public housing, Godwin praised Mr. Perry as a man who was ahead of his time. But her compliment did not please Perry. “Ahead of my time?” he exclaimed. “How can I be ahead of my time? This is my time. I’m on time. Maybe somebody else is late!”

The time has come in our time to be on time. To do the right thing before it is too late for thousands of children. Every dollar spent preventing lead poisoning saves many more dollars that will have to be spent in the future on adults who cannot be functioning members of society because of lead poisoning. Every dollar spenth preventing lead poisoning helps children to grow up to be productive members of society. Detoxification and lead abatement are cost effective. They are smart ways to spend city money. But no price tag can be put on a child’s life.

Because Ivory Perry took action against lead poisoning, thousands of people today are able to live happy and productive lives. He took time and he expended effort to do the right thing. Although 35 years of delay have made the problem even worse than it was in his time, we have no excuse not to act. As Dr. King used to say, it’s never the wrong time to do right. Lead poisoning is completely curable and preventable. It exists only because we let it exist. We are running out of time, but this is still our time.

George Lipsitz is Professor of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the culture of opposition. (1989, Temple U Press)

For information about a 30-minute documentary from Rainbow Sound: http://www.rainbowsound.us/ivoryperry.html

[26 sep 06]

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