• U.S.

Making Water a Matter of Race

6 minute read
Claire Suddath

To this day, Jerry Kennedy only does laundry when it rains. For the first 54 years of his life, he lived without running water, and rainstorms were the only way he could collect enough water to wash his clothes. But Kennedy isn’t from some far-off rural outpost. He was born and raised in the Coal Run neighborhood of Zanesville, Ohio — a former coal-mining center of 25,000 in the eastern part of the state — just a few hundred feet from a municipal water line. Kennedy, now 58, is black. His neighbors, who did not have running water for more than 50 years, are also black. On July 10, the U.S. District Court of Ohio awarded them almost $10.9 million, ruling that they had been denied access to public water because of their race.

The decision comes four years after the water started flowing in Coal Run, a black community of some 25 homes in overwhelmingly white Muskingum County, following a lawsuit filed by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) and 67 Coal Run residents. According to the suit, the community had repeatedly requested water service since 1956, the year the city built a water main that ended just short of the neighborhood, and had watched as the East Muskingum Water Authority built new water lines and increased county water efforts in surrounding areas while their requests went unanswered. When he built his house in the early 1980s, Kennedy says, his water request was denied. He can’t even remember the number of times he asked the city’s service director for help, only to have nothing happen. Then a house went up next door. A white family moved in, and one day Kennedy saw his new neighbors watering their lawn. “They’d be out there with a hot tub out on the porch,” he says, “and I was still going down the road [to the local water treatment plant] with a pickup truck every day.” Like many Zanesville area residents, he couldn’t drill a well because the surrounding coal mines have contaminated the water, rendering it undrinkable. The mines have been closed for years, but the ground is so full of sulfur that residents say the water runs red. In Coal Run, Kennedy and his black neighbors would either pay to have water hauled in from the treatment plant two miles away or catch the rainwater that ran down their gutters.

“When I was growing up, I thought that everyone had water hauled in,” says Cynthia Hairston, a 47-year-old nurse, who was born in Coal Run. “I had no idea that outside my neighborhood, [running water] was even possible.” When she discovered that her white neighbors’ request for a water hookup had been approved in 1999, she began agitating for equal rights — talking to other black neighbors, attending city council meetings and lobbying government officials. Then one morning, she woke up to find a severed pig’s head in her driveway. “It was very upsetting,” she says. “I was very scared.” She doesn’t know what the pig’s head was supposed to mean or who put it there, but is convinced that the act was racially motivated.

The city, the county and the Water Authority, for their part, deny any discrimination and say Coal Run’s lack of water was due to a lack of demand. The neighborhood went without water for so long, they argue, mainly because its residents didn’t go through the correct procedures to request it. According to Mark Landes, a Columbus attorney representing Muskingum County, the only official water requests from Coal Run residents came in the form of a 1973 petition and 2001 public hearing. “No one ever showed up and asked for water,” he says, adding that a large part of Muskingum County still doesn’t have running water today. Hairston agrees that’s true but claims that those areas are all very rural, whereas Coal Run is a 10-min. drive from the city center — “a stone’s throw away.” And while Coal Run is not technically within Zanesville’s city limits, neither are several surrounding white communities that have had access to the municipal water supply since the line was installed in 1956.

On Aug. 18, 2003, two months after the OCRC issued its report alleging racial discrimination, Muskingum County decided that the residents of Coal Run finally qualified for water. By January 2004, the last pipelines were laid, but the discrimination trial was already in motion. Resident after resident testified about years of personal conversations held with city and county officials who did nothing to keep their promises to help. Kennedy, Hairston and two other residents stated that in 2001, Muskingum County Commissioner Dorothy Montgomery told them that even their “grandchildren’s grandchildren would not have water.” Montgomery could not be reached, but Landes says she denies making the comment.

Last Thursday’s verdict represents a sweeping acknowledgement of the Coal Run community’s suffering. “This case is a throwback to the type of discrimination everyone thinks is long gone,” says John P. Relman, a Washington civil rights attorney who represented the Coal Run residents. Relman calls the case a “landmark” because of the number of individual plaintiffs found to have suffered discrimination at the hands of their own government. “You lift up some rocks and find a couple of pretty ugly things,” he says. Kennedy, Hairston and the other plaintiffs will receive between $15,000 and $300,000 each in damages, depending on how long they had lived in the neighborhood. “This has been a long saga for lots of these people,” says G. Michael Payton, the OCRC’s executive director. “The humiliation, the feeling of being treated like second-class citizens — that shouldn’t happen today. We’re supposed to be past that.”

Columbus attorney Landes, however, isn’t so sanguine about the case’s result. “This is a bad day for taxpayers and a bad day for race relations,” he says. He believes the plaintiffs sued solely for the money and blames “out-of-state lawyers” for coming in and whipping up a “frenzy” that the residents of Muskingum County will now have to fund. Attorneys for the city and county say they plan to appeal.

Jerry Kennedy, for his part, says he’s just glad it’s over. “I finally had a peace of mind, it was only fair that the Lord had seen that we got taken care of,” he says. The day his water was turned on in 2004, he took three baths. He doesn’t have to worry about the water levels in his cistern anymore, but he can’t break the habit of washing laundry when it rains. “It’s just something I do,” he says. “No matter what time of day or night, I get up and I have to do it.”

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