Lead Poisoning, Segregation and Slavery: An Important Historical Analysis

Lead Poisoning, Segregation and Slavery: An Important Historical Analysis

Lead Poisoning, Segregation and Slavery: An Important Historical Analysis

Lead Poisoning, Segregation and Slavery: An Important Historical Analysis
By Robert Penner, Contributing Columnist to KINGFISHmke
June 13, 202


I want to begin this article by recounting an exchange I had with Superintendent Karen Dettmer of the Milwaukee Water Works at the November 18th, 2019 On Public Health – Lead in Milwaukee: A Community-Wide Response event. During the question and answer portion of the event, I posed to the panel of experts, which included both local 
and national experts on lead poisoning, whether they thought it was the City of Milwaukee’s responsibility to remove all 75,000 lead laterals with no cost to the homeowners, based on the 1872 mandate that required lead laterals to be used until 1950.
the answers from the panel were somewhat neutral, it was the comments made by Superintendent Dettmer afterward that alarmed me. I was approached by the Superintendent after the program had ended in a friendly manner; we shook hands and briefly discussed the panel, but then she made a statement that shook me, as a professional academic historian, to the core. “You know, Robert, while I think that your history is interesting, it just isn’t important. We have to live in the here and now and bringing this up over and over doesn’t help anybody.”

This is a deeply troubling statement that should strike everybody, not only historians, as baseless and incorrect. This being said, I want to take a moment to talk about history, not just as a subject taught in school, not as a series of dates and names to be memorized, and certainly not as a single set of facts dictated by the political leaders of the United States. Rather, our history as humans is a deeply enmeshed web of interactions reverberating throughout space and time. Each interaction and exchange affects the next in an exponentially expanding manner, meaning that the past is in essence the present. In this way, history results from the conflict of social forces and must be interpreted as a series of contradictions and their solutions. The conflict is caused by material circumstances and needs of those who produce goods for the provision and advancement of society, and those who possess the capital (both constant and variable) that facilitate that production. These are the basic truths of human existence upon which a historical analysis must begin. Thus, in analyzing the history of lead poisoning in Milwaukee, it is essential to identify the junctures of social conflict so as to demonstrate their outcomes and influence on the present.

There is widespread recognition that leads poisoning, from several sources, is a major public health problem in Milwaukee, with studies linking lead poisoning to higher rates of violent crime, infant mortality, educational underachievement, and behavioral problems among Milwaukee’s Black and Brown populations. Thus, I will lay out some of the major contradictions related to the lead poisoning crisis in Milwaukee.

The City of Milwaukee mandated that lead pipes must be used to connect to the city water system in 1872, a year after the founding of the Milwaukee Water Works. Yet in the present, our city officials deny any responsibility for the removal of these pipes, instead deferring responsibility to the homeowner. The Mayor of Milwaukee who put this mandate in place, Harrison Ludington, was a business mogul who got his start transporting lead across the state by ox cart, who later became an investor and board member of the Wisconsin State Lead Mining Company, and whose cousin, James Ludington, was a partial owner of the Milwaukee White Lead Manufacturing Company.
Lead was at best a controversial material to use for water piping in 1872, the year of the mandate. At worst, it was widely known to be a harmful practice that could result in major lead poisoning catastrophes. As far back as the 1st Century B.C. the Roman engineer Vitruvius denounced the use of lead pipes as “harmful” and “unwholesome”. Closer to the time of the mandate, several notable scientists strongly urged localities against the use of lead pipes, such as Dr. Horatio Adams (1852), Dr. James Nichols (1860), Sir Thomas Oliver, (1880), Dr. Gilbert Kirker (1881), Dr. Alfred Allen (1882). These physicians and scientists argued against private water companies, municipal water companies, public water councils, and local politicians, who preferred lead because it was cheap, expedient, and something that many of the capital possessing class were invested in financially.
Milwaukee experienced a massive second wave of Black migration from the south, termed by many historians as Milwaukee’s “late great migration,” from 1940 to 1970. During this period, the infamous segregation of Milwaukee took place, with massive institutional redlining, racial exclusion chartering, and politically sanctioned discriminatory real estate practices. These practices forced Black people into older housing stock in the North and West sides of the city where basically every home was serviced by a lead lateral and had lead paint. Milwaukee is still, according to the 2018 study by William Frey, the most segregated city in the United States.
Black slaves were used to jump-start the lead mining industry in Wisconsin. According to J.N. Davidson in his 1896 book Negro Slavery in Wisconsin, from 1726 until at least 1844, Black slaves were present in Wisconsin primarily as mine workers, mining primarily lead ore in the South-Western portion of the state. Lead began to be transported to Milwaukee to be made into lead pipes starting in 1838. Therefore, Black slaves not only established the lead mining industry in Wisconsin but mined lead that would be made into pipes that would later poison Black families in Milwaukee, who had been forced by the practice of segregation, into older housing stock with lead pipes that were, even in 1950, over 100 years old.
These four major contradictions demonstrate a historical process whereby the poor working class, mostly people of color, are exploited, oppressed, and poisoned by the owners of capital, who often double as politicians, particularly in the case of Milwaukee. This point is approached by Dr. Helen Meier of the Zilber School of Public Health at UW-Milwaukee in her 2020 article The intersectional effect of poverty, homeownership, and racial/ethnic composition on mean childhood blood lead levels in Milwaukee County neighborhoods, where she clearly recognizes that the “historical legacy of racial discrimination within the housing market” is closely related to higher rates of childhood lead poisoning. However, Meier does not trace this historical dynamic further, stopping at housing segregation and poverty, while failing to identify any of the contradictions that have perpetually disadvantaged working and oppressed people in a manner that is profitable for those who are already rich and powerful. Lead poisoning is not merely a result of poverty, but a major contributor to poverty in its own right and has been spread and maintained in a way that is profitable for landlords, real-estate speculators, police departments, the prison industrial complex, bankers, and the owners and investors of major manufacturing firms.

Understanding lead poisoning in Milwaukee and finding solutions to the contradictions that have made it a problem for decades, on a historical level is not unimportant, as Superintendent Dettmer would have it. It is in fact crucial to not only remediate the many lead hazards that exist in our city but in doing it in a way that rights historical wrongs and doesn’t force residents to pay for their own reparations. Forcing Black residents of Milwaukee to pay for the replacement of pipes that were mandated by a white politician in 1872, made of lead that was mined by slaves, from homes and neighborhoods that they were segregated into, would simply be a continuation of this historical injustice and would not serve as a solution to these contradictions, but instead would prove to be yet another contradiction to add to the long list.

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