In November 2021, the Flint water crisis was resolved from the state’s legalistic perspective. A federal judge awarded city residents a $626 million-dollar settlement for damages that dovetailed with the January 2021 indictment of former Michigan governor Rick Snyder. “Although this is a significant victory for Flint,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer Corey Stern told journalists, “we have a ways to go in stopping Americans from being systematically poisoned in their own homes, schools, and places of work.”1
In Michigan, what Kwame Holmes theorizes as necrocapitalism (to underscore the value-generating potential of anti-Black violence and death) precipitated the commoditization and distribution of water along the contours of reinforcing systems of value anchored in Black disposability and death.2 While necrocapitalist logics result from recent financialization, the exposure it caused is not unprecedented. Indeed, the Flint crisis was presaged in the 1920s and 1930s by the emergence of municipal water infrastructures under Jim Crow segregation, which here includes not only the formal apartheid regime of the South, but also the de facto segregation of the Jim Crow North. Combining neglect and intentional exclusion, Jim Crow water systems, especially those in the South, exposed Black communities to water contaminated by pathogens.
Ernest B. Wilson’s 1931 The Water Supply of the Negro provides an important snapshot of drinking water infrastructures under Jim Crow. Wilson studied wells across eight communities spanning Georgia’s coastal plain and Piedmont regions, including Dudley in Laurens County as well as Augusta and Athens. According to the study, more than one hundred thousand Black Georgians drank from shallow wells exposed to contaminants linked to waterborne diseases. This had devastating effects.
For example, in 1926, in the course of four months after moving to a rented farm in rural Madison County, seven members of one farming family became sick with typhoid fever. Although five recovered, two succumbed to the disease. Endemic to much of the South through the early twentieth century, typhoid remained dangerous, with the violent vomiting, diarrhea, and fever of the condition inducing severe dehydration. The devitalizing and unequal water supply under Jim Crow drove Black exposure, susceptibility, and death.3 Dangerous wells were not only prevalent in communities like Madison; they also remained an essential source of water in growing urban centers like Augusta and Athens. Although 80 percent of Augusta’s Black residents connected to the municipal supply, the remaining 20 percent, confined to the west end, lacked access to purified water. The deliberate exclusion of 20 percent of Augusta’s Black community from municipal water supplies was compounded for Black renters confined to inadequate housing governed by the confining spatial economy of Jim Crow. According to Wilson, despite adjoining land, on “one street three houses have been built on a double lot only a hundred feet in width” with “all three of these houses” using “a common well” that had “been condemned by the Board of Health” and a “common privy” of the “dug pit type” that leached into the water.4
Exposure to deadly water under Jim Crow resulted from the profitable spatial arrangement confining Black communities to small, overdeveloped parcels while ignoring contemporary understandings of healthful drinking water. The poisoning of Flint—along with the ongoing crises in Newark, New Jersey; Jackson, Mississippi; and many other predominantly Black communities around the US—reveals the enduring legacy of Jim Crow logics in contemporary necrocapitalist infrastructures.
- Tyler Clifford and Kanishka Sing, “Federal Judge Approves $626 Million Flint, Michigan Water Settlement,” Reuters, November 11, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/legal/litigation/federal-judge-approves-626-million-flint-michigan-water-settlement-2021-11-10 ↩︎
- See, e.g., Kwame Holmes, “Necrocapitalism, Or, The Value of Black Death,” Bully Bloggers, July 24, 2017, https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/necrocapitalism-or-the-value-of-black-death-by-kwame-holmes ↩︎
- Thank you to Maira Liriano at the Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture for connecting me with this source. Ernest B. Wilson, “The Water Supply of the Negro,” Bulletin of the University of Georgia 31, no. 3a (1931) ↩︎
- “The Water Supply of the Negro,” 35 ↩︎