On July 1, 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign stopped in Zanesville, Ohio, a small city in Muskingum County that is sixty miles east of Columbus. While there, Obama gave a speech at the Eastside Community Ministry about his plans for faith-based partnerships. The church was a mere stone’s throw away from the small, predominantly African American Coal Run neighborhood, a community of about thirty families nestled up against the eastern border of Zanesville. On the very day Obama passed through Zanesville on his march that would culminate in the ultimate symbol of the country’s strides toward transcendence of race, a jury in United States District Court was considering evidence that made Coal Run a powerful symbol of how far the country has yet to go before achieving equality of all people.
Coal Run, the only predominantly African American area in Muskingum County, suffered under a decades-long governmental refusal to provide the community with clean, safe water because of the race of its residents. Coal Run sits atop abandoned mines that have contaminated the ground water. Wells in Coal Run produce water that cannot be consumed or used to bathe in, and that corrodes, clogs, or destroys everything it touches. Coal Run residents had to catch rainwater off their roofs, melt snow, and truck water into the community using barrels, pool liners, and every other manner of container. The water that was gathered went into cisterns that would fill with bugs and worms; rodents and animals would crawl into the cisterns and die. As late as 2002, outhouses could be seen in Coal Run and so could unused sinks and toilets that sat in the corners of homes.
While the mostly African American Coal Run residents suffered every day trying to cope without water, they were surrounded by waterlines going to predominantly white areas—lines that all stopped when they reached Coal Run. Some of the Coal Run residents lived, for decades, no more than fifty yards from waterlines, but they were never allowed to connect. Their white neighbors ran their lawn sprinklers while at the same moment, across the street, African American residents of Coal Run might be saving used dishwater for washing the plates after their next meal. The water going to these white homes and to far-flung areas throughout the county came from a water treatment plant that Coal Run residents could see from their porches.
Ironically, the disparity in water service between the residents of Coal Run and their white neighbors began in 1954, the year the Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). That year, the City of Zanesville ran a waterline along the northern edge of Coal Run and down the road that led into the neighborhood. But the line stopped short of the first African American family, and despite decades of requests to tap into the line or to have the line extended, it never served the African American families. In 1967, Muskingum County, through its water authority—the East Muskingum Water Authority—also began constructing waterlines in the region. The lines passed right by Coal Run and reached up to ten miles beyond the neighborhood in order to serve white residents of the county. By the 1990s Coal Run was literally surrounded by waterlines, but its residents were not allowed to access them.
While the situation in Coal Run represented more of an exception compared to a time in America’s past, for far too long Coal Run’s African American residents were ignored and disregarded and simply not deemed worthy of having the basic human need of access to uncontaminated water. The response received in 2001, when one family went to a County Commissioner Board meeting to ask for water service, was emblematic: They were told by a commissioner that they would not see water unless President Bush dropped a spiral bomb in their neighborhood and it hit good water and that their great-grandchildren would be lucky to see water. After five decades of suffering and these types of demeaning responses to their plight, the residents stood up against the City and County and filed discrimination complaints under the federal fair housing laws.
Ten days after Obama left Zanesville and continued his historic journey, the jury deliberating on the Coal Run claims signaled a new era in the neighborhood. The jury returned a verdict of $10.8 million to the residents of Coal Run, and water now flows in the neighborhood. Less than a decade into the new millennium, we have an African American in the White House, but we cannot afford to forget that the millennium started with Coal Run residents using chamber pots and outhouses and hauling their water in kiddie pools.