As a city with a strong history of industrialization, economic output, and a large population, Dallas has held notoriety of a similar magnitude for its poor air quality and its effect on its Black working-class residents. 

The metroplex was named the 18th most polluted city for ozone in the country by the American Lung Association and reminders of its past wordlessly explain many of the how’s and why’s of what brought us to this point. The former shells of factories and husks of packing plants and slaughterhouses line the roads in and on the outskirts of Downtown Dallas like bullet casings, no longer teeming with activity and their resulting sensory reminders. As the old factories stand like tombstones to the city’s economic tethers in the wake of the Great Depression, it was in the predominantly Black South Dallas that the air once stung the nose of anyone in a miles-far radius.

Those that did not remain hollow and silent have been revitalized to serve Dallas’ newly emerging industries and services. It is both a reflection of the difference of the times and an unfaltering image of Dallas’ commitment to capital that former building blocks which manufactured liquid detergents, gardening equipment, and automotive parts now host software developers, tech startups, and culinary ventures instead.

An advertisement for Selig Co., its building now functioning as an office block in the East Quarter. Image from Portal to Texas History/Photo Credit: Sam Judy

Large companies like Ford and Procter & Gamble have strong ties to Dallas. Beyond this, the sheer volume of manufacturing, meatpacking, and production established in the city’s southern sector during its industrial and post-industrial eras has been lost in time, along with consistent records with which to estimate emissions of what and how much. 

Instead, we have testimonies of living residents, who remember these crucial days of Dallas’ growth and rise as a metropolis and have played witness to the health issues of those who have passed. Conditions common to those who have lived in the poorer areas of Dallas through the middle-to-the-end of the last century like general respiratory issues, asthma, COPD, kidney problems, and high blood pressure all have direct links to poor air quality and pollution. 

Residents like Willie Mae Coleman, 88, have lived in Dallas their entire lives, holding onto clear memories of the city in its transient economic phase when factories were still generating the mass of wealth that would go on to define Dallas as an industrial powerhouse. Slaughterhouses in particular helped to generate profits, as well as produce the acrid and overpowering aroma characteristic of South Dallas at the time.

“My father was a country boy from Louisiana,” Willie says. As the main provider of the family, Willie’s father Robert Walker worked hard labor while Eulah, her mother, was a housekeeper. “He worked in the slaughterhouse, cleaning and moving equipment.” 

Slaughterhouses – aside from bringing on an overpowering odor and the distressing screams of the dying cattle – put contaminants in the air when they began widely using chlorine treatments at facilities by the mid-1970s. As they continued to operate into the ‘80s, slaughterhouses maintained the same schedule and pushed out the same strong odor and fumes at 6 pm every weekday after the cattle hit the killing floor of the slaughterhouse. The streets were flooded with the resulting smell right around dinnertime until City Councilman Joe Haggar pushed for deliberation on a solution, setting killing times at 10 pm instead. 

Nearby in the W.H. Cotton Building, Procter & Gamble was a prominent supplier of jobs. Making its presence known by the strong stench, the six-story brick building is now inactive as a factory and owned by DISD. The factory’s prominence in the local economy during its heyday left little room for criticism. During the 1940s and ‘50s, Parkland would refuse patients seeking treatment for respiratory issues except in the instance of an emergency, citing a low supply of beds for patients. Complaints about the Procter & Gamble factory from the community continued to build, however, this outrage went unquelled.

“They took over that whole neighborhood. We lived seven blocks away on Cooper Street, and Procter & Gamble had buildings all along that road. Fumes would come down from the plant,” Willie says. “You have to remember we didn’t have air conditioning back then in the summer [the 1950s]. The best we would have was a fan if even that. Most people kept their windows open and you could smell all those fumes.” Described as similar to dead, rotting flesh, the odor of the emissions billowing from the shafts of the factory remains strong in the minds of residents of Old South Dallas. 

Twenty-two families sued the company in 1982 over an incident two years prior when a greenish-yellow sulfuric gas cloud spread over a 15-block area of downtown Dallas. The company was sued for $900,000 by each family, who suffered respiratory damage from the event, claiming Procter & Gamble previously promised to cover medical expenses and repair bills. Presumably, Procter & Gamble settled before later selling the building in 1994. DISD employees evacuated temporarily in 2016 when lead and other potentially dangerous issues were discovered.

Deeper into the city and at the edge of Deep Ellum is the site of the old Ford Motor Factory at 2700 Canton and later at 5200 Grand. A site of the manufacture of the Model-T, Ford is a company that helped further cement Dallas’ economic viability to the country overall. Unfortunately, the company did considerable damage to the ozone layer at this time, and even after findings confirmed negative effects as early as the 1960s, the company continued its work and even began producing its F-Series trucks until the factory’s closure in 1970.

As asthma is noted as having higher rates in Black Americans and other non-white demographics, it is no surprise when environmental factors play as strong of a role as they do in an individual’s overall respiratory health. Data shows that all residents in Texas are more likely to have asthma than in the country overall. Black Texan adults suffer asthma at the highest rate among the three most prominent demographics, with asthma affecting 17% of the group.

Additionally, Dallas County Health & Human Services established the Pediatric Asthma Surveillance System (PASS) to allow parents to monitor possible vulnerability to poor air quality. According to data collected by the DHHS, 1 in 8 Black children has asthma in Dallas compared to 1  in 10 white children. While a variety of factors could contribute to higher rates of asthma in Black children, poor air quality in areas such as South Dallas is one constant and prevalent cause of poor respiratory health for many residents.

As other cities with comparable economic booms to Dallas – such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland – hold many similar or overlapping issues regarding poor air quality and respiratory health, the connection between industrial pollution and negative effects on the respiratory health of working-class people cannot be disputed. Conditions like asthma, COPD, and high blood pressure remain prevalent in non-white demographics, especially Black Americans. 

As we continue to transition out of the Industrial era, poor environmental practices continue to impact Black Texans. As last February marked the second-year anniversary of the removal of “Shingle Mountain” in Floral Farms, Black Dallasites still feel the brunt of the negative effect that corporations inflict upon the city’s vulnerable, working-class, and predominantly non-white residents.