Mourners filled the aisles of New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church last Friday during the funeral for Altheria Nan Freeland. They came from across the state, some from out of state, to say goodbye to a woman who formed bonds between communities of black and white environmental and social justice advocates. Freeland died suddenly of a stroke on Nov. 5 at the age of 54. Her church community and family members crowded the pews, sharing sympathy and shock. With them were prominent activists whose names underscore the breadth of Freeland's advocacy: Lynice Williams of North Carolina Fair Share, Ted Outwater of the Clean Water Fund of North Carolina, Barbara Zelter of the North Carolina Council of Churches, Molly Diggins of North Carolina's Sierra Club, Alan Spalt of the pesticide watch group PESTed, Jim Warren of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network and Pete MacDowell of Democracy South.
Freeland was one of the founders of the environmental justice movement. She worked to decontaminate the PCB (toxic chemical) landfill in Warren County, where the state dumped some 60,000 tons of contaminated soil in 1982. The county is economically depressed and predominantly black. Opposition to the landfill and cries for its decontamination brought the issue of "environmental racism" into national awareness. It was also the central event of what some call the "waste wars" of North Carolina in the 1980s.
Freeland went on to work in opposition to corporate hog-farm waste, nuclear-power waste and other related issues. She also worked for smart growth policies and for campaign finance reform. Many say she bridged the divide between predominantly white environmental organizers and the grassroots African-American communities that were directly affected by these struggles.
After mourners passed her open coffin, a saxophone played "Amazing Grace" and a six-person choir sang a hymn titled "May the Work I've Done Speak For Me." Cynthia Brown of the Sojourner Group described Freeland as "a sister friend and warrior for justice" who was loved and respected by many.
Gary Grant co-founded the annual North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit with Freeland in 1997. He spoke at the service about Freeland's passion and commitment, emphasizing that while many in the environmental movement discuss ambitious plans for change, "there are the revolutionaries who actually grab the bull by the horns and turn talk into action." Grant said Freeland tapped national groups to attend the summit "to make sure North Carolina was not isolated in its struggle."
Grant is also the head of Concerned Citizens of Tillery, a historically black town in Halifax County, where factory hog farms and agricultural runoff have contaminated the soil and groundwater. "She always rose to any occasion to speak on behalf of the dispossessed and the dumped on," Grant said. He said that the eventual decontamination of the Warren County landfill "is a testament to her tenacity and willpower." He described her as a uniquely unselfish person with a strong sense of "Christian duty and love for humanity." He concluded with a reading of Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise."
Savi Horne, a fellow church member, also spoke about Freeland's work with her on the Land Loss Prevention Project and the Black Family Land Trust. The two rode to an environmental conference in late October and started talking about the Haitian overthrow of the French colonial power. "She said, 'They freed the land.' And I said, 'That's why you're Freeland, right?'" Horne said that the idea of freeing the land was a powerful for one for her friend, who saw social justice and environmental resources as deeply interconnected.
At the time of her death, Freeland was actively involved in many different projects and efforts, as subsequent speakers made clear: She was helping an environmental group in Jacksonville, Fla., to incorporate into a 501(c)3 nonprofit. She had been organizing voter outreach and transportation to the polls for seniors through her sorority's alumni chapter. "Had she been alive, she would have been out there protesting the night before [her funeral] as our state murdered another person," Grant said after the service.
Freeland grew up in Durham and attended Durham County schools. She was in the second class to integrate Durham High School. A childhood friend told a story from their first year there. The young woman had a stutter that caused her classmates and teacher to laugh when she read a report out loud. Freeland stood up and told them not to laugh, her friend said, then offered to read the report for her. When the teacher said this would mean a grade penalty, Freeland suggested they discuss it with the principal. The teacher relented.
Freeland went on to get a law degree from N.C. Central University, where she continued to teach and mentor students, and to graduate from N.C. State University's Resource Leadership Institute.
The picture of her life that emerged during the service was of a passionate and dedicated activist who used her education to help fight for her community. She showed as much dedication to her friends, family and church bonds as she did to the causes of poor citizens near and far.
"She is going to truly be missed," Grant said, "not only by rural communities, but by the state and nation as a real mover and shaker for environmental justice and social change."