History and the people who make it: Leroy Bell

Leroy Bell [B], military veteran and Apopka activist, was interviewed by Clayton Robinson [R] in July, 2013.

This is the 42nd in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

B: I was born September the 4th, 1959 in a little place they call Gallion, Alabama. My father was more like a migrant worker. I grew up all over. Place like North Carolina, New York, Alabama, Florida. I really started doing farmwork in 1968. Once my father and mother moved us down here to Florida, most of us would pick oranges and grapefruits, go out to Sanford and pick up cucumbers out of the field.

My mom and dad thought it would be better to move down because the money was better than it was in Alabama. They had better schools and was getting ready to do integration. Back in Alabama they had the Jim Crow, but right at 1969-70, Florida went on to integrate itself. In Florida it was still a challenge. You had a lot of racism still. It wasn’t a dropout rate. It was more or less a force out rate.

I come from a long line of activists. My grandmother’s cousin was Ralph Abernathy that marched with Martin Luther King. My father was a southern Baptist minister, the first president of NAACP in Apopka. I was the first secretary. He was the longest serving Worshipful Master of Davis Lodge number 47 of the Masonic organization. He was the Territory Grand Master of the State of Florida. So, I was raised around people that was standing up for people’s rights and trying to better their lives.

If it’s not some kind of racism it is environmental racism. Especially in this one little area here in Apopka. You don’t have any industrial around here. You only have landfills, sewer plants, and the very community that you’re looking at used to be a vibrant orange grove. It’s just [a] conversation that we all have to have at some time.

The people of color have built America off their back. Growing their food, raising their children. America, as bad as it is, is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and they won’t allow black and brown to share in the basic necessities like education, healthcare, suitable housing.

Even the farmworkers, they raise food to feed the country — the nutrition in their neighborhood is not good because they don’t have access to the fresh fruit and vegetables that they are growing to feed the world.

R: Let’s start with the education side of it. What changes have you seen in the community, if any?

B: The first school that I can remember in Alabama was a room twenty by thirty, with a potbelly wood stove We had outhouses. The lady was named Miss Betty Sheer—she was fairly old, but she really cared about her kids. She made sure that they did their homework.

Now, I got a six year old son that is soon to be turning seven. He goes to this school down here in Clarcona. He was born one pound one ounce at twenty-three weeks premature but by the standards of the state and every psychologist that has talked to him, my son is normal. But then he’s kind of active. The first thing they say is: let’s put Ritalin there. They always talking about the gateway drug, but I would contend that in the education system, they pumping these drugs into these students. The education system now is just all about getting numbers to extract money from the federal government.

A landfill can cause learning disabilities. It can cause low birth [weights] in babies. It can cause different cancer clusters, respiratory problems. Around this community are two hundred and some houses; over the last ten years, over a hundred and some people have died in this community from low birth [weight], various cancers, and heart failure along with bronchitis and different stuff. You’re sitting not a hundred yards from a landfill and on the other side you have three more landfills. To the west about a mile—you got a sewer plant that when the sun go down, you have to shut your doors and cut your air conditions down because the stench. You can’t go outside and enjoy.

Six or seven years ago, I started in this organization they call ACORN. I was one of the Florida state delegates. I was the Vice President.

In time, change is going to happen and this community. When is the time going to come? Time is never going to come as long as we keep keeping the same legislators that just keep going around. Here we have had a federal secretary, [Mel] Martinez, up under Bush Junior. He was our county mayor. He allowed them to put this dump out here. They flooded the muck—all the rodents, when they flooded them, they came out the swamp. They went right up into the dump. We had rats walking around here as big as this Gatorade thing. Flies, man, I’m talking about flies just look like [locusts].

I invited him, the DPA, EPA, and everybody that I could invite out here to listen to the community. I put about thirty chairs over there with thirty people. They didn’t know I had planned a barbeque. Nobody eat it because once it got cooking, all the flies migrated over, so I invited them to have something to eat to let them see what we’re going through.

It’s going to be like this until we get some representation. Right now, we have what they call taxation with no representation at all. They annexed the dump in and let the people stay out. Right now we smell the stench from the sewer treatment plant down there. We’re plagued with it every day, every month, every year. They got this sewer treatment line going right across in front of our house. They won’t allow us to hook up to it unless we pay forty-five hundred dollars. We even got a medical waste treatment plant right over there. Every day they fire them big stacks—when that smoke come out, all them different carcinogens and stuff is all in the air.

What they did to appease the black community, they put a park right next to it and said let your children play there. It ain’t enough to smell it, come get right next to it and wallow in it. What hurt me the most about it is, we got these black folk, the ministers, they’re selling out to these various commissioners and legislators. You see the ministers driving BMWs.

There is a girl that was born not even a block away over here. She was born blind, low birth[weight]. Right down the street here, a baby was born, lived only three days. Wasn’t even a quarter of a mile over beside the dump, my niece had a daughter that lived twenty-four hours. Right up the hill, the baby lived six or seven days. Died.

The thing about it is, this community is burnt out. They been burdened down so long and they think this is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a disconnect from the politicians. You don’t see any politicians coming down here when it’s time to vote. You don’t see them knocking door to door—not in South Apopka. They don’t care these neighborhoods simply because they’re throwaway people.

I went to the hospital the Friday before last and came home. I’m fresh out of surgery. I’m on a fixed income of a disabled veteran. I couldn’t afford to pay nobody to cut my backyard and I couldn’t get out to cut it. Just because the grass was high and instead to try to find out what the situation was, they came and put a sign in my yard telling me if I didn’t have this cut in ‘X’ amount of days, they were going to start charging me.

R: Could you please go into detail about the history behind the landfill. How it has affected the community.

B: Like I said, in 1979 I went into the Florida Army National Guard and—there was a big flat field that kids used to go up and play. I remember playing tag football up there. Around 1996, I came home and this field, it was nothing but trash. The stench was coming real bad. So we started looking into it and found out that this was Class Three landfill. A Class Three landfill can only take inert stuff like dirt and, I think, construction debris. But they was dumping these big old gas tanks out there, car tires, tractor tires, paint cans, and all this. It was owned by Waste Management. The community was in an uprage. We fought this dump and they said, no, no, ain’t nothing wrong.

This dump have never been in compliance. The one that they have right behind Lake Jewell, it’s never been in compliance. They swore, no, it going to have no gas. because it is Class Three landfill. Now, the gas was seeping out so bad they had to come in and put in a pipe system to extract the gas. People in my community sick and dying and I believe it’s from this landfill. We did all kinds of actions—the people are tired of the dump down here. But we don’t have any resources.

The majority of the people down here around this dump have paid for these homes back in the [19]80s and the [19]90s. They came in the [19]70s or the [19]60s. There was thirty thousand dollars government subsidized homes for farmworkers, low or moderate income people. They paid for these houses, and I’m talking about the strenuous, the most hardest work that you can, and hospitality and farmwork. That’s a lot of picking oranges to pay thirty thousand dollars for a house.

[Local politicians] Fred Brummer, Bob Sattler, Brian Nelson condemned it and tore them down. Two hundred and fifty people, they displaced. One black Democrat, Gary Siplin, he might as well been a Republican because he voted with them to allow this kind of stuff to happen in this community.

Until this community can get a voice, break through all this, you gonna see more dumps. More transfer stations. More sewer treatment plants. And, worst of all, you gonna see more death coming out of this community. You gonna see more preachers standing up on brand new suits on, being honored by the commissioner because they are doing their dirty work. It is just a uphill battle.

You got people like Jeannie Economos out of the Farmworkers Association, along with Tirso [Moreno.] What little that they can do, we get together and we fight and we have little wins. Like we got the dump closed early. That was good. But then it always become a bigger fight.

Another dump pops up. I know that the University of Florida, there is a pretty good law school up there. I wish that I could get in contact with a professor up there and that they got some students that gonna get out and do some kind of undergraduate work and for their masters or whatever and just come and take a look at this and see how many laws been broken.

Search for “Leroy Bell” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the audio podcast of this interview (transcript not online at this writing).

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations. 

Comments are closed.