Knollwood Residents Deserve Answers on Cancer Incidence

The residents of Knollwood deserve an explanation for the high incidence of cancer-related sickness and death in their community. Their state representative, Thad McClammy, a member of the Alabama Legislature’s Health Committee, said he brought this matter to the attention of State Health officer, Dr. Donald Williamson, three years ago.

At the time, McClammy’s investigation was stymied by lack of information. “The investigation by the Department of Public Health of death records from the Knollwood area was inconclusive,” McClammy said. They were unable to confirm the widely held belief that there is an excessive rate of cancer mortality and morbidity in Knollwood.

The issue surfaced again recently, when a pipe that carries drinking water to the community was found to contain asbestos. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) investigated and issued a statement declaring that the residents had nothing to fear from those pipes. Joe Power, Chief, Water Supply Branch at ADEM, told the Montgomery Advertiser that as many as 100 other communities in Alabama use the same cement pipe fortified with asbestos used in Knollwood.

Rep. McClammy disagrees with ADEM’s position. He said, “if asbestos had been identified in pipes carrying drinking water to Wynlakes [a prestigious white community], they would have called out the National Guard to haul water to the residents until those pipes could be dug-up and replaced.” Rep. McClammy wants the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate.

Knollwood, located 15 miles east of Montgomery near Waugh, is a prestigious, suburban community established by developer, C.P. Robbins. Robbins started building homes in Knollwood during segregation, a time when it was not acceptable for white and black people to live together in suburban communities.

Speaking at a One Montgomery breakfast meeting, several years before his death, Mr. Robbins spoke of his experiences building Knollwood. He described the successful development of a prestigious black suburb. Robbins said he built his home-building business and the Knollwood subdivision upon the aspirations of home ownership among Montgomery’s professional black families.

Today, a cloud hangs over Knollwood. This cloud looks more ominous in Alabama because of the state’s history of governmental indifference toward health concerns of its nonwhite citizens. The unspeakable history of the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” (government-conducted research on a group of black men to determine the long term effects of untreated syphilis in a human population) should tell all of us that a “Knollwood Asbestos Study” is not unthinkable.

There is another reason for authorities to act with deliberate speed in investigating the health concerns expressed by the residents of Knollwood. That reason is racism. Let us not forget that a class of people exists among us, that continues to resent Knollwood and its upscale residents. It would take only one individual, with a mind warped and twisted by racist rhetoric and white supremacist ideology, to perform some horrendous act of sabotage against this small professional community.

Before some readers close their minds, please consider what your actions might be if your family lived in Knollwood. I have a cousin who lives in Knollwood with her husband and their children and many friends and acquaintances in that community. I believe we should resolve these concerns.

Since the state health authorities are unable to determine the cause of these diseases, it is only prudent to consider other sources such as terrorism. In recent years, it is clear that a few individuals in our nation seem to be obsessed with obstructing America’s destiny.

I know the vast majority of us want no more than to live peacefully, go to work, and come home to our families. That is all the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing wanted.

In light of our history, Governor James should immediately order an investigation to determine the cause of these higher than normal rates of disease plaguing the residents of Knollwood. It is the right thing to do.

Knollwood’s unexplained increase in disease should not be treated like the rash of black church arsons that occurred in West Alabama, earlier in the James’ administration. Then, the Governor attempted to obscure the racist issue by refusing to attend the President’s White House conference on the church burnings, calling the meeting a political ploy. In a repugnant ploy of his own, Governor James implied that it was likely that officials of the burned churches had committed the arsons.

This “blame the victim” approach that the James’ administration uses to deflect issues that concern black citizens won’t fly in Knollwood. Knollwood is home to some of Alabama’s most esteemed citizens. They will not sit idle with their family’s health in peril.


Originally Published: 24 June 1998, Montgomery Advertiser

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