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Ethel Dotson

Richmond renames South Street to honor environmental activist Ethel Dotson

on November 4, 2021

On Friday, South Street will be renamed in honor of late environmental justice advocate and community warrior Ethel Dotson, who also was known for her dedication to Richmond’s Black cultural history. 

The effort to rename the street, which runs from Carlson Boulevard to Wall Avenue, was spearheaded by Pullman Neighborhood Council President Naomi Williams, who says she wanted to pay tribute to Dotson on the street Dotson lived on and invested in. 

By all accounts, Dotson was a force to be reckoned with. 

“Ethel was a fighter for one thing,” said Henry Clarke, Dotson’s childhood friend and a fellow environmental activist. He says when it came to fighting for justice, “Ethel would not take no for an answer.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, Dotson and her family lived in the Seaport Village military apartments, a segregated housing complex located across from what was then the Stauffer Chemical Co. site and later became Zeneca.

It was there that Dotson believed many people in her family were exposed to toxic chemicals. Both her mother and sister later died from lung cancer. 

“That’s why we’re all angry,” Dotson said in an address to the state Environmental Protection Agency’s Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice in 2004.  “You all have a responsibility. You have been covering up. … My brother, all, the whole family is sick. My sister died of cancer in ‘85. It goes on and on.”

Ultimately, Dotson died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 65. 

In 2000, Dotson famously arrived at a Berkeley testing site with 10 vials of her blood, demanding it be tested for toxic chemicals such as dioxin. “I have a right to know what’s in my body,” Dotson told reporters on the steps of the lab.  

Her niece Ogonnaya Dotson Newman says Dotson had a visionary understanding of body burden, the now popular concept that chemicals accumulate and remain in the body long after initial exposure.

“She was somebody that was willing to stick her neck out when it wasn’t popular,” Dotson Newman said. ”She was an incredibly eloquent, clear, smart woman who knew wrong when she saw it and said something about it.”

Until the end of her life, Dotson fought to hold city officials accountable for their handling of the former Zeneca site. 

In 2005, Dotson founded Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group. It advises the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the regulatory agency that oversees cleanup of toxic sites on Richmond’s Southeast Shoreline, including the Zeneca site.

Sherry Padget, who worked alongside Dotson on the Community Advisory Group, says Dotson, “was a force that was sometimes hard to deal with because she just wouldn’t stop.”

“She was unmoved by a closed door,” Padget said. “She would figure out a way around it.”

In addition to her environmental work, Dotson was committed to preserving Black cultural history in her community. She purchased the International Hotel on South Street, with the hopes of restoring it to its former glory. 

Built around 1900, the International Hotel was created to house Black Pullman porters who were not allowed to stay at the white-only Pullman hotel during railcar layovers. Pullman porters are associated with the rise of the Black middle class and credited with spreading progressive ideas on their journeys across the country.

Dotson foresaw the importance of preserving the historical location and lobbied to have it named a historical landmark.

Dotson Newman believes that if her aunt were here today, she would probably be working to secure funding to restore the hotel and continuing to advocate for environmental justice.

Since Dotson’s death, the city gave developers the green light to build 4,000 housing units and 50,000 square feet of retail space at the former Zeneca site without a thorough toxin removal process. The Community Advisory Group is among the organizations lobbying against that decision.

Padgett, who is still with the group, wonders what what have happened if Dotson had been around to fight the project.

“We might have made more progress with her,” Padgett said. “Her voice may have been the difference to keep it from getting as far as it did.”

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