Remembering Richmond native and environmental leader Henry Clark: ‘a soldier on the battlefield, making things happen’
on September 18, 2022
Family, friends, co-workers and community members gathered at Lucky A’s North Richmond Baseball Field on Saturday to celebrate the life and legacy of Henry Arthur Clark, a pioneer of the environmental justice movement in Richmond and beyond. Clark passed away on June 2, at 77 years old.
To a gathering of more than 50 people, speakers recounted the leadership that would be a hallmark of Clark’s life. He grew up in the shadow of the Chevron Refinery and Richmond’s industrial hub. And at the service, his son Omar recalled being at his grandmother’s house and his father telling him, “it was a little weird to be able to see chemical plants so close to where people lay their heads to rest, but that there was something we could do about it.”
He said his father worked to improve not only the water and air in Richmond, but also access to health care. And he laid the groundwork for the community to continue that work.
“I think it’s important that he would want people to remember not only a lot of the things he did, but that whatever it is that’s going on in your community, in your life, maybe it’s a relationship, you’re not powerless,” Omar Clark said.
Henry Clark attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and San Francisco State University, where he began participating in the civil rights movement, the Black power movement, and the free South Africa movement. He experienced firsthand the effects of pollution and industrial disasters on his hometown, including the 1989 Chevron Refinery explosion and the 2012 fire. Clark believed environmental justice issues were ultimately civil rights issues.
“I’m either standing for social justice and doing the right thing, or I’m not,” Clark told Richmond Confidential in 2012. “There’s no in-between. That’s where I’m at until the final end. I’m not planning to do anything other than that with my life.”
He was true to his word. And his influence has extended beyond the borders of Richmond, and even the United States. Clark received a doctorate from the American College of Metaphysical Theology and traveled to several countries to “get a better perspective on world belief systems.” He fought for environmental justice internationally, traveling to Nigeria to work with those affected by oil production, Puerto Rico to speak out against the Navy’s testing of toxic weapons, Cuba to learn about pesticide-free agriculture, and Ecuador to support the community after oil drilling operations had contaminated the rainforest.
“You either organize to make change in your environment and your living conditions or it’s going to get worse,” Clark said, in the 2012 Richmond Confidential profile.
Clark’s memorial service was co-sponsored by Chevron, a corporation that Clark had a complicated history with.
“He challenged Chevron,” said Lily Naaz Rahnema, the refinery’s community engagement manager. “He showed up to investor meetings; he led marches. He always ensured he did his part, that Chevron was held accountable to the community and to his legacy.”
Clark held many notable titles, including founder and executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, and original member of the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council. He also served on the Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials Commission.
Clark was involved in creating a pollution reduction plan for Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo under Assembly Bill 617. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District recognized that work with a proclamation, which Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia presented to Omar Clark at the ceremony.
“What Henry said is environmental justice is about the community speaking for itself,” Gioia told the crowd.
“There’s racism, there’s disparity, there’s inequity in our society, and our county, and our city, and our state, and our country,” he added. “And Henry really worked to make that issue front and center.”
Lloyd Madden, executive director of Neighborhood House of North Richmond, also spoke to Clark’s commitment to environmental justice. After the1993 General Chemical Corp. spill that sickened 24,000 people in Richmond, he and Clark worked with a county supervisor to negotiate a settlement that allocated money to build a community health facility, which is now the North Richmond Center for Health.
“Henry, as tenacious as he was, convinced the city of Richmond to put up an additional $400,000 to complete the estimated cost for construction,” Madden said. He called on the county to recognize those efforts by renaming the North Richmond Center for Health as the Dr. Henry Clark Center for Health.
Donald Gilmore, executive director of the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council, said Clark often talked about systematic racism and how the community should fight to change policies and remove barriers.
“He was a warrior, he was a soldier on the battlefield making things happen,” Gilmore said. “His work is legendary.”
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