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Ethel Dotson, Environmental Activist and Historic Preservation Advocate

Richmond has lost another one of its treasures, the irascible Ethel Dotson, who knew injustice when she saw it and fought it all her life. Although Ethel was best known for taking on government agencies that were responsible for the public well-being but were, in fact, protecting those they were supposed to regulate, I was particularly appreciative of Ethelís interest in historic preservation.


Ethel owned a building near the former Pullman Shops that was a hotel in the early 20th Century where African-American Pullman Porters stayed while their cars were being refurbished at the Richmond Pullman Shops. Ethelís building is a part of pre-WWII African American history in Richmond, and Ethelís lifelong ambition was to preserve it as a place where stories from that era could be told to future generations. The Pullman Shops in Richmond were closed in 1959.


During the century spanning the years 1868-1968, the African-American railroad attendant's presence on trains became a tradition within the American scene. By the 1920s, a peak decade for the railroads, 20,224 African-Americans were working as Pullman Porters and train personnel. At that time, this was the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada.


The Pullman Porters were an important part of American Labor History, having organized and founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The BSCP was the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation. A. Philip Randolph was the determined, dedicated, and articulate president of this union who fought to improve the working conditions and pay for the Pullman Porters. The father of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had once worked as a Pullman car waiter.


Ethel was instrumental in having the neighborhood around and including the former Pullman Shops designated the Pullman Historic District on the Richmond Register, with her former hotel a contributing structure.


From the City of Richmond website (http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/index.asp?NID=1137):


It doesn't take much imagination to envision the kind of organizing that must have taken place at Ethel Dotson's historic International Hotel on South Street. During the early days that preceded the creation of the Sleeping Car Porters Union under A. Phillip Randolph and C.L. Dellums who was the strong president of the East Bay NAACP.

At that time the Pullman company serviced its cross-country rail cars at the huge plant on Carlson and South, the western terminus of their runs. There was a hotel that served the "layover" white workers on the corner of Carlson (since demolished). Black porters (barred from the Pullman) stayed at the International Hotel about a block away, where there were 20 small second story rooms and a large reception area on the ground floor. This certainly must have been the site of much organizing and socializing that eventually led to the establishing of the (national) Railroad Porters Union that caused such a stir in Washington during the Roosevelt administration. That building still stands.


Ethel not only hoped to have her International Hotel preserved, she completely understood the value of saving places where history happened to make history live for future generations, and she supported this throughout Richmond. She was appointed to Richmondís Historic Preservation Advisory Committee by former Mayor Irma Anderson, where she served until the end. Perhaps Ethelís last victory was saving Richmondís second oldest fire station on Cutting Boulevard that currently serves as the Richmond Youth Academy facility and Richmondís Fire Training Center. The building was slated to be demolished to make room for housing, and the Fire Training Center was slated to be moved to Chevron property west of the Richmond Parkway. The move was a bad idea for many reasons, but Ethelís defense of the historic building slowed the process down enough that City officials had time to think the proposal through and eventually abandon it.


Hopefully, Ethelís dream for the International Hotel will come true, but it will be left to a new generation.


Environmental activist dies at 65

  RICHMOND: Woman lobbied to expose dangers of refineries that she said was responsible for her cancer and others

By Katherine Tam

Article Launched: 11/03/2007 03:01:39 AM PDT

By Katherine Tam


Ethel Dotson, a longtime Richmond activist who lobbied tirelessly to expose the dangers of toxic chemicals to residents near refineries and other chemical companies, has died. She was 65.

Dotson, who died of cancer at her home Thursday night surrounded by family, called for blood testing for dioxins and other contaminants for residents near these manufacturing plants. At one point, she brought state officials 10 vials of her blood for testing.

She pushed to eliminate dioxins at facilities and created a citizens group in 2005 that collaborates with the state to clean a highly toxic chemical production site in south Richmond.

"She was a continual advocate for social justice, just for the truth to come out," said Whitney Dotson, her brother.

The Dotsons grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the Seaport Village housing development next to the Stauffer Chemical Co. manufacturing facility in Richmond.

Commonly referred to as the Zeneca site, the land where Stauffer Chemical manufactured industrial and agricultural substances, was federally identified as one out of 20 in the state that may have been a radioactive materials processing site during the Cold War. Arsenic and lead have turned up in adjacent marshlands. Wells and drilled holes have found toxic metals, PCBs and DDT.

Ethel Dotson prominently raised the issue of contamination and urge officials to address it. She believed many in the neighborhood died of serious illnesses such as cancer. And she believed her cancer was the result of the exposure. About seven years ago, when a developer proposed a research complex and high-rise apartment buildings at the Zeneca site, Dotson and others clamored for full environmental review.

She submitted a petition to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control with more than 80 signatures, calling for the creation of a community advisory group to work with state officials to clean up the Zeneca site. The group launched in 2005.

"Before her involvement, they (the landowners) were on the verge of getting by on the cheap. It was a fraction of what ultimately is going to be paid to clean up that site," Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt said Friday. "Just her involvement in that project is resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cleanup money that wouldn't have happened without her."

By all accounts, Dotson was an outspoken woman who went about her work with a stubborn persistence and drive. She would present her opinions at government forums in a lively manner, pounding the podium and berating officials when she thought they were wrong.

In 2000, when San Francisco Bay water regulators approved relaxed dioxin emission standards for Tosco's oil refinery at Avin, protesters interrupted the meeting several times to object. Dotson yelled at board members, calling them "stupid," and was escorted out of the auditorium by police.

Richmond Vice Mayor Nat Bates remembers Dotson as a frequent figure at council meetings.

"She was up front and didn't hesitate to express herself," Bates said. "You knew what she meant and she meant what she said."

Dotson didn't back down despite facing ample opposition, those who knew her say. She corralled the facts to fortify her case.

"She had a way of researching and coming up with documents," Butt said. "You couldn't believe the way she tracked it down."

"She'd go to the library, would dig deep to get her research so she knew what she was talking about," said Henry Clark, director of the West County Toxics Coalition, who knew Dotson for 25 years. "A lot of people didn't believe her, like she was crazy or imagining things, until they did their own research and found out Ethel was right."

But for all that, Dotson wasn't one to hold a grudge, Bates said.

"Even when you voted against her, she didn't take it personally," Bates said. "She might tell you she thought your vote was stupid, but she wasn't one to be vindictive."

In addition to her work as an environmental activist, Dotson was dedicated to historical preservation. She owned the historic International Hotel on South Street, where black porters with Pullman company stayed decades ago because they were barred from hotels for white workers. She sought to place the hotel on the National Historic Register.

Her son will take ownership of the hotel and see to its preservation, Whitney Dotson said.

The hotel did not make it onto the national register in her lifetime, but community members, even those she criticized, say she has left an undeniable mark here.

"There were plenty of us who were recipients of her criticism," said Wendell Brunner, county director of public health. "But there's no doubt that it came out of her advocacy for justice -- and you can only respect that."

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.