PhD Student Danielle Purifoy Embarks on Journey to Document Environmental Legacy of Racism

August 22, 2016

Contact: Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084,

DURHAM – As a doctoral student in environmental policy, Danielle Purifoy has done her share of interdisciplinary fieldwork.

But never, perhaps, like this.

This month, Purifoy embarked on a journey across the South with Brooklyn-based artist Torkwase Dyson to document the environmental legacy of racism in historic black communities in North Carolina and Alabama.

Their project, “In Conditions of Fresh Water,” will use art and oral history to chronicle the struggles and victories of historic black communities in the South over the last 180 years as they have fought – and continue to fight – for social and environmental justice.  

They will work and travel in Studio South Zero, a 6’x8’x12’ solar-powered mobile studio built by Dyson with recycled materials.

Purifoy is a student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. A licensed attorney, her doctoral research focuses on race and environmental inequality, environmental justice law, and the interactive effects of environmental harms on health and quality of life. 

Dyson is a painter, sculptor and printmaker whose work has been exhibited at Franconia Sculpture Park, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She was appointed a lecturer in painting and printmaking at Yale University in 2015.
In March 2016, Dyson began an extended residency at Duke through a Visiting Artist grant to the Nicholas School.

Purifoy and Dyson’s new project stems from a 2015 research initiative sponsored by Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute that centered on the persistent wastewater sanitation challenges faced by African American communities in Lowndes County, part of the historic Black Belt region of Alabama. The sociopolitical conditions there—which include political disenfranchisement, generational black landownership and land loss, absentee white landownership, and strangled public financing—are replicated across the South, particularly in African American communities formed before the 20th century.

As a participant in the project, Purifoy explored the origins of structural environmental racism, finding cumulative evidence that explains environmental conditions observed today not only in Alabama’s Black Belt but also closer to home, in the historic black community of West End, outside Mebane in Alamance County, N.C.

Her research experience dovetailed with ongoing conversations she had been having with Dyson, and the two decided to collaborate. They believe that connecting the environmental and sociopolitical histories of Alamance and Lowndes counties will help spur a broader conservation about the relationship between structural inequality and environmental destruction.

To conduct their fieldwork, they are spending two weeks in Alamance County’s West End community and three weeks in similar historic black communities in Lowndes County. 

Purifoy will conduct interviews with community members to assess black landownership, land preservation and loss, local economic development, the imposition of environmental burdens, and the provision of environmental services—particularly access to clean water and wastewater sanitation. Community members will then work with Dyson and Purifoy to create maps, drawings, and photography illustrating their communities’ histories. Material collected from these sessions will be the basis for a visual and narrative comparative analysis of the two locales.

Purifoy and Dyson will share their art and the oral histories they collect in a special multimedia exhibition at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies in March 2017.

The exhibition will be organized into three separate, but related, parts. One will be a wall of maps, photographs, documents and video narratives from the trip. Another will be a series of poetic sculptures by Dyson, inspired by the communities they visited. The third will present a meta-narrative of the project itself.

You can follow ongoing blog posts chronicling Dyson and Purifoy’s journey through Scalawag Magazine.

Purifoy’s faculty advisor at the Nicholas School is Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics.


Note: This story is adapted, in part, from a story by Beverly Meeks of Duke Arts. You can find Meek’s full story here.