PEMBROKE TOWNSHIP, ILL . — At the end of a maze of dirt roads lies a 40-acre teaching farm called Black Oaks Center, where local residents gathered on a Sunday in November 2021 for a farmland restoration workshop and community gathering. “If you all want to bust wood again, they’re out there,” said Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter — who runs the center with her husband, Fred Carter — to the newest arrivals. Some joined the group clearing felled trees for off-grid homesteading, while others stayed inside to warm up and chat.
In addition to raising food and hosting classes, Black Oaks has become a hub for organizing against a proposed natural gas pipeline some locals say threatens the area’s farming way of life, which is rooted in environmental stewardship.
Founded in the 1860s by Joseph “Pap” Tetter after he escaped slavery, Pembroke served as a refuge for others fleeing North and for local Potawatomi people evading displacement to reservations. It grew into the largest Black farming community in the northern United States. Farmers grew hemp there during World War II and supplied food to Chicago during the Great Migration. Generations of Black farmers have since preserved Pembroke’s rare three-biome ecosystem, known for its black oak savanna habitat.
“Regenerative agriculture was what we did by default, because we couldn’t afford any other method,” says Carter, whose uncle came here from the South in the 1950s and bought five acres.
Now, Nicor Gas is pursuing a $10 million plan to lay more than 30 miles of gas lines to connect hundreds of Pembroke households, despite opposition. Supporters claim the project will kick-start local economic development, while opponents warn it threatens Pembroke’s rich ecosystem and could displace Black farmers.
On Aug. 27, 2021, despite lobbying from Pembroke residents and environmentalists, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that will allow the company to fund the pipeline in Pembroke, which is designated a “hardship area,” by raising rates on all Nicor ratepayers. Three weeks later, Nicor filed for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) to begin installation in Pembroke Township.
Pembroke residents only found out about the request a month later, in October 2021, says Wright-Carter. She helped form the Pembroke Environmental Justice Coalition (PEJC) shortly after, which moved to intervene in court. But the lost month is emblematic of how the process has played out, Wright-Carter says.
Nicor’s virtual community meetings on Sept. 8 – 9, 2021, were held in the morning, when many residents were at work, in a community without reliable internet access — noted Gavin Kearney, senior counsel with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who represents PEJC. “This is not the process you would create if you were genuinely interested in whether the public wants this, and what their concerns are,” Kearney says.
“We’re this close to them installing,” says Wright-Carter, “and nobody knows where it’s going to come in. No one’s seen a map.”
Meanwhile, Mark Hodge, mayor of nearby Hopkins Park, is promising a local economic boost from the gas lines, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago, calls the project a “big deal” and a “new day for Pembroke, a Black farming community that has been left behind.” Jackson adds it “will help bring business to Pembroke, and it will help others do business with Pembroke.”
Members of PEJC, however, think the burden of the project outweighs any benefit. Many residents heat their homes with a mix of propane, wood and electric space heaters, and switching to gas appliances would be expensive — especially in such a poor community.
“I’m a senior citizen, so it’s not like I have a whole lot of money stashed away to do that,” says Diane McDonald, a 32-year resident of Pembroke. McDonald says she wants to see reliable internet and electricity first.
Wright-Carter also fears a natural gas explosion, as the nearest fire department is a half-hour away. Nicor has a history of gas leaks and explosions and is under investigation by the Illinois attorney general for $500 million in environmental damages, including potential water contamination at a dozen sites.
“As a farmer,” McDonald says, “I’m worried about where the line is going to run and how it’s going to affect my growth.” Some residents also fear their land may be seized under eminent domain and trees will be torn down, and many question whether Nicor conducted an environmental impact study.
On Jan. 5, the ICC voted to grant Nicor’s application for their Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. “Nicor is now one step closer to forcing its fossil fuel pipeline through a Black farming community that doesn’t want it there, threatening a world-renowned microbiome and hastening the dangers of climate change,” PEJC said in a statement following the decision. The coalition is now pushing for a rehearing of the case.
If Pembroke is going to convert to a new energy system, members of PEJC say there are cleaner, more affordable options. The Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, passed the same session as Nicor’s funding bill, creates millions of dollars of incentives for low-income communities to convert to renewable energy. Nicor is “locking in natural gas … at the same time that we, as a state, are passing legislation that says we want to eliminate fossil fuels” by 2045, Kearney notes.
Carter puts it this way: “We need a long-term plan around our future that does not include the harm of our health and our environment.”
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Zoe Pharo is a Chicago-based writer and In These Times editorial intern. She holds a degree in political science from Carleton College.