In 1895 the railroad baron Arthur Stillwell was looking for a terminus for his Kansas City Southern line. Originally, he wanted to end it in Galveston, but spirits, he claimed, warned him that the city would be destroyed (eerily, it was, by a hurricane, in September 1900). As a backup, Stillwell chose the current location of his namesake city: Port Arthur. It was meant to be a resort destination with a grand hotel, a pool, a pier with amusements, and a farm that would pioneer new agricultural techniques. But in January 1901, oil was struck at Spindletop, just up the road, in such large amounts that the domestic refining industry was born out of necessity and Port Arthur went forever industrial, erecting its very first refinery that year.
As the refineries grew, the land around them became less and less residentially desirable, although it continued to be developed through 1970 for low-income housing. An urban-renewal report from the 1960s reveals that in 1956, 1,480 families lived in a 60-block area of the West Side that needed rehabilitation even then: "Seven white families and 1,473 Negro families," it says. Prince Hall and Louis Manor, more low-rise barracks, went up right behind Carver Terrace, and two Port Arthurs had already emerged—one black and depressed by its proximity to refining; the other white, with comfortable homes and cars, and proof of our absolute dependence on it.
East Port Arthur, where we've come to drop off Hilton's truck at the mechanic for unscheduled repairs, seems light-years away from the West Side. Life here—right up through Mid-County—is the civic and commercial sum total of the processes initiated and carried out in all those industrial complexes. Oil here is only for good. By no means is this part of Port Arthur rich, but the people here have the oil jobs, the chemical jobs, and direct, convenient access to everything those jobs produce. Their cars, of course, are all fueled with gasoline. But beyond that, the components in those cars—the plastics, the fabrics—are derived from oil, too. Tires start as oil. The asphalt paving the roads, the parking lots: oil. The Lowe's, the Target, the Walmart with the mini McDonald's inside it and the full-size one out front—they all fill their shelves and aisles with products born from oil. Out back on the loading docks, the big rigs and all those foamy packaging materials? That's processed oil. Plastics as well as many cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints, and some clothing all start dark and sludgy. There are, in fact, so many racks full of oily goods in this part of town—and where you are, too—that it's almost impossible, six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon–style, not to somehow link everything we touch to the refining of crude. Or, as one oil executive told me in a chilly conference room overlooking a field of steaming, scaffolded stacks and giant, combustible orbs: "We've got what you need."
On the way to the church in Beaumont where Hilton Kelley first learned the ropes of environmental activism, we stop at a small cemetery on a country road. Kelley is drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup (origin: oil) and wearing a chunky gold chain supporting a large gold and diamond ornament: his zodiac sign, Leo, embedded beneath the arms of a cross. There's a BASF chemical plant nearby and more facilities belonging to Motiva and Valero. Tiny yellow birds zag overhead, chirping twangy country chords once they settle into the trees. Standing over the low, modest memorial that bears his mother's name and life span—BERNADINE KELLEY BRANCH / JULY 12, 1943–FEBRUARY 27, 1979—Kelley starts to cry.
On February 26, 1979, Kelley, then 18 and taking college drafting classes, returned to his house around 2 A.M. with his younger brother, Billy, after a night at a local disco. They found their mother, fully dressed in a polyester pantsuit, lying on her bed, groaning, "Dale, Dale, Dale," the name of their stepfather. The walls were blood-streaked. "We didn't know what was going on," says Kelley. "She was bleeding from a little mark on her temple. I thought maybe Dale had hit her with something during a fight."
Later, when Kelley went to check on his mother and noticed Dale hadn't come home, he hopped on his green 27-inch Schwinn and rode to the Branch family store that his stepfather helped open every morning. Kelley barged through the door and got in Branch's face. Branch aimed a gun at him. "My heart dropped," says Kelley. "Here's this man who had been treating me so kindly for years, and he's pointing a gun at me?" Kelley ran out the door, peddled home as fast as he could, and told Billy, "We gotta get Mama to the hospital. Now." Bernadine died the next day of brain trauma, the result of a gunshot wound to the head.
We Hear You!