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Remembering Hazel Johnson, Chicago's 'Mother Of Environmental Justice,' On Earth Day 10 Years After Her Passing

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Ten years ago, Chicago's own Hazel Johnson died at the age of 75.

CBS 2's Marissa Parra on Thursday brought us the legacy of the Black environmentalist known as the Mother of Environmental Justice.

Johnson was a frequent guest in Washington, D.C. Her daughter, Cheryl Johnson, showed us photos of her mother receiving an award from President George H.W. Bush, and standing with President Bill Clinton as he signed an executive order.

But before the environmental trailblazer became a household name at the White House, Hazel Johnson was juggling seven children and a job all by herself after losing her husband to cancer.

"I looked around and seen where my people were dying of cancer; [I started to notice] because of my husband," she said in ana archive interview.

It was that spark that fueled what would become Hazel Johnson's life's work. After doing some digging of her own, Johnson would find toxic hazards surrounding Chicago's Far South and Southeast Side.

They included landfills, sewage treatment centers, and industrial plants surrounding the Altgeld Gardens development – all in an area of the city where the majority of the population is Black and Brown.

So began her bid for environmental justice. She started People for Community Recovery, or PCR, in 1979.

Her activism led to the historic moment when the first executive order on environmental justice was signed by President Clinton in 1994.

"Everyone wants to breathe clean air; everyone wants to drink clean water," Cheryl Johnson said. "No one wants to live on land that's contaminated."

Hazel Johnson died in 2011, but not before passing the torch onto her daughter.

"I used to say, 'Out of all your kids, why'd you pick me?' and she'd say, 'Because you were my worst one and I had to keep you on my hip,'" Cheryl Johnson said, "and I'm glad she did."

Cheryl Johnson said whether people know the name Hazel Johnson or not, she sees the foundation of her work through the activism today.

"I see that growth," said Cheryl Johnson. "I just wish my mother was around to see that growth."

A stretch of 130th Street on the city's Far South Side is called Hazel Johnson EJ Way. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) is campaigning for legislation that would further cement her legacy – including making the month of April the Hazel Johnson Environmental Justice Awareness Month, and a postage stamp in her honor.

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