Celebrating Black History Month: Honoring Juanita Wallace, a Local Watershed Warrior
By West Atlanta Watershed Alliance
February is Black History Month, a month-long celebration and recognition of the accomplishments and the critical role that Black Americans have played in founding and shaping the United States. First celebrated as “Negro History Week” in 1926, Black History Month was founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland out of a desire to promote achievements made by Black Americans, and more importantly a need to encourage the teaching of Black history in schools across the U.S. In 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, Woodson and Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), and organization dedicated to conducting research about and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. The organization, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), kicked off the first national Negro History Week in 1926 which it designated as the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In subsequent decades, the celebration spread across the country and ultimately evolved from a week to a month.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month with the intention of celebrating the long-overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans in our society. Often missing from narratives about environmental protection, stewardship, and advocacy are the names and stories of Black Americans who have and continue to contribute to growing a cleaner, greener, healthier more sustainable planet. West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) joins a host of Black-led environmental and environmental justice organizations across the country in elevating these little-known stories of Black environmentalism during Black History Month and every day to pay homage to those who have made a difference to advance justice and stewardship, particularly in historically under-resourced communities. We dedicate this column to Mrs. Juanita Wallace (1949-2022), a homegrown Watershed Warrior who has made countless contributions to the restoration of Atlanta’s Proctor Creek Watershed.
Mrs. Juanita Wallace was to some, perhaps an unlikely advocate, for her local environment. Once you got a chance to know her, however, her commitment was unrelentless and undeniable. Her advocacy was rooted in her love for Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood where she was born and raised, and it extended far beyond. Mrs. Wallace grew up in English Avenue — playing in Proctor Creek, which runs through the neighborhood, where she caught crawfish to eat while playing with friends and family. Sitting on those banks, she encountered and developed a love for an abundance of wildlife species who lived and migrated there. She passed down stories from her mother and grandmother about baptisms in Proctor Creek involving members of the historic Lindsay Street Baptist Church. These early childhood experiences gave her a love of the creek that she openly shared with anyone who wanted to know more about the history of her community. She was a passionate and captivating Proctor Creek historian and steward who worked until her death to restore Proctor Creek back to its former glory as a beautiful waterway — one that was fishable, swimmable, and playable.
Mrs. Wallace was a founding member of the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, and she served faithfully as a Lead Steward since the organization was established in 2013 until her death in November 2022. Mrs. Wallace participated in multiple environmental training opportunities focused on learning more about the creek, green infrastructure, storm water runoff, and litter prevention including the Atlanta Watershed Learning Network. She was a dedicated volunteer with WAWA and worked as a consultant on WAWA’s education team. She was certified through the Georgia Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) Program and the Georgia Adopt-A-Stream Program, and through the former Environmental Justice Working Training Program at Clark Atlanta University. She shared her expertise by conducting environmental education and outreach at local schools and community events in the Proctor Creek Watershed and surrounding communities. She also spoke at local and national conferences, sponsored by organizations such as Park Pride, Emory University, The River Network, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about her community and the personal mission that she took on to improve Proctor Creek for her grandchildren and their children. In sharing her personal story, she inspired youth and adults alike to take action in their own communities and watersheds.
Mrs. Wallace also worked in partnership with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s Neighborhood Water Watch program for nearly a decade through which she collected weekly water samples from Proctor Creek at Lindsay Street and Dean Rusk Parks to assess water quality. Mrs. Wallace was honored by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in 2018 as Volunteer of the Year and most recently as Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s 2022 River Hero. The critical information gained from her samples helped the Riverkeeper to monitor the health of the creek. For this work, Mrs. Wallace was also recognized with the 2017 Fulton County Citizen’s Commission on the Environmental Award.
As a member of the English Avenue Green Team, Mrs. Wallace served as a Green Infrastructure Specialist — spending countless hours to help maintain the special green infrastructure features of Lindsay Street and Kathryn Johnston Memorial Parks, two of The Conservation Fund’s Parks with Purpose in the English Avenue community that she advocated for, and she helped to activate after they were created.
Mrs. Wallace’s dedication to restoring Proctor Creek is evident as she has worked as a Proctor Creek Community Scientist with WAWA, Environmental Community Action, the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Conservation Fund, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and many others. As a part of this work, she was a published author on an article about her community work and research published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health.
Local leaders like Mrs. Wallace had visions, dreams, and prayers that caused the dusts of change to start rising in their communities. She channeled that vision, those dreams, and prayers into action. Juanita Wallace was never shy about lifting her voice to share her community’s needs. But not only that — she rolled up her sleeves to do the work to help restore her community and watershed, to improve our local environmental quality, and to save our planet. We are all beneficiaries of her investment and service. To her, we owe a debt of gratitude, and we honor her contributions.
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