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Reclaiming History: Museum documents deadly explosion that devastated a Black community in Georgia

Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of injuries sustained from a fatal explosion.

The wail of the sirens seemed to go on forever. 

Playing with friends outside her elementary school on a mild February day in 1971, 9-year-old Melissa Jackson wished the piercing noise would stop. She could not have imagined that the sound of firetrucks speeding toward the munitions plant where her mother worked would punctuate her nightmares for the rest of her life.

The little girl could not have known when her mother dropped her off the morning of Feb. 3, before heading to the Thiokol Chemical Corp. factory to make flares for soldiers fighting in Vietnam, that it would be the last time she would see her alive. She would not know until much later the details of how her mother died, hit in the back of the head as she tried to flee one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history. 

Jackson’s mother was killed along with her cousin and 27 other employees of the factory, predominantly Black women, after a flame in a small building, according to court records, triggered a massive explosion. The blast blew pieces of the building almost a mile away, left more than 50 other people injured and shattered a community.

The sleepy, coastal town of Woodbine, Georgia, would be changed forever, as hearses were drawn into service to transport victims to nearby hospitals, some already dead, others wracked with pain from missing limbs, serious burns and other injuries that would affect them the rest of their lives.

Just a girl that day, giggling with friends and thinking the world was open and bright, Jackson could not have known what now, 51 years later, she understands all too well:  The Thiokol explosion would become another chapter of history searing to Black Americans but unknown to the nation at large. It would not be included in history books. It would not be studied by scholars. It would not be taught to schoolchildren or explored by archivists, even in the town where the explosion occurred. Like so much that has shaped the lives of Black Americans, the history of the Thiokol disaster would quiet to a whisper, even as those sirens still wail through Jackson’s sleep.

“There is no scholarship on this,” Jackson said. “There is no historical memory or understanding of this. For me, the memory of the whole day is still very vivid and very painful and very clear. But outside of those few of us who remember, it’s like it has been erased.”

Today, Jackson is the graduate program coordinator of the joint Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering. Like many children of the explosion survivors, and the survivors themselves, she sees the history of the Thiokol plant and of the disaster through the lens of systemic racism that made a shoddily maintained munitions factory paying workers less than $18 a day (less than roughly $130 when adjusted for inflation) the best option for people who should have had opportunities for better.

“Here were Black women in a small Southern town on an assembly line making weapons for the war that young men, many of them Black young men, were fighting,” Jackson said. “They should be looked on as heroes, because in actuality that’s what they were.”

Last fall, the Southern Poverty Law Center stepped in to help a small, local organization in Woodbine, the Thiokol Memorial Project, bring the tragedy back into the light. It granted the project $50,000 — more than it has received at any one time since it was founded in 2015. The grant was one of five awarded by the SPLC to support the work of museums, monuments and cultural centers devoted to Black history.

Over the past seven years, the Thiokol museum, founded by Jannie Everette, whose mother survived the disaster, has received grants of more than $14,000 from the Georgia Council of the Arts. But with an operating budget of between $26,000 and $36,000 per year, it runs largely on donations and volunteers.

Women gather around Patriots of Thiokol Memorial Interchange road sign
Volunteers, family members and supporters of the Thiokol Memorial Project, including Jannie Everette, far right, gather in front of a sign on the road that once led to the Thiokol plant. (Credit: The Thiokol Memorial Project)

The Thiokol Memorial Project currently displays more than 350 artifacts of the Thiokol plant era. The project holds an annual remembrance event on the anniversary of the disaster, offers tours to local school groups, and has erected a roadside sign honoring the victims. The project produced a historical booklet and has filmed a documentary called Remembering Woodbine.

Everette is trying to raise funds to pay the dozen or so dedicated volunteers who maintain the museum. The 7,500-acre site of the disaster she sought to have designated as a national park was sold off. She is now asking for the county to dedicate another tract of land to honor the victims of the explosion.

“Too often such tragedy is left undocumented when it largely affects the Black community,” said Lecia Brooks, SPLC chief of staff and culture. “The SPLC recognizes the important work of local organizations, such as the Thiokol Memorial Project, to preserve this history. It’s why we support such efforts. Without these organizations, this history — and the lessons it can impart — will fade from memory.”

‘Where is the history of what happened?’

The Thiokol Memorial Project was born after Everette, who moved back to Woodbine to retire and care for her mother following a career in the military and years working at the Department of Energy, discovered that her young nieces and nephews knew nothing of the disaster that claimed their great-grandmother’s life.

Worse, to Everette, they knew nothing about the lives of their great-grandmother and the other plant workers who labored without complaint to arm soldiers during an unpopular war – workers who were left maimed, burned and scarred physically and emotionally as court battles dragged on for 17 years and, they assert, state and national leaders turned their backs on them.

Even earlier, she had witnessed her mother on her knees, wracked with sobs as she faced another anniversary of the disaster.

“She said, ‘I’m praying to the Lord. It hurts me so bad to lose all my friends,’ ” Everette recalled. “She said, ‘Nobody cares.’ I said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ ”

That is what Everette did.

Everette went to the Bryan-Lang Historical Archives, a county-funded nonprofit foundation, to research the history of the disaster and of the plant. She asked for everything they had on Thiokol. What she found shocked her: Less than a page of text in a 500-page book on the history of Camden County and a few newspaper clippings.

That was all for a plant that was not only the site of a deadly explosion that could be heard 40 miles away but served as a major employer for the Black community.

“I could have screamed,” Everette said. “I asked, ‘Where are the names of the dead? Where is the history of what happened?’ This book was written in 1976, revised in 1993, and then again in 2004. What were they afraid of? I had to dig deep to find out, in the memory of the dead, why your own country has forgotten you, your own people, your own relatives.” 

Harland Harris, who recently took over as the new archivist at the archives, said he has similar questions.

“The factors that have ghosted this accident for half a century are potentially the same ones that have downplayed a whole history of issues in this county,” Harris said. “We are really in a process of reexamining how we archivists helped deny that history, and how racism is tied into the decisions that were made.”

Documenting the past

Everette didn’t wait for anyone else to get answers.

Aftermath of explosion at Thiokol Chemical Corp. factory
Aftermath of the Feb. 3, 1971, explosion at the Thiokol Chemical Corp. factory in Woodbine, Georgia. The blast blew pieces of the building almost a mile away, killing nearly 30 people and shattering a community. (Credit: Thiokol Memorial Project)

She interviewed survivors and their families, began gathering artifacts of the explosion — everything from twisted pieces of metal to examples of uniforms worn by the factory workers — and digging into fire department, ambulance and hospital logs and other historical records. She formed a nonprofit, held community meetings and enlisted the help of local churches and community leaders. She convinced a sympathetic local businessman to make space available in an office building for a small annual fee.

Everette and her volunteers have been aided by records from the years of investigations and litigation. For years, the U.S. government, which contracted with Thiokol to make the munitions, asserted that victims had no right to any claim against it at all. Ultimately, a federal court judge found the government guilty of negligence in the disaster. Some of the most grievously injured victims received payouts of more than $100,000. Others received as little as tens of thousands of dollars. Under Georgia workers’ compensation laws, Thiokol escaped liability. Its exposure was limited to $17,000 in payouts for each person killed and a lesser amount for those injured.

“These people that were injured were not well compensated,” said Arnold Young, a Savannah, Georgia, attorney who sat in on the federal trials on behalf of a client who was not named in the lawsuits. 

Young said he believes the disaster was a clear-cut case of negligence. The Army had conducted tests less than four months before the accident indicating the materials used in the plant were not just combustible, but so explosive that the production line would have had to be shut down and reconstructed if plant managers had known of the test results. 

But the Army’s reclassification of the hazards at the plant did not make it to anyone at Thiokol until after the accident, according to records entered into evidence at the trial. The documents were discovered in the desk drawer of an Army officer weeks after the disaster.

“This was obvious negligence with a disastrous result,” Young said.

Young said he does not believe that racism was a factor in the accident. But over the years, he has come to understand the systemic racism that set up the conditions for the disaster, and that affected the amount of compensation the victims received.

“This is just an opinion,” Young said, “that had those same facts occurred and there were the same injuries and had they not been [predominantly] Black people but white people, the likelihood is, they would have been better compensated. These people didn’t have any choice. This was where they could work. This was the only place to work. This was what they could get paid. In that light, yes, there’s racism.”

‘For our country to really know itself’

In 1971, Emma Gibbs was 25 and proud of her work at the plant in Woodbine. She had a friend who died in the war, and she imagined that the trip flares she was helping produce would keep others safe.

“They told us that those trip flares helped them see the enemy,” said Gibbs, now 78. “They would go up like a big torch and light up everything around. It made us proud thinking we were helping them.”

At the moment of the explosion on Feb. 3, she said, she heard an immense boom from a building nearby, and the lights went out in the building where she was working. 

Through the smoke and the fire, Gibbs said she saw people pouring out of the building where the explosion took place, in pain and shock, some with horrible wounds. Fearful of the fate of her sister and her niece, who also worked at the plant, Gibbs said she hopped in the station wagon of a plant supervisor who was transporting wounded people to a hospital. On the way, she said, they had to stop several times to put out fires that erupted from combustible material clinging to the clothing of people in the car.

At the hospital, Gibbs rushed through scenes of devastation. There was one of her friends, missing an arm. On the porch outside the hospital were others she had known, their lifeless bodies uncovered. In an examination room, she found her sister and her niece. They were alive. At the moment of the explosion, her nephew had pushed them into a ditch. Most likely, Gibbs said, he had saved their lives. 

Less than a month after the explosion that destroyed part of the facility, Gibbs went back to work at the plant. She didn’t have a choice. She had two children to support. It was different at work after that, she said. Government inspectors were there regularly. The employees were trained to use fire extinguishers. On the line, the chatter and voices of the friends she had lost were replaced by silence.

Now though, Gibbs said the time for silence is gone. She wants young people to know about the people who died at Thiokol. So Gibbs helps Everette at the museum when she can. To anyone who asks, she tells her story.

“It is a history that needs to be told for our country to really know itself,” Gibbs said.

Top picture: Workers at the Thiokol Chemical Corp. factory in Woodbine, Georgia. A blast in 1971 destroyed the facility and shattered a community. (Credit: Thiokol Memorial Project)