Garbage Time

Something besides the dump stinks in Mobile

Naomi Skinner, Terry Hudson's aunt, has spent months trying to prove that Mobile is a black community by combing through property records, tracking down absentee landowners and asking a key question:

What race are you?

"I don't know how to gauge overall percentages, but the amount of African Americans who still own property is a good percentage," she says. "I've found a lot of people who still own property from the original settlers who came out in the '20s and '30s. They don't want it trashed. The reason why they're holding on to it is African Americans have never really had anything. When we do have something and recognize that it's worth something, we try to hold on to it."

Howard Shanker says he's still researching demographics. The lack of definitive answers may be one reason he hasn't yet served the county with the lawsuit filed nearly six months ago. Noting that the county hasn't been served, Bill FitzGerald, public information officer for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, declined comment on the federal case.

Decades ago, Mobile was mostly black. But the community's history is rooted as much in myth as in fact. According to local lore, a county land-use plan and at least two Arizona history books, the community was pioneered by black families from Alabama who came to escape racial oppression in the deep South, hence the name Mobile.

However, a 1992 study commissioned by the state Historic Preservation Office determined that Edison Lung, the first permanent settler in Mobile, was white, and that the area was already called Mobile when he came along in 1921. The name, according to the state study, was given by the Southern Pacific Railroad as early as 1916 to designate a siding that provided water and other supplies to trains.

Black homesteaders followed Lung and came to dominate the community during the 1930s -- with the exception of Lung, every homesteader within six square miles was black. But they didn't come from the South, at least, not directly. Listing Phoenix-area addresses in homestead applications, they arrived in Arizona from Oklahoma and Texas, according to the state study. There were enough African Americans that the community needed two one-room schools -- railroad cars were pressed into service -- to keep the races separate.

By the end of the 1930s, more than 100 people lived in Mobile, according to the state study. But what passed for a boom in the desert didn't last. By the end of the 1940s, most of the original homesteaders had abandoned their land. But that didn't discourage Richard Cobb, who staked his 320-acre claim in 1930 and platted a town 10 years later. This place in the middle of nowhere was supposed to be exclusively black, with more than 400 residential lots complete with a park, water tower, orphanage and 14 streets. Lots sold for $10.

Naomi Skinner, the youngest of 13 children, says Cobb and James Manor, another of the first black homesteaders, convinced her parents to move from Chandler and buy two and a half acres for $18 in 1949. "They were trying to establish something of their own -- everywhere else, they were renting or leasing space," says Skinner, who was born and raised in Mobile but now lives in Phoenix.

According to the state study, Mobile's population peaked at between 200 and 300 people in the early 1950s, four decades before a paved road arrived. "It was rough -- it was very rough," recalls Skinner, who was born in 1955. Her mother, who divorced when Skinner was 7, raised pigs and a few chickens. She also negotiated contracts with cotton farmers, providing labor to work the fields in Maricopa and Coolidge. There was no agriculture in Mobile, where most people got water from a community well.

"We'd haul water in 55-gallon barrels," Skinner recalls. "If they were gas barrels, we'd burn them out first to purify them, then scrub them with Clorox and Fab with a broom -- scrub and rinse, scrub and rinse."

By the time Skinner graduated from eighth grade, the last grade taught in Mobile, there were just four other students in her class. "Every year, it got less and less," Skinner says. "They moved away because there were no jobs -- no high school and no jobs."

Skinner left Mobile in 1976 for the same reason. She studied computer-aided drafting and landed a job at Honeywell. Today, she works as an office manager, but her heart remains in Mobile.

"I'm just dying to get back out there," Skinner says. "Even though the living was hard, you can't go to a more peaceful, more pleasant, more beautiful place."

Marred, Skinner says, by just one thing: the Butterfield landfill.

"The dump that exists there now, the last time we tried to have a dinner for my mother, my family showed up out there and brought all this food," Skinner says.

"We couldn't even eat, there were so many flies. My nieces and nephews and my daughter loved going for long walks out there. They come running back to the house, the flies were hording around their faces like bees. And this dump is a mile away from my mother's house. What the hell's it going to be like with a dump a quarter-mile away?"

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