Alum donating photos, records from initial campus Earth Day
Fifty years ago, Yale’s first Earth Day unfolded against a backdrop of unrest.
The previous evening, about 4,500 students and faculty had gathered at Ingalls Rink to discuss a proposed campus-wide strike in solidarity with members of the Black Panther Party, who were soon to go on trial in New Haven. Later that night, students in 9 of the 12 residential colleges voted to strike, according to a report in the Yale Daily News on April 22, 1970 — the first Earth Day.
In accordance with the strike, most students did not attend classes on Earth Day. Many picketed their classroom buildings instead. Black Panther Party supporters disrupted an address by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whom the Yale Political Union had invited to discuss environmental issues.
“It was a very turbulent time and the environment was not the number-one priority of anybody except a small group of us,” said Daphne Gemmill ’72 M.P.H., who had helped plan a robust slate of Earth Day events as secretary of the Environmental Action Group. Yale graduate students had formed the nonprofit organization to advocate for environmental causes.
The group organized a teach-in on the New Haven Green. (It was not involved in Kennedy’s speech.) Its members led a tour of New Haven’s major sources of pollution. They worked with residents of low-income neighborhoods to start community gardens. They held a protest demonstration at the offices of the United Illuminating Company — a local utility that environmentalists identified as a major source of sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants. They even bashed a Ford Fairlane 500 with sledgehammers — the old gas-guzzler symbolizing the auto industry’s collective crimes against Mother Nature.
Gemmill is donating photographs and other records of Yale’s first Earth Day events to the Yale University Library. An avid photographer, she took pictures at the events with a Nikkormat camera, a cheap, consumer-friendly version of the Nikkon brand. (She is still determining the number of photographs, but she has shared 22 digitized images with the library.)
“This is an important personal addition to our documentation on Earth Day,” said Judith Schiff, chief research archivist in the Yale Library’s Manuscripts & Archives Department. “Ms. Gemmill’s pictures will be an important acquisition, especially with her oral testimony and other records supporting them.”
Yale’s first Earth Day teach-in on the Green featured graduate students and faculty members leading discussion circles on a variety of topics, including land-use policy, air and water pollution, recycling, overpopulation, and endangered species.
“People could move from topic to topic,” Gemmill said. “They were freewheeling, open-ended discussions.”
One of Gemmill’s photos shows participants in a discussion of “ecology as revolutionary doctrine.” A young gentleman sitting cross-legged at the photo’s center holds a pipe to his lips. An action shot depicts a young man swinging a sledgehammer at the battered Ford Fairlane as a crowd looks on.
“I don’t even remember how we got that car,” Gemmill said. “At the end of the day, it was pretty much pulverized.”
Other records include press releases and newsletters Gemmill issued in the lead-up to Earth Day.
“It was a struggle to get anyone’s attention given the turbulence on campus,” she said. “We managed to attract a modest turnout.”
She also has copies of the Earth Day buttons the group distributed. It was a straightforward design: the word “Earth” in white against a green background.
The Environmental Action Group originated as an attempt by graduate students to hold United Illuminating accountable for the air pollution its power plants caused, Gemmill explained. The group expanded its focus from investigating the utility to a range of environmental issues and causes, including advocating for an environmental bill of rights.
Gemmill was one of three students comprising the first class of the Yale School of Public Health’s environmental program focused on the health effects of air pollutants. After earning her master’s degree, she went on to work at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, monitoring climate change during her tenure at the latter. She retired in 2006.
In retirement, Gemmill remains committed to protecting the environment and is a passionate about birding.
“Birds provide my outlet for environmental activism,” she said. “If you interest people in birds, they soon become environmentalists.”
Her photos from that first Earth Day make her recall the idealism she had as a graduate student, but they also trigger a sense of gloom, she said.
“It makes me feel sad about what’s happening with environmental issues today,” she said, citing efforts to roll back environmental protections. “We’re going backwards.”
Nevertheless, Gemmill is proud of what the first Earth Day accomplished despite being overwhelmed by other campus events.
“I do feel good that we helped start a movement and raise awareness,” she said. “Our air is cleaner now than it would have been. Our water is cleaner. Progress was made.”