The first two chemical companies – Olin Corporation and Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corporation (now BASF McIntosh) – arrived in the McIntosh area in the early 1950s, attracted by the town’s proximity to a large natural salt dome and transport routes and the prospect of cheap labour from the nearby communities.

There are now 26 chemical plants located along the 69km (43-mile) stretch of Highway 43 from McIntosh to the port city of Mobile. Eight of the plants are within 3.2km (2 miles) of McIntosh.

But McIntosh wasn’t always like this.

Most residents can trace their ancestry to the Lang and Reed families, who owned land in the area as far back as the Reconstruction era, from 1865 to 1877 when the South was rebuilt after the Civil War and the Southern Homestead Act allowed formerly enslaved people to own land.

Seventy-eight-year-old Helen Law remembers what the area was like before the chemical companies arrived. She describes miles of pristine woods thick with vegetation and full of deer, turkey and other wildlife. By the clear waters of the Tombigbee River – its name derived from the Choctaw Nation word for “coffin-maker” – Law and the other children would hunt for crickets to sell to the adults for fishing.

Ninety-six-year-old Laura Reed Norwood, a thin, feisty woman in a brightly-coloured skirt, reminisces about the days when her “daddy could go out to the river with a string and put a piece of fat meat on it and catch their fish for dinner”.

Then, in the late 1940s and early 50s, strangers started to visit the families. Representatives of Olin and those of a white local congressman named Frank Boykin would come by, urging them to sell their land.

Boykin, a wealthy self-made businessman, wanted to attract business interests to McIntosh and, according to many residents, was deceptive in doing so.

Residents recount stories of how their illiterate grandparents were tricked into signing away – often by marking an X as their name – the deeds to hundreds of acres of land for pennies. Boykin would then sell or lease the land to Olin.

One resident tells the story of her grandmother who came home one day with $3 (the equivalent of $38.63 today) wrapped in a handkerchief, believing she had leased her land to the Boykin family. She had, unknowingly, sold all 300 acres (121 hectares) of it.

Laura Reed Norwood remembers when bass, catfish and bream were plentiful in the Tombigbee River and people could feed their families from the river’s bounty [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Some 20 Black families resisted the pressure to sell – for a while. Helen Law’s grandfather, Aaron Adams, was one of those who refused to leave. But eventually, they all gave in.

Cliff Ware says he has waited for years to share the story of how Olin bought his great-grandparents’ riverfront land for “little or nothing” in the 1950s. By the late 1960s, the last piece of land owned by Ware’s family was gone, too. It had belonged to his mother’s second cousin whose husband sold it to a white homebuilder for $2,500 (about $22,000 today).

“He didn’t know what he was doing,” Ware says of his relative. Instead of building homes, the buyer sold the land to Olin, as it continued to expand its plant. Both bemused and indignant, Ware explains that the white homebuilder sold it for “200 times” the price he’d paid for it.

Law understands why the families eventually sold up. Racial discrimination was rife and the residents felt they had no choice but to accept what they were offered. “You just moved,” she says. “We knew we were being taken [advantage of] but couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight, so we took what we could get and went.”

The families were forced to move just a short distance across the railroad tracks. Today, the neighbourhood where Andy Lang and most McIntosh residents live is known as “across the tracks”.