Class, Race and Displacement

Class, Race and Displacement

As mentioned previously all individuals and families who were displaced by the eminent domain process did not receive equal services. Historian Melissa Walker explains,

"The TVA’s programs, shaped by a policy of trying to remove marginal farmers from the land, were structured to favor prosperous landowning families over poorer owners and tenants of both races. Families who had some capital to invest could exercise considerable control over the shape of their lives after the TVA. They could choose to stay on the land or to move to towns and cities. Poor landowners and landless farm families often did not have these options. A shortage of land and a declining need for agricultural laborers drove these families into low-skill industrial jobs. While factory work often improved their standard of living, the agency's policies forced many less prosperous farm families to give up a way of life that some preferred.[1]"

Over and above the class-based discrimination the TVA’s relocation policies perpetuated existing racial discriminatory policies in the South. As Walker points out “Like most New Deal programs, the authority's benefits were not evenly distributed. The agency maintained a policy of institutionalized segregation and discrimination against blacks, which kept African Americans from deriving much direct benefit from the authority's employment or educational programs.”[2]

Although the African American land-owning farmers in East Tennessee were more prosperous than those in Middle Tennessee affected by later TVA dam dislocations, systematic discrimination was apparent in the case of the Norris Dam relocations. Using the “Family Removal Workers Manual,” as a guide, the all-white staff of the Family Removal Section of the TVA did not generally provide the extensive services given to white dislocatees.[3]

Although only five percent of the population to be moved from the Norris Dam inundation area was African-American, the TVA provided few resources and little attention in maintaining the integrity of the community. Walker notes that there were vibrant, tightly-knit African-American communities in many of the areas taken over by the TVA in development of dams. Among the more visible institutions in the community were multiple churches. However, since African Americans did not have leadership positions in town governments and other majority institutions, it was assumed that there was no significant African-American community. She points out that “again and again” Family Removal workers commented, ‘this is a Negro family that takes no part in the affairs of the community.’ Workers assumed that, because African Americans were excluded from community leadership posts and from the white community, they did not have a community of their own and did not suffer from community disruption after relocation.[4]

Relocation practices broke up these communities and cut them off what had been “valuable mutual support” social systems.[5]

A long-time Norris resident who grew up in the area before the dam project, speaks of the loss experienced by African-Americans:

There was a black lady. She had about three acres and she raised a garden with all kinds of vegetables and kept chickens. Had a shack, very small cottage. They apprised (the land)—I’ve got the records—$60–70 an acre. They did not take into account that small farms like that, small acreage, people had no transportation, none of them had cars. Now all of a sudden they gotta get out. For the people who had several hundred of acres it was a big inconvenience, but nothing like the small poor farmers like that. (Irwin)

While broken community ties was particularly apparent in the African-American community, other relocated families reported disconnects as well. In a follow up survey of residents resettled after the eminent-domain driven relocation process, 93 percent of the tenant farmers and 80 percent of the owners reported that they were not participating in regular church activities such as suppers and community sings that provided the dominant social life in these rural Tennessee communities.[6] There was an overall drop in general church attendance. Before their moves, only four percent of eventual relocates reported not going to church. After relocation this number increased dramatically to 23 percent.[7] Given the central role the church played in local social life, this is a significant measure of a disconnect.

The loss of community produced by involuntary displacement has been recognized by social psychologists studying natural disasters. Yale sociologist Kai Erikson documented the negative effects of scattering flood survivors into separate distant trailer settlements after the Buffalo Creek flood of a mining hollow in West Virginia in 1972[8] In this case, by not paying attention to keeping supportive social networks together, relief workers undermined the supportive “communality” that neighbors had established over decades. In the same way, the TVA’s eminent domain take-over and displacement of the African American community without attention to keeping communities together, created a similar damaging diaspora. There was, however, a contrasting story in the development of a new model town near the site of the Norris Dam.

[1] Melissa Walker, “African Americans and TVA Reservoir Property Removal: Race in a New Deal Program.” Agricultural History. Vol 72. No. 2 (Spring 1998), p 418. [417-428]

[2] Walker, p. 418.

[3] Walker, p 421; and McDonald and Muldowny, pp. 4-7.

[4] Walker, p. 428.

[5] Walker, p. 428.

[6] McDonald and Muldowny, p. 252.

[7] McDonald and Muldowny, p. 252.

[8] Kai Erikson, Everything in Its Path. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.