Friday, January 16, 2015

The Evicted

Fred Travis (1917–1998)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

Family living in “Tent City” following their eviction from their land when adults tried to register to vote in Fayette County, TN. Photographer unknown, c. 1960. Image in the University of Memphis Special Collections, courtesy of the Tent City website.
In 1960 John Doar, a newly appointed assistant attorney general for the U.S. Civil Rights Division in the Eisenhower administration, struggled to convince the FBI to investigate reports that white landowners and business proprietors had been evicting and otherwise punishing black sharecroppers who registered to vote in two western Tennessee counties of Fayette and Haywood. Although the populations for both counties were heavily African American, virtually all registered voters were white. In Fayette County alone, only fifty-eight of the approximately 9,000 eligible black voters had been allowed to register to vote by 1959, and a registration campaign refereed by the federal government in the summer of 1960 met with stiff opposition by white officials. Yet J. Edgar Hoover initially rebuffed the request to investigate the matter. As Taylor Branch recounts in Parting the Waters, when the Civil Rights Division attorneys insisted, the bureau relented, but Doar quickly understood “that Hoover’s attitude could fine-tune the hypersensitive FBI bureaucracy. . . . The Haywood County case was getting the tarpaper.”

Fed up with the FBI’s recalcitrance, Doar went to Tennessee himself, collecting fifty affidavits from black sharecroppers who had kept their eviction notices and tracking down white residents who were disturbed by what was happening and were willing to testify. According to Branch, the conspirators had “gone so far as to obtain legal opinions for how best to prevent Negro registration without getting caught in federal violations.” As a result of his fieldwork, Doar was able to add several dozen defendants to the federal lawsuit against those who participated in the campaign to prohibit black citizens from voting. In the end, over seventy landowners were named in each of the two suits filed in Haywood and Fayette counties.

Fred Travis, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, had been following the story and he visited the area to learn what was happening to the families who had been evicted. Shepard Towles, a black landowner, had permitted them to live in tents on his property, but the strain on his water supply caused the well to run dry. Gertrude Beasley, another nearby black landowner, took in some of the families to relieve the burden on Towles’s resources. At one point, over a dozen extended families, including one hundred children, lived in what became known as “Tent City”—some staying for nearly two years. Travis’s report, “The Evicted,” appeared in the February 1961 issue of The Progressive.

The case brought by the Civil Rights Division worked its way through the courts, and the outcome was bittersweet. The Haywood County lawsuit was settled out of court in May 1962, and the Fayette County suit was resolved two months later when the Federal District Court issued a consent decree. In both cases, the white defendants agreed to cease their attempts to engage “in any acts . . . for the purpose of interfering with the right of any person to register to vote and to vote for candidates for public office.” Yet none of the evicted tenants regained their leases. Similarly, none of the defendants paid court costs or fines for their transgressions, and the decision in Fayette County was handed down “without constituting evidence of admission with respect to the issues of fact.” All other pending lawsuits against the officials and landowners were dismissed.
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Mrs. Georgia Mae Turner grubbed at a shallow trench with a cotton hoe, trying to drain a puddle of water in front of her tent in a camp called “Freedom Village” three miles south of Somerville, Tennessee. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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