THIRD UTM CIVIL RIGHTS CONFERENCE

 

What Happened?

"TENT CITY," TENNESSEE

by Richard L. Saunders
   Paul Meek Library Museum Director

Fayette County, Tennessee, sits forty minutes east of Memphis along the Mississippi line. Haywood County adjoins Fayette to the north. These two Tennessee counties battled for voting rights and economic opportunity for over ten years during the national Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Unlike the notable and well-publicised protests in Mississippi, Alabama, and even Memphis, the struggles in Fayette and Haywood counties were carried primarily by local citizens without the publicity or direct assistance of nationally prominent leaders or organizations. The Third UTM Civil Rights Conference focuses on the earliest action in that decade-long fight: the right to vote, an economic boycott, and an ersatz community of refugees called "Tent City."

For further reading:
Linda T. Wynn, "Toward a Perfect Democracy: The Struggle of African Americans in Fayette County, Tennessee, to Fulfill the Unfulfilled Right of the Franchise," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 202­223.
Robert Hamburger, ed. Our Portion of Hell: Fayette County, Tennessee: An Oral History of the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Links Books, 1973).
"October 1960: The Untold Story of Jackson's Civil Rights Movement," (7-part series) Part 4, "Fayette, Haywood County blacks forced from their homes for trying to exercise right to vote," Jackson Sun (Tennessee), accessible online at: http://jacksonsun.com/ civilrights/sec4_tent_city.shtml.

 

THE FAYETTE COUNTY struggle had its immediate roots in a near lynching almost twenty years before Tent City. In 1940, black farmer Burton Dodson came to blows in a heated disagreement with another man. His opponent, who was white, quickly gathered some friends. Hastily deputized by the county sheriff, the band surrounded the Dodson farm-house on the night of May 23 and called for him to surrender. Dodson managed to escape into the woods through an excited and ineffective crossfire, firing back wildly toward his attackers as he fled. In the fray, one of the "deputies" was fatally wounded in the back. In 1959, Dodson was located in East St. Louis, Illinois and extradited to stand trial for murder.
The Dodson trial was held at the county courthouse in Somerville. James F. Estes, one of only five or six black lawyers in Tennessee at the time, drove from Memphis specifically to plead Dodson's case. Two black veterans of World War II, Harpman Jameson and James McFerren, Sr., were concerned about the fairness of Dodson's trial, specifically when they learned that no blacks would sit on the jury. Juries are drawn from a pool of the county's registered voters, and virtually no black citizens were registered to vote. During jury selection Estes pointedly asked potential jurors if they believed their black neighbors should have the right to vote. Some replied that they did not object. Estes lost the case and the 70-year-old Dodson was sentenced to prison, but the lawyer had managed to extract at least verbal agreements from county residents supporting black voting. With the benefit of Estes' legal advice, in the spring of 1959 two groups of black citizens filed organizational charters for the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League and the Haywood County Civic and Welfare League.

Early Civil Rights Action
In Somerville, the Fayette County seat, the first action of the new organization was coordinating a voter registration drive among the county's black residents. Though such registrations became well-known activities throughout the later 1960s, the Fayette County action was the very first voter registration drive conducted among black citizens in the rural South. The effort immediately drew threats from the white populace. Concerned, John McFerren, Harpman Jameson, and J. F. Estes drove 22 hours to Washington to speak with John Doar of the U. S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Doar promised legal action. Though in 1990 African Americans comprised about 45% of Fayette County's population, in 1960 blacks made up 70%, yet before 1959 fewer than fifty had ever registered and fewer than a dozen actually voted.

A few hundred determined black Fayette County residents braved heat, intimidation, and stonewalling officials, managing to register during the summer of 1959. Despite bearing valid registrations, black voters were uniformly turned away from the county Democratic primary election on August first. The Supreme Court had already ruled that any denial of participation in a party's primary election was illegal (in racial cases, a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment as well). Still, de facto traditions and practices were well entrenched. So well, in fact, that with so many black Fayette County voters registered, the local Democratic organization had circulated a letter instructing that "If any Negroes should ask to vote in your district, they are to be informed that this is a White Democratic Primary and not a general election." The letter had been distributed to the precincts with the official ballot boxes.
On November 16, 1959, the U. S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in federal court against the county party's executive organization, the first voting-related action filed under the provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1957. The FBI was asked to investigate. In March, 1960 the Fayette County election commission resigned, protesting what they felt was federal meddling in elections, a long-standing states-rights issue and an attempt to close down registrations. The case never went to trial; Memphis federal district judge Marion Boyd issued a consent judgment that specifically forbade the county's election discriminations. In May, 1960, though black citizens registered in Fayette County the previous year, Haywood County opened its books to black registrants for the first time since Reconstruction.
The situations in these two west Tennessee counties were contributing factors to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960. The legislation attempted to address violence and intimidation directed against African Americans without compromising the authority of state and local officials over elections. It would not be enough against the stone wall of tradition.

Economic Pressure
Fayette and Haywood counties had been dominated by a handful of white families who controlled county politics and the local economy for over four decades. These same individuals had a strong grip over the county's White Citizen's Council as well. Having lost on the registration and election issue, the group responded to the political challenge by instituting an informal but effective economic freeze against registered black citizens-and their local supporters among white citizens-in the spring of 1960. The embargo was probably an attempt to drive politically active Negros from the county by economic ruin. Services were refused to blacks that had voted or attempted to vote: insurance policies were canceled, bank loans were rejected, jobs were lost, store credit (which had long kept farm workers riveted to landowners) was suddenly denied. Farms and families were left without the means to purchase commodities or supplies. The economic pressure forced families to travel to Memphis for even the most basic supplies. Under threats, regional gasoline dealers who did business in the county refused to supply black businesses. One deputy sheriff even waited at the county line and turned back gasoline shipments bound for FCCWL chairman John McFerren's store. At the insistence of the Justice Department the FBI instituted a second investigation in the county in July. Though businessmen hotly denied that the illegal boycott was a coordinated effort, the existence of an informal blacklist was finally discovered. A copy of the list was smuggled out of one Somerville business, duplicated, and publicized in Ebony that fall as part of a six-page article about the Fayette County situation.
In September, the Justice Department filed charges against 27 local busi-nesses and two banks in Haywood County, charging them with using economic pressure to discourage black citizens from voting. Two months later in the 1960 election, black voters swung the election and pulled the Repub-lican Party into power in Fayette County for the first time in its history.

The Founding of Tent City
Pressure within the county increased again in the late fall of 1960. Within a month of the November county election and the resulting Republican takeover, a few white Fayette and Haywood county landowners began evicting their black tenant laborers and families. With nowhere to go and virtually no other options open, black landowner Shepherd Towles offered to let homeless families stay on his farm, about five miles south of Somerville. The FCCWL hurriedly acquired fourteen canvas tents as Army surplus from a sympathetic white businessman (who remains anonymous to this day) and pitched them on Towles' field. Earlie B. Williams and his family moved into the first tent on December 14, 1960. Eighty-one people from eleven families were housed in the ersatz settlement by March, 1961. The settlement was officially known as "Fayette County Freedom Village" but is better known as simply "Tent City." Evictions continued until 345 families from Fayette and Haywood counties had been pushed into homelessness. Not all of them migrated to the canvas community, but more tents went up and a second "Tent City" sprouted fifteen miles south on the Gertrude Beasley's property near Moscow. The location of this second, larger site was kept secret to reduce the possibility of violence or reprisal. The canvas communities remained in place and occupied for over two years while the county remained embattled.
Living conditions at both sites of Tent City made life challenging. Most families had left their homes in early winter with only the barest essentials, which included little furniture or other amenities. Small wood-burning stoves provided both heat and a cooking surface. There was no electricity, and water was available only by hauling it in buckets from Towles' own well. Once over-use ran that one dry, another had to be drilled. Laundry was done in iron kettles heated over outdoor fires. Initially the tents were floored only with beaten dirt or cardboard. In January, 1961 wooden flooring began being installed in the tents. Still, some residents felt that the tents were an improvement over the housing they had occupied only months earlier.
Even within Fayette and Haywood counties the Tent City residents were not entirely friendless. Some local whites, mostly among the counties' poorer families, supported their black neighbors in pursuing the voting and the underlying economic issues but did little themselves. Some landowners refused to evict their tenants or call for early loan repayments, despite pressure from the White Citizen's Council, and a few provided goods to Tent City citizens under cover or anonymously.
Contributions by labor unions, the National Baptist Convention, NAACP, and community organizations in various cities helped feed and clothe Tent City residents. Seven truckloads of badly needed goods and donated commodities arrived from New York in mid January 1961. Merely one week earlier the Department of Agriculture had reported no need for Meanwhile, problems boiled among the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League leadership. Estes was dismissed as legal counsel and allegations of misappropriation were made against John McFerren. At the same time the NAACP fought rumors that recipients were being required to pay for donated aid. Eventually the League split and divided the aid being committed to the Tent City residents. McFerren and the majority reincorporated under the name of the Original Fayette County Civic and Welfare League. The League continued supporting Tent City for another year and a half.

The Issues Resolved and the Struggle Continued
The legal questions that underlay the voting issues, economic embargo, and Tent City itself were resolved by the federal courts. On July 26, 1962 the Federal District Court issued a consent decree that permanently prohibited landowners from using economic pressure to discourage black citizens from voting. The legal arguments and courts decisions did little to relieve the Tent City residents. Tent City survived as a refugee community through the rest of 1962 and into the following year. Eventually residents left to work in places beyond the county, or moved to houses built on the land bought for their resettlement. The site of the first Tent City reverted to farmland and remains the property of the Towles family to this day.
Students from several northern universities arrived in Fayette and Hay-wood counties during the summer of 1962, even as Tent City's residents began dispersing. They came to assist in registering the counties' largely rural population. Unlike the better-known student-driven registration drives in Mississippi and Alabama the following year, these students participated in a process that had already begun. For many black citizens, these college students were the first friendly and openly supportive white people they had met. Students came again in 1963 and 1964.
It took the far-reaching Voting Rights Act of 1965 to end at last formal and informal racial discrimination in any election for any office. But in Fayette and Haywood counties, despite this legal remedy to the situation, blacks and whites remained segregated in other important ways. Encouraged by their success and with voting rights assured, the local struggle for civil rights shifted to fighting segregated education. In the 1970s the issue became securing fair representation in elected county offices, a struggle for civil rights that continued for another decade.

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