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The TVA and the Race Problem

The TVA and the Race Problem


 by Cranston Clayton

A white Southerner herein accuses the Federal Government of almost criminal neglect of the Negro in the plans of the Tennessee Valley Administration. The Editor.

IN the 40,000 square miles of the Tennessee Valley lying in parts of seven different states are some two million people divided between white and colored according to the ratio roughly of three to, one. Negroes are relatively thick in northern Alabama and west Tennessee but are correspondingly scarce in the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and east Tennessee.

The various maladjustments that have existed in the relationship between these two groups since the beginning of the nation has no doubt been the greatest single factor in causing this region, with all its wealth of coal, phosphates and other minerals, with its diversified and abundant plant life, with its climatic advantages, and with its streams and rivers ready to generate an estimated 3,000,000 horse power of energy, to be even at this late day one of the most backward sections, educationally and industriously, of any in the nation. Now the Tennessee Valley Authority comes into this region not merely to build a series of dams and transmission lines, but to “provide for the agricultural and industrial development of said valley” and to foster “an orderly and physical, economic and social development of such areas.” How does the TVA with such broad and profound responsibilities propose to deal with the problem of race relations?

AS a relief measure or job providing agency, which it really does not purport to be, the TVA has dealt with the Negro more justly than possibly any other one of the New Deal Acts. Certainly more than the NRA for example, which in most cases in the South has either not been applied at all to Negroes or else has simply been the occasion to throw them completely out of work. TVA authorities claim, and I have no facts with which to dispute such claims, that they are employing Negroes according to their proportion of the total population and in all cases are paying them the same wages that whites receive for doing the same work. In the building of the Joe Wheeler Dam, for example, that more than a mile-long structure being erected fifteen and a half miles above Muscle Shoals, the 523 men now employed are, according to the TVA Personnel Division, divided between the races according to their proportionate population in the territory from which the labor is being drawn. The wage scale of 45c. for unskilled and $1.00 for skilled labor is, according to the same authority, being applied to all regardless of color. Likewise in the Norris project, twenty miles northwest of Knoxville, among the total number of workers now on the payroll some 7 per cent are Negroes which is about their proportion of the population in the twelve counties surrounding Norris.

However, this equitable representation of Negro laborers at Norris is a story in itself. When the civil service examinations were first given by the TVA in the twelve counties round about Norris, only 1.9 per cent of those who qualified for jobs were Negroes. In these same twelve counties Negroes comprise exactly 7.1 per cent of the total population. Thus it looked as though colored labor was to suffer. TVA authorities insisted that they were helpless to rectify matters since they were compelled to choose their employees from among the people who had qualified by examination. Negro leaders claimed, however, that the reason so small a proportion of their population had qualified was that they had either not even been told of the examinations or else had been given to understand by the native whites that there was no need for them to apply since the whole project was for the advantage of the white man. There were some facts which lent credibility to this charge. For example, TVA authorities did not, and still do not, plan to use any Negro labor on the building of the Norris Dam itself. They claim that building separate dormitories and accommodations for the few Negro laborers representing the small Negro population around Norris would be so expensive as to materially advance the price of the electric power to be sold by the TVA and would thereby prevent the providing of a true “yardstick” to be used on public utilities throughout the nation. Another such fact is that on or about December 1, 1933 a committee of Negro citizens making investigations in the interest of their race claimed to have discovered that only two Negroes were employed by the TVA in the whole section of twelve counties around Norris. Thus it did seem that there had been no use for the few Negroes who had registered to have gone to that trouble.

However, TVA leaders, on having this injustice pointed out to them, set about rectifying matters insofar as the limits of the number of 5, Negroes would permit. The event, though, which made possible an equitable division of labor between the races was the allotting on December 5, 1933 of $3,343,402 by the Civil Works Administration to be spent by the TVA. With this money the TVA could hire laborers from the relief rolls of various counties without their being qualified by examination and could pay them regular TVA wages. This was a godsend to Negroes. This CWA money, to be sure, may be discontinued, but Dr. Floyd W. Reeves, Head of the Personnel Division of the TVA, authorizes the author of this article to say that “if and when TVA-CWA funds are no longer available arrangements are being made to employ Negroes in the task of clearing the reservoir space to be flooded by the Norris Dam in numbers great enough to insure a proportion commensurate with their part of the population.” This work, according to Dr. Reeves, will last for some two years.

In the long-range program of social planning Negroes are not definitely promised to fare so well.

To be sure, certain general aims of the Valley Development will, if realized, prove advantageous to them along with the rest of the population. They will be able to buy cheaper fertilizer and electrical power. Their farms, too, may suffer less from soil erosion after a program of reforestation has been put through.

But if Norris is prophetic of the total training program of the Development then Negroes have little cause to be thankful to their Uncle Sam. At Norris will be established a working experiment in coordination between industry and agriculture, the ideal which the TVA envisions for the whole Tennessee Valley. The natives of this cooperative community will receive extensive training in the arts, trades, and skills essential to such a mode of living. That they may become expert in agriculture, for instance, they will be provided a farm-garden for demonstration, a model poultry plant, and a dairy farm with pasteurizing plant connected. Men will also be taught skill in woodwork and in metal work. The women will receive courses in home planning and management. All homes will be electrified for providing lights and heat. Roads will be kept free from sign-boards, hot-dog stands, and road-side clutter. From all this the Negro, as desperately as he needs training, is to be absolutely excluded. He can not even live on the outskirts of the town in his customary hovel.

This is a bitter blow to Negro leadership. Southern states, as niggardly as they may be, do at least provide some sort of educational facilities for the blacks. And southern towns will at least allow their out-caste population to live in dirt and shacks down by the creek or the railroad track. But the government does worse. It absolutely excludes them.

This blow is all the more disheartening because it is delivered by the United States government. The Negro looks to the government as his best if not his only friend. This is due partly to the method by which he was emancipated. It is due also to the fact that Federal Courts have been about the only agency by which Negroes felt they could protect themselves as American citizens. Negro leaders had hopes that in this government venture into the South their rights might be championed. Their hopes burned all the brighter because the government seemed to have a relatively free hand to do as it pleased. Norris is built on government property. The project is nationally supported and therefore ought to be somewhat independent of local prejudices. And last of all, since the Tennessee Valley was receiving gratis such a splendid present from the nation, the whites, it is believed, would have more or less willingly made considerable concessions to whatever ideals the government had wanted to put into effect.

Promises, nebulous and indefinite, are being made Negro groups that other cooperative communities are to be established in which their rights will be taken care of. It is hoped, not without some assurance, that such a community may be established near Huntsville, Alabama, in connection with the state supported Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes. This would be all the more practicable since one service of such a community is to provide a field for student labor for cooperative colleges which proceed according to a work-study program.

It is possibly wise for the government to take a lesson from its mistakes in Reconstruction Days when, for the good of all concerned, it forced the matter of Negro rights too rapidly. However, we have come a long way since 1865 Since that far away time it has begun to dawn even on the Southern white man that, educationally, economically, industrially, and morally, Booker T. Washington was right when he said that “the only way to hold the Negro down in the ditch is to stay down in the ditch with him.” If the government is to help any of us, it will have to help all of us

Source:  Clayton, Cranston, “The TVA and the Race Problem,” Opportunity, Journal of Negro Life,  Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 111 (April, 1934), New Deal Network, (April 28, 2014).

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