by Brenda Flora, Curator of Moving Images and Recorded Sound
Water is something that is on our minds often here in South Louisiana. How will it be managed? How can it be moved to a more convenient place? And during those times when it is simply uncontrollable, how can its damage be mitigated? To the farmers of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), water is a way of life. It is life-giving to their crops and vital to their shipping, but too much can be a destructive force with the potential to wipe out their livelihoods. The manipulation of water is one of the keys to agriculture and an advanced society, and education surrounding that subject appears as an organizational priority within the records of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, highlighted within the collection’s moving image materials.
Perhaps the most unique film in the collection is Israel Trip (1968). This amateur-shot home movie documents the FSC’s 1968 visit to Israel to study regional agriculture and irrigation. Part field study, part vacation travel log, the silent 9-minute film includes views of the landscape, with particular focus on crops and farming. Interspersed with images of tidy, green rows growing against the backdrop of desert are shots of FSC members taking in the sights, riding camels and visiting ancient ruins. It is a charming film, but it also underscores the seriousness with which the farmers of the FSC undertook their profession, and some of the benefit membership in the Federation could provide. The idea that the Federation would send representatives to visit a location where water management had been perfected by farmers for centuries, so that these farmers could bring knowledge back to support technologic advancement in their own region, feels cutting edge and was certainly an enormous benefit.
But Southern farmers weren’t the only people making the decisions about water management in the South in the late 20th century. The region was also dependent upon the policy of the U.S. federal government. The construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, also known as the Tenn-Tom, was one of the largest civil works projects undertaken in the United States and had a massive impact on the rural South. The transformative project was a commercial waterway, designed to link navigation between the central U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico, and approved amid President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to appeal to white, conservative Southern voters. Construction began in 1972 and was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1984.
The two films from the FSC records that relate to the Tenn-Tom were produced by the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Nashville District and Mobile District Planning Branches, and were designed to appeal to different audiences. The first, Tomorrow Is in Our Hands (undated), targets rural Southerners within the impact area of the project. The film discusses the construction of the Tenn-Tom and the change it would bring to the region, focusing on the elimination of poverty, job creation and equal employment for minorities and women. It leans heavily on its visuals, contrasting images of affluent homes and neighborhoods and their low-income counterparts the project proposes to eliminate. It encourages participation in the upcoming public planning sessions for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Corridor Study in the counties most affected by the waterway in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The second film, Tenn-Tom – A New Waterway for America (circa 1980), is more of a general overview of the project for those who may not be familiar with it. It outlines the plans for the waterway, and includes images of the construction work already underway. While it primarily highlights the benefits of the project and the care being taken in the area of environmental conservation, it also touches on some of the controversy surrounding it. There is an interview with Mr. and Mrs. Loveless of Peyton, Mississippi, who lost their home of 60 years to the construction and were relocated as a result. Of their new house they reflect, “well, it’s not home.”
The FSC was well aware of the potential of the Tenn-Tom to create a negative impact on Black and low-income residents of the region. To guard against exploitation, and to make sure that Black workers were receiving their fair portion of the economic benefit of the project, the FSC created the Minority Peoples Council on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The Council conducted a study investigating the potential impact of the project on poor, rural and Black populations within the impact area. The group went on to secure training and employment for minorities within the Tenn-Tom construction process, as well as provide community education on the impact of the project.
The films that the Federation of Southern Cooperatives chose to record and collect reinforce their values as an organization. They prioritized gathering information, but also the use of that information for the direct benefit of the workers in the region.
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Humanities Collections and Reference Resources. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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