Tent City covers the series of civil rights events that took place in Fayette County,
Tennessee, from 1959 into the early 1970s, which resulted in many black residents being evicted from the sharecropper housing
that had been homes to some families for generations. Ultimately, up to 700 people
had to move into one of two Tent Cities erected on donated land, some living there
for up to 4 years. In addition, black residents who registered to vote were blocked
from goods and services necessary to survive day to day: milk, eggs, fuel, and even
Although these events took place over 50 years ago, we still face the same struggles
for human rights in the U.S. and around the globe. Tent cities seem to pop up whenever
less powerful populations are displaced by those with more economic, political, and
social means—either to grab the property of the displaced, or as a result of war migration,
racial or ethnic massacres, or other civic and political upheaval—including those
following natural disasters or economic downturn.
Why is Tent City important?
The Tent City movement in Fayette County is significant for a number of reasons: First,
it was a truly grassroots movement—initiated, organized, and maintained by black residents in the local community. Outside
help from regional sympathizers, college activists, and the federal government certainly
came in and helped the Fayette County participants to keep the movement going, but
the leaders and long-term participants were locals.
Second, unlike many more widely known civil rights events, Tent City was a rural movement whose participants made their living from the land—most of the African American population
worked for white landowners as sharecroppers. This meant the civil rights movement in Fayette County was primarily an effort of
A Fayette County Voice
Rev. June Dowdy, Fayette County Activist
source: Operation Freedom recorded interview, c. 1964.
This can be better appreciated if we acknowledge that the middle-class, more educated
blacks—who had more resources to start a movement—were found in the urban areas. Most
blacks in the South at the time were poor and undereducated and, therefore, many of
the movements during the Civil Rights Era were initiated by white sympathizers who
came to the South to recruit and organize black activists.
Finally, Fayette County—as well as adjacent Haywood County—were politically promising because they were the only two of 96 Tennessee counties in which blacks outnumbered
whites. This made change at a large scale possible if blacks could vote. Also, being
located in the southwestern part of the state and adjacent to the Mississippi state line, Fayette County was in a strategic position for extending efforts into Mississippi,
which had garnered much national attention.
Map of Tennessee highlighting Fayette (red) and Haywood Counties (gray).
Photo: David Benbennick, public domain
Though we cannot begin to tell (or even find) every individual's story from this era,
we want to include a variety of perspectives here; this site provides a venue in which
Fayette County residents and other participants in the movement can describe their
experiences of these events. But we are also interested in the relationship between
history and the present. How do experiences from the 1960s affect people's feelings,
hopes, or concerns about Fayette County today? What do these stories mean to young
people who are just learning about the county's past?
Do YOU have a story about Tent City? We invite you to contribute your recordings,
documents, pictures, or other artifacts to the Tent City Project at the Benjamin L.
Hooks Institute for Social Change. [do we want a special email account for this? Or
list the phone number? Who will handle?]
— ♦ —
In another sense, though, we believe the stories and discussions gathered here may
have meaning far beyond Fayette County. The struggle for justice is not unique to
this region, after all, and here, as elsewhere, it highlighted deep divisions within
the community while forcing everyone who lived in the area to think about what change
might mean for their society and for themselves as individuals. We want to understand
how people live and work in a shared locale during periods of social upheaval, or
how they negotiate contemporary conflict while planning for a still uncertain future.
Today, Fayette County faces new kinds of change, including the impact of growth from
nearby Memphis. What does Fayette County's history mean to newer residents--whether
those who have moved recently or young people born locally—and how might broader recognition
of that past shape the county today? We think the people of Fayette County offer a
special opportunity to understand how communities can overcome difficult pasts, an
issue that remains urgent in national and global discussion.