Stories of Civil Rights in Fayette County, Tennessee
Stories of Civil Rights in Fayette County, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tent City website

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 medical care.

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 the poor.

 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 TN highlighting Fayette and Haywood Counties
Map of Tennessee highlighting Fayette (red) and Haywood Counties (gray).
Photo: David Benbennick, public domain

Retaliation for participating in the movement was fast, powerful, and illegal. Many of the white residents of Fayette County used economic tactics to try to stop the African American population from registering to vote. 

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?]

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The movement participants ranged from elderly African Americans voting for the first time in their lives to young children integrating hostile environments in the county's previously all-white schools. It forged local leaders and also included civil rights workers from across the U.S. and Europe. It included not only painful relocations but also empowering journeys, as local activists traveled to meet with leaders in the federal government and to explore new forms of political action. And while African Americans argued over how best to overcome the obstacles they faced, white responses ranged from violent intimidation to support—if often secretive—for civil rights activists.

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?

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.

These are some questions we've been thinking about, but we still don't know what kinds of stories we'll discover! We look forward to seeing how this project develops and hope that visitors to this website will stay to share their stories.

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Sponsored by the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, this website is being developed by faculty and students at the University of Memphis. We hope many more people who live or have spent time in Fayette County will add to this website.

Saunders' quote about importance of civil rights to the rural poor
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Last Updated: 4/10/14