When I was growing up in the South, I had one of those textbooks in history class approved by the Daughters of the Confederacy. (Their descendants are now in Moms for Liberty.) One of the issues of being a history teacher is having limited time to teach all of the amazing things that our nation has gone through, but in my private school in Virginia, we used a book that devoted pages to learning about the Ku Klux Klan. I had to learn about their founding and history after the Civil War, and there was even an image of them marching in “konklave,” which was described as a “beautiful” parade with white satin robes and flags.
I could have told you all about the 30,000 white supremacists who marched on Washington in 1926, but not a damn word about the Tulsa race massacre, where a white mob stormed a major Black town with the Klan’s help, supplied with munitions from government officials, to completely destroy it. I learned nothing about Black heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen, Bessie Coleman, Robert Smalls, or Madam C.J. Walker. Over the past few decades, a more inclusive curriculum has been demanded. Unfortunately, racists have been pushing back hard to either whitewash or ban the history of oppressed groups.
I was hoping things would improve in my adulthood, but I live in Florida where white supremacist Republicans appointed to the Board of Education are now requiring students to be taught that slavery had benefits and that Blacks must share the blame for their own massacres. Our nightmare started in January, when a law was passed that essentially banned the teaching of African American history. If a lesson made a white person feel guilt, it couldn’t be taught, or a student could sue for damages. A Florida judge who blocked the worst aspects of the law called it “positively dystopian,” but that didn’t stop Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis from appointing the worst people he could find to write lesson plans on Black history.
Even textbook companies have made special adjustments for Florida. A Florida publisher rewrote Rosa Parks’ story by saying she was famous because she refused to move after “she was told to move to a different seat.” No reason given. Not that it was a well-planned strategy involving a woman deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement. Well, I’m not a teacher, so I can’t be sued. (At least not yet.) DeSantis has tried hard to get political bloggers to register with the state, but so far he hasn’t succeeded. I’m therefore going to cover a very interesting—and incredibly disturbing—part of history that would definitely make a racist uncomfortable. You won’t learn about any of this in a Florida school. Here we go.
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There is a hidden history across this nation of “drowned towns.” Numerous Black communities have been deliberately submerged by our government, resulting in their complete destruction. In some instances, the structures themselves remained intact, leaving churches, schools, and homes fully submerged underwater. While it is impossible to cover every instance, I will highlight several of the more prominent cases.
Lake Lanier, formerly the town of Oscarville, Georgia
This beautiful lake, named after a Confederate soldier, is a popular weekend destination for fishing and boating. Yet before this man-made lake was created, it was the town of Oscarville, which was a thriving Black township until 1912. That year, two Black men were accused of rape. They were hunted down and killed on the same day. Afterward, a white supremacist group called the “Night Riders” terrorized all the Black residents of the county and literally ran every Black resident of Oscarville out of town. Over 1,000 residents were forced to leave their homes or be murdered.
As a result, this terror group obtained many Black property deeds without any bills of sale or transfer. The stolen land was, over time, sold back to the government, which wanted the land to create a man-made lake that could supply water for the growing white towns nearby. In the end, 250 families were displaced, 15 businesses were demolished, and several cemeteries and their corpses had to be relocated. However, not all buildings were demolished and not all graves were moved.
The reason this town is likely the most well-known of the drowned towns is for one curious reason: ghost stories. There is a local legend that the lake is cursed because of how it came into existence. Over 500 deaths have occurred on this lake, with the majority happening in the past 25 years.
Some Black artists have embraced the legend to create a low-budget thriller film and horror series around Lake Lanier. It’s one creative way to bring the story to a wider audience. The lake legend has also been brought up on the popular comedy-drama series “Atlanta” on FX and in an episode of the police procedural series on ABC, “Will Trent.”
Lake Martin, formerly Kowaliga, Alabama
This town was founded by John Benson, a former slave who founded this Black community after he became a wealthy man. After the Civil War, Benson worked the mines for $0.60 per ton, and worked like a dog until he finally saved up $100. He used the money to buy some land from his former slave owners’ estate and began to work the land. His former slave owner was inclined to sell because Congress passed a law that allowed for Union soldiers to seize land from rebels and give it to slaves.
Because of the lack of slave labor, several nearby white farms started going under. John was able to buy more and more land and hired workers, both Black and white. By the turn of the century, Benson had 3,000 acres. He built a brickyard, a sawmill, and a cotton gin. A town sprung up with dozens of houses. John was so wealthy he began bankrolling mortgages for buyers of all races. All of his children would receive college educations, which was unheard of during that era.
His son, William Benson, was equally impressive. He founded a school, which became one of the first Black universities, and built America’s first-ever Black-owned railroad called the Dixie Line, which had customers all over the world. (The Dixie Line was acquired by the Atlantic Coast Line, which would eventually, through several acquisitions, become a part of the modern-day CSX Transportation empire.)
Several shops were burned because of white mobs, but the family kept pressing on. Sadly the son died of illness, and his father followed shortly after.
In 1926, one year after John Benson’s death, the Alabama Power Company completed construction on the Martin Dam on the Tallapoosa River. The dam created heavy upstream flooding that sank the entire town of Kowaliga and the nearby Black township of Susanna as well. Susanna once included a gold mine, a school, two mercantile shops, a grist mill, a flour mill, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, and a church. I can find no record of any compensation being given for the flooding.
Central Park Reservoir, formerly York Hill and Seneca Village, New York
In the early 1800s, Lower Manhattan was not a well-developed area. A white farmer named John Whitehead started selling small plots of land from his property. An enterprising young Black man who made money as a bootblack purchased multiple lots that formed the basis of a town, Seneca Village.
New York wanted a giant reservoir and forcibly evicted Black residents of York Hill, who moved to Seneca Village. Although this town was predominantly Black, there were many Irish immigrants who found safe haven there during the Great Famine. Most people built and owned their homes, and archeological excavations have shown they were well made.
City planners by 1840 wanted a large park in Manhattan, which was slated to be built on a tract of land called Jones Wood. The area was occupied by multiple wealthy families who objected to the taking of their land, and successfully obtained an injunction to block the acquisition. Instead, they campaigned successfully for New York to seize the land occupied by Seneca Village.
The media at the time wrote racist articles referring to the residents as "criminals" and "vagabonds," saying they were "wretched" and couldn't speak English well. They also falsely described the area as being entirely filled with shanties. By 1857, all the property in Seneca Village was seized and every building destroyed. At that time, what was written about the structures of the town was quite disparaging:
"[The houses] were built largely of old boxes, thrown out rubbish, and timbers salvaged from the river, on which nailed tin cans beaten out flat."
—Reverend Thomas McClure Peters of St. Michael's Church, sometime in the 1850s
“A suburb more filthy, squalid, and disgusting can hardly be imagined."
—Statement from Central Park Commissioners, 1856
This piece of New York history went largely forgotten until the 1970s. At that time, an author investigating the history of the area discovered a huge discrepancy between what was said about the town and the old city maps from that same time period. City assessors' maps showcased that the town was primarily made up of substantial two- or three-story houses. One of the larger homes even had a 50-foot veranda on three sides. The author questioned whether the area was really squalid, or if the bad press was due to the city wanting the land that this multiracial town was on.
Lake Guntersville, formerly Henry and McKee Islands, Alabama
This one was really hard to find any information on. What we know is that the Tennessee Valley Act called for development of 640 miles of the Tennessee River, and part of this plan called for the construction of the Guntersville Dam. Since many of the earliest settlers built their homes along this river, many Guntersville area families and farms were rapidly displaced. Some buildings and homes remained after they were flooded, along with the ruins of an older dam.
Delta Park and Delta Lake, formerly Vanport, Oregon
Oregon is known for its liberal politics today, but at the time it joined the union in 1859, it tried to fashion itself into a whites-only utopia. Oregon was then the only state with laws specifically prohibiting Black Americans from moving to the state. In fact, in June 1844, Oregon passed "An Act in regard to Slavery and Free Negroes and Mulattoes.” Although it banned slavery forever from the state, it also required Black Americans aged 18 or upward to “remove themselves” from Oregon after two years (males) or three years (females) or be whipped.
However, this changed at the advent of World War II as there was an unprecedented migration of African Americans because of the high need for defense laborers. (Most white males were drafted in the service.) At the time, the only town available to non-whites was a redlined area called Albina, yet that was far too small to house all of the incoming migrant workers.
The Housing Authority of Portland knew the area needed to expand but feared that a permanent housing development would encourage Black workers to remain after the war. As a result, they built temporary housing at Vanport, which was an area in very close proximity to the Kaiser Shipyards. This town swelled to become the second-most populated city in Oregon at the time with over 40,000 residents, the majority of whom were African American. Vanport led the state in racial integration and hired the state’s first Black teachers and policemen.
The city dropped in population after the war by over half, but it still had a large amount of infrastructure. Unlike the other drowned towns, this one was not intentionally destroyed by the government. In 1948, a large railroad berm holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood and submerged the entire town overnight, leaving all of its inhabitants homeless. However, since the town was poor and had a large number of Black residents, Vanport was never rebuilt. After the flood, discriminatory housing laws meant most African Americans' only option was to return to Albina.
The Housing Authority of Portland did not respond well to the flood, and even discouraged evacuation. It issued a now-famous statement to the Vanport residents the morning of the flood: "Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don't get excited."
The 1948 Vanport Flood bears a striking similarity to the more recent Hurricane Katrina tragedy in New Orleans. In both instances, authorities conveyed a sense that the impact would be minimal, only to face severe backlash for their handling of the disasters. Critics pointed out that the inadequate response in both cases was influenced by racially biased perspectives among officials, resulting in a deliberate failure to address the devastation faced by the predominantly Black communities.
There’re plenty of other drowned and destroyed towns that could be discussed. There were over 100, including:
There’s even a term used to describe what occurs when people are forced to leave their homes in a development-driven form of forced migration: development-induced displacement.
Although this type of displacement overwhelmingly impacted Black communities, poor white communities were impacted as well. Along with the four Black California towns that were sacrificed for Lake Shasta, the poor white towns of Copper City, Pitt, and Winthrop were destroyed as well.
Historically, Black individuals and other people of color were inadequately compensated for their properties. For example, in Seneca Village, only the ones who owned land were compensated with $700, which is equivalent to $27,000 today. In other cases, however, nothing was given. In a CNN interview with descendants from the Oscarville massacre, where the families were terrorized and forced off their land that they had paid for, researchers could not find any instance of a court giving any compensation. Even today, the descendants are doubtful they can get justice. Recently, an Oklahoma state judge dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit seeking reparations for the three remaining survivors of the Tulsa massacre, each of them in their 90s.
Although no towns are being destroyed or flooded today due to violence or the construction of new dams (or at least none that are common knowledge), climate change is forcing poorer communities to migrate, and they are being taken advantage of by developers. This is happening right now in my home state of Florida with the Black towns surrounding Miami.
The rationale behind DID has been that short-term disadvantages were outweighed by the long-term benefits. However, the long-term advantages have predominantly favored white individuals. This is a hidden but integral part of the United States' complex and unsettling history, which cannot be disregarded. Hiding our history doesn’t ease racial strife, but learning about it can start to fix the problems of the past and the present. I only wish Florida lawmakers had the ability to learn from history instead of always trying to hide it.
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