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“Lost In Transition,” The Story of Uprooted Families In Appalachia

Imagine being told the government needed your land and you had a few weeks or months to gather  your belongings and move. Your home, the only home you’ve ever known, was going to be demolished, and you weren’t sure if you would be given enough compensation to start over somewhere else. It’s for the greater good, they said.

What about your family? Where are you going to go?

Aaron D. Purcell, director of Special Collections and University Archives at VA Tech, wanted to explore this history and share the untold stories of 20th century Appalachian families who faced this situation. He describes these stories in his newly edited book, “Lost in Transition,” published by the University of Tennessee Press. The book  explains why people are so connected to their Appalachian roots, the importance of memory and oral history in retelling the stories, and what was lost or gained because of the removals.

People in rural communities of Appalachia experienced this turmoil and heartache in the 20th century when uprooted by the federal government to make way for multi-use public spaces such as national parks and recreation areas. In Purcell’s book, he describes seven case studies of public land acquisition and removal of families and communities in Virginia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and Tennessee from the 1930s through the 1960s. Some of the removals include the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Norris Basin, Shenandoah National Park and the New River, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Keowee-Toxaway Project in northwestern South Carolina.

Each essay in the book asks key questions: How did governmental entities throughout the 20th century deal with land acquisition and removal of families and communities? What do the oral histories of the families and communities, particularly from different generations, tell us about the legacies of these removals?

Purcell reveals confrontations between past and present and federal agencies and citizens. He also brings to light the original accounts of removal and resettlement of these families as well as contemporary interpretations.

“The result is a blending of practical historical concerns with contemporary nostalgia and romanticism, which often deepen the complexity of Appalachian cultural life,” said Purcell.

In the mid-1990s, Purcell began research into the history of the TVA. This project  gained momentum over the past five years after hearing Katrina Powell, professor of rhetoric and writing in the Department of English and  founding director of the Center for Refugee Migrant and Displacement Studies, speak at a faculty author’s event on removals in Shenandoah.

After her talk, Purcell and Powell discussed Powell’s research and the many similarities to the TVA projects and removals that Purcell studied. A few years later, both were appointed to the Council on Virginia Tech History, where Purcell mentioned to Powell that they should write a book together. Powell was intrigued and agreed to write a chapter in the book and also recruited graduate student, Savannah Paige Murray, to write about a proposed project along the New River that would have displaced a number of rural communities. “It was a great collaboration,” said Purcell.

“Dr. Purcell’s new book is really important in highlighting the ways that movement, mobility, displacement, and resettlement remain critical issues in Appalachia,” said Powell. “Our chapter in the book highlights the intersecting and overlapping issues in eminent domain law and highlights the variety of ways that communities respond to displacement. We’re very excited to be included in this important collection, and we appreciate Dr. Purcell’s commitment to bring together interdisciplinary approaches to understanding Appalachia.”

In addition to working with Powell, Purcell also was able to secure experts on the removals to tell a larger story about displacement and loss, which sets his book apart from others. Purcell’s work at the University Libraries also influenced this project as the history of the Appalachian South is one of the core collecting areas of University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives housed in Newman Library.

“My early research on this project proved that existing information on the region’s 20th century history was lacking, especially from the perspective of those people removed in Appalachia and what was lost in the process,” said Purcell.

Displacement and community formation are key topics in Appalachian history. “I’ve met descendants from families who were removed by projects described in the book,” said Purcell. “Even though the removals happened before they were born, the narrative of displacement and cultural loss is often very raw and personal for them. Often, descendants of the displaced celebrate a past that they never knew and sometimes a past that never was.”

Removed families were not always upset about leaving their homes. “Life in many of the removal zones was difficult,” said Purcell, “and in fact a lot of families were happy to leave because they realized that moving created more opportunities for the following generations.”

One of the book chapters touches on the history of Loyston, a vanished town in the Norris Dam basin that is now under water. Purcell spent many hours looking at several hundred case files created by TVA in the 1930s. “Our society often has a romantic view of the past, but the removal stories that I have read make it clear that our ancestors had tough choices to make and lived through ridiculously difficult times. I’m still grappling with how families facing removal were able to accept and recover from the loss of their land and homes. Many reached the conclusion that relocating was better for them and contributed to the greater good while others were less enthusiastic about leaving.” (Editor’s Note: “Less enthusiastic” seems likely to be a significant understatement for many.)

Appalachian removals in the 20th century are not limited to the case studies in this book. “There are plenty of other nearby examples of private property being redesigned for a public purpose, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway,” said Purcell. “Each chapter tells the story of removal, but the context and outcomes vary.”

For example, Decoration Day on the North Shore, a phenomenon where in the 1970s and into the 1990s descendants of families removed on the North Shore of Fontana Dam in western North Carolina returned to decorate the graves of their families. But because the government never built a promised road to the area, they had to take boats to get there. For many who participated, communing with the dead, visiting a homeplace most of them had never known, and confronting the past coincided with their growing distrust for the federal government. “That removal story took on religious and political elements, which is not something I had studied before,” said Purcell.

Although there are monographs about most of the projects mentioned in the book, very few of them look at the theme of loss and change from the perspective of those displaced. “Looking at the selected projects side-by-side is a different approach that reveals plenty of similarities and contradictions in the removal stories,” said Purcell. “Plus, the outcomes of the removals, such as national parks, have defined our modern thinking about Appalachia.”

– Ann Brown

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