The Tennessee Valley Authority vs. the Family That Just Wouldn't Leave

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Sept. 5 2013 12:30 PM

The Tennessee Valley Authority vs. the Family That Just Wouldn't Leave

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

These notes were written by a Tennessee Valley Authority caseworker struggling to persuade a family to sell their farm, scheduled to be submerged in 1936 when the TVA finished its first major project, Norris Dam.

Under the rules of eminent domain, written into the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the TVA had the power to require families to abandon their homes. For the Norris Dam project to move forward, 3,000 families had to relocate. The Randolphs, whose struggle to stay is chronicled in these notes, were the only landowners who refused. The family of eight waited to leave until (as this newspaper report [PDF] describes) the waters rose, and they were evicted by force.

The case file shows the exasperation of the TVA personnel at having to deal with the Randolphs’ intransigence. The caseworker didn’t mince words in identifying what the TVA saw as the ultimate problem in the home: Mattie Randolph, the mother, who was “a bad housekeeper,” “a small, stocky, fiery … woman” who was “evidently the dominating member of the family.” The husband, Jim, had “little to say on any family problem,” and it was useless for the TVA to appeal to his better judgment.

The notes reveal a gap between the TVA’s understanding of what it meant to have a “good life” and the Randolphs’ own wishes. “The six children seemed happy, but why or how is the question,” the caseworker notes.

[The Randolphs] have very limited experiences, do not want a better place to live, or electric lights, or a bath room, or any other high-falutin thing. Their real needs are great, but their desires have been thwarted.

In a 2010 article in the Cleveland, Tenn., newspaper, Charlie Randolph, who was 9 at the time of the eviction, was still bitter over the experience. Randolph remembered picking corn by boat as the water slowly submerged the family’s fields. After they were forced to leave, he remembered, they lived in a tent for about half a year before finally buying another farm on higher ground.

The Randolphs’ case was the partial inspiration for the 1960 Elia Kazan–directed film Wild River, starring Montgomery Clift as a TVA agent who must persuade a matriarch to leave her land. 

Randolph Notes 1

"Notes Relating to the Relocation of the Randolph Family," Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1935. National Archives.

RandolphFamily2Final

"Notes Relating to the Relocation of the Randolph Family," Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1935. National Archives.

RandolphFamily3Final

"Notes Relating to the Relocation of the Randolph Family," Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1935. National Archives.