Power Struggles

by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04 and Katharine Reece MFA '12

From 1941 to 1955, economics and sociology faculty took students on four field trips to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Though the trips’ main purpose was to learn about the hydroelectric dams and economic development programs in the area, they also offered a firsthand education on race relations in the rural South.

In 1951, things got complicated: two of the 23 students who signed up for the trip were black, and all the hotels and restaurants in the South were segregated. The participants were adamant that the group should not split up, and administrators scrambled to find a way to conduct the trip without bowing to Jim Crow.

The College proposed three possible solutions, one of which controversially suggested that the black students pretend to be foreign-exchange students from Nigeria. Ultimately the organizers arranged for students to stay together in a motor court that had an accommodating owner; they all ate boxed lunches rather than deal with segregated restaurants.

Martie Branche ’53, one of the black students, later commented, “I imagine that one of the most important impressions that the TVA trip made on me was that we could take the trip under our own terms and not have to bow to any disagreeable customs. It is remarkable that an interracial group could go into the South without incurring any unpleasant circumstances.”