Reservoir Noir: Black Placemaking, New Deal Infrastructure, and Social Swampification

Authors: Morgan P. Vickers*, University of California, Berkeley
Topics: Cultural Geography, United States, Human Rights
Keywords: swamplands, New Deal, infrastructure, development, Blackness, Black Geographies, American South
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 10
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In 1938, New Deal laborers cleared 190,000 acres of land in South Carolina to establish the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric Project. To execute the project, the South Carolina Public Service Authority acquired 1,326 tracts of land and displaced hundreds of Black families from their homes and communities — the majority of them living on lands occupied and cultivated by their families for generations. The New Dealers who built the dams socially and materially manipulated the environment to pursue their aspirations for development, continuing in the American pursuit of “progress” by destroying and reinventing the landscape for financial benefit. In 1906, Swedish forestry scholar J.O. Zellén expressed fears over swampification (försumpning) — the material destruction of forests as a result of anthropogenic land practices. In the case of the Santee Cooper Project, I argue that state and federal officials participated in a process of social swampification, whereby they facilitated the social (re)invention of swamplands as a space of death, disease, and what Sylvia Wynter calls “uninhabitability,” in order to justify the destruction of such landscapes and the suppression of Black life. Throughout Carolina history, Black community members sought to mitigate state-sanctioned swampification through resistance efforts such as community-building, maroonage, and survival in the region. This research analyzes the intentional drowning of swamplands, Black-owned farms, and maroon communities in the Santee Cooper Project to demonstrate how landscape (re)definition and eradication, and, more crucially, Black dispossession are inherent to American notions of development and progress.

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