- Transforming the South: Federal Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1915–1960 by Matthew L. Downs
Exploring the various positive and negative changes wrought by the federal government in cooperation with local communities, this chronological work provides a fascinating look at the history of the Tennessee Valley. Author Matthew L. Downs, Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Mobile, argues, “The history of the modernization of the Tennessee Valley perfectly captures the rise of the Sunbelt—the emergence of an industrial and commercial economy, marked by active cooperation (and contestation) between local, regional, and federal developers and accompanied by major changes in the everyday lives of southerners” (p. 3). In fact, Downs insists that the Tennessee Valley’s transformation actually outshone the South as a whole. Using a sampling of cities like Muscle Shoals, Florence, Decatur, Guntersville, and Huntsville, he reveals how each municipality was altered under federal interest, but maintains such change could never have come without support from the local level. In his words, “In the Tennessee Valley and across the region, southerners modernized their own economy, and in doing so, played a crucial role in the creation of the Sunbelt” (p. 2).
In Chapter One Downs highlights how the mere interest Henry Ford exhibited toward Muscle Shoals, especially its dam and nitrate factories, attracted nationwide attention and resulted in a real estate smorgasbord. His bid brought competition from utility companies like Alabama Power, but most area residents, suspicious of trusts, [End Page 270] preferred Ford. They supported Ford largely because of his iconic stature and a belief that if anyone could industrialize the region, he could. Their advocacy of Ford showed that many were willing to abandon the status quo and take a chance on further industrial development. Ford ultimately withdrew his bid, but his vision of the potential of the Tennessee Valley spread.
Throughout Chapter Two Downs speaks of how in Ford’s absence, many locals reluctantly embraced the idea of Alabama Power because its presence would at least mean development. Ultimately, it was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), established in 1933, which combined regional economic and resource planning. The TVA provided employment, educational opportunities, rural electrification, conservation, and flood control, among other things. Its arrival came at a time of abject depression and was heartily welcomed by area residents.
The TVA, for all its benefits, also had its fair share of drawbacks which Downs is quick to point out in Chapter Three. Many people were displaced by the flooding of land and this led to mass unemployment (especially for tenants), out-migration, and homelessness. Dislocated families were forced to migrate, thus severing and even destroying long-established communities. Worse still, prized farming land was flooded. Downs addresses the extent to which the TVA aided the displaced. People were often compensated for land taken by eminent domain, but it was less than the land was worth. There was evident miscommunication between the TVA and Tennessee Valley residents over its purpose. Some talk arose over whether more aid should be given, but TVA officials believed that “by improving the regional economy, the authority might provide a kind of financial assistance to the displaced” (p. 83).
Downs uses Chapter Four to analyze the maturation of the TVA, especially its collaboration with local leaders. What President Franklin D. Roosevelt had envisioned for the TVA and what the program had become, however, were two entirely different things. Downs explores TVA’s faults, like a failure to consult all types of communities and an eagerness for any and all business regardless of whether it “cared [End Page 271] for the people and environment that drew them to the valley” (p. 140). Immense study is given to the TVA’s mishandling of racial issues. While the TVA hired blacks, these workers were subjected to workplace racism and discrimination. Black employees were paid less and rarely advanced. The TVA, for all its boasting of working hand-in...