In the late 1950s into the 1960s the racial tension in the South was tremendous. African Americans were encouraged not to participate in voting during that time, although the United States Supreme Court had already ruled against denying citizens to vote. One such place in the South that adhered to this, turning away of the "Negro's ability to vote" was Fayette County, Tennessee.
Despite the fact that African Americans represented roughly 70% of Fayette County, Tennessee's population in 1960, before 1959 fewer than a dozen had voted. Seeing this was the case a number of African Americans banned together to form the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League, Inc (FCCWL). After several lawsuits centered around the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a Federal judge, in April 1960, declared an end to all-white elections on Fayette County and neighboring Haywood County.
While these lawsuits were occurring, many African Americans In Fayette County had registered to vote. But there was much resistance presented when arriving to register. In May 1960, as a result of struggle in Fayette County and across the nation, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which put in place formal penalties for obstructing any citizen's right to vote.
As time went on in 1960 there were over 1000 African Americans registered to vote in Fayette County. During that time a list was generated which contained the names of the African Americans who were registered to vote and their non-African American allies. This was a "black-list" so to speak because anyone on this list had trouble or were denied from buying gasoline, food or obtaining bank loans. Some of the people on the list had their insurance policies cancelled or were fired from their jobs. These actions made it difficult on the sharecroppers who depended on the local businesses to sustain their business. The most disheartening thing, if the above was enough, many of the people that were on that "black-list" who lived on the land owned by those who were adverse to the list, were evicted, simply for being on the list.
Many African Americans had no place to stay. A local sharecropper named William Sheperd Towles Sr. (my grandfather) offered his farm for temporary housing. That land became known as Tent City, as many tents were erected to house as many of those people who were evicted as the land could hold. Tents, food and other supplies were donated by anonymous merchants and individuals. National organizations like the NAACP, Teamsters, AFL-CIO, Quakers, the National Baptist Convention and the Southern Conference Education Fund also donated as much as they could to sustain the residents of Tent City. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy mandated the Federal government to provide necessary supplies to the residents of Tent City.
Because of the tumultuous nature and the racial climate, many African Americans called Tent City their home for about two and half years. A total of 345 families were displaced. My grandfather's land could not house all of those, so another land owner, Gertrude Beasley offered her land to house those who were displaced.
My grandfather was invited to speak in several cities around the country to describe what was transpiring in the area. Amidst multiple death threats on his life and the lives of Tent City residents from local and regional individuals who were adverse to his intervention of those who were displaced, Mr. Towles sent representatives to speak on his behalf.
Within the two and a half years that Tent City had functioned there were shootings to scare the residents. There were attempts by those adverse to the concept of Tent City to burn the place to the ground. Through adverse times stood a people who were strong and determined. Though racial lines were drawn there were a number of non-African Americans that chipped in to help the cause, as mentioned earlier, some anonymous and some not.
With February being Black History month, I honor my grandfather William Shepherd Towles Sr. for making a difference. Indeed a difference can be made by one person making one decision - the right decision despite being placed in harm's way!