Casting a vote in our country’s free and democratic elections is a hard-won American right and privilege. It may be our most important civic duty. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that in part made it illegal to “intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.” Though it was meant to enforce the 15th amendment which had been ratified nearly 100 years earlier, the act was met with resistance from some members of the public.
Voting rights activists, both black and white, suffered attacks by resistant private citizens and uniformed police officers. In parts of the South, white landowners evicted African American tenant farmers and sharecroppers who voted, registered to vote, or otherwise engaged in voting rights activities like marching, attending mass meetings, and canvasing.
Such was the case in Lowndes County, Alabama, where John Hulett, president of the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) estimated, by New Year’s Eve 1966 as many as 50 families had been ordered to leave their homes.
Federal court rulings cited a lack of evidence that sharecroppers were intimidated or that they had been evicted specifically for voting activities. The increasing availability of mechanical farming equipment, for example, was sometimes suggested as justification for evictions.
In December 1965, LCCMHR purchased six acres of land along Highway 80 in White Hall, Alabama, and inspired by a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) proposal established a tent city on the site to accommodate sharecroppers and others evicted for voting activities. Located along what is today the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail at the NPS Lowndes County Interpretive Center, the tent city came to be called Freedom City. Army surplus tents, cots, and stove heaters were purchased in Atlanta by SNCC; student volunteers from Tuskegee Institute, and local volunteers and leaders of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an inspiration for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, helped set up accommodations.
In some cases individuals brought their own furniture, clothing, and other portable belongings with them. Church collections and donations of food, money, and materials were the primary sustenance for the camp. A Detroit branch of the LCCMHR was particularly effective in soliciting nonperishable food and money for the camp in February and March 1966.
Though a functional and symbolic expression of black suffrage and solidarity, the accommodations were sparse. There was no running water or plumbing. Very few of the tents had wood floors. Personal accounts report that some cooking was done in the center of the camp over open flames; others cooked on stoves within their tents. “Each tent had two beds, a fire of some sort, and a gun.” Residents were regularly harassed by gun fire and armed themselves for protection. SNCC, LCCMHR, and LCFO helped to find residents new jobs and permanent housing.
Freedom City in Lowndes County was maintained until December 1967. Other tent cities were established in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee to house evicted tenants, and others were set up in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta to protest evictions and as a show of solidarity with tenants.
Click the image below to learn about a tent city in Fayetteville, Tennessee through the University of Memphis.
Are you interested in learning about American life in the 1960s through archeology?
An engaging interpretive exhibit about Freedom City can be experienced at the NPS Lowndes County Interpretive Center. But, no archeological investigations have taken place at the Freedom City site. There may be archeological deposits that can be identified through geophysical survey with ground penetrating radar, magnetomentry, or a soil resistivity meter.
Does archeology have anything meaningful to teach us about our recent history? What do you think? Leave a comment below!
Check out Denver University’s archeological investigations at the Ludlow Tent Colony Site, a tent city established in 1913-1914 to house striking coal miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado. The site was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2009.