United States

The Forgotten Evictions in the Name of National Parks

The fight to remember the poor communities destroyed in order to expand the US park system

by Tim Murphy

The most popular way to get to the Chalmette Battlefield is the booze cruise. Twice a day, a triple-decked paddle wheeler called the Creole Queen departs Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans, and a half hour and however many mixed drinks later, deposits 100 or so passengers about six miles downstream, at a flat, soggy field flanked by ports and petrochemical facilities. Welcome to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve; please dispose of your mimosas before disembarking. A horn will sound if you’re not back on board in an hour, but not to worry, because the ranger talk lasts only 18 minutes, and most visitors take in little more than that. You grab a seat in the shade and listen up. It was here in 1815, the good-natured guide tells you, gesturing to the empty field behind him, that Andrew Jackson’s army of French pirates, Choctaw warriors, free men of color, and frontiersmen thwarted Edward Pakenham’s British invasion. New Orleans was saved, the War of 1812 ended, and Jackson was on the road to becoming the seventh president of the United States. As you look out across the tall grass to the oil refinery flare beyond, you try to imagine what you’re really looking at. This was the sugarcane field. That was Jackson’s line. Here’s where Pakenham died. But you are also looking at something else, something that has nothing and everything to do with the existence of the park. It is Chalmette’s big secret. What the ranger never says, and your brochure hardly mentions, and the booze cruise doesn’t broach, is that for a long time, the field you are looking at wasn’t empty at all—it was Fazendeville.

• • •

In the late 1850s, Jean-Pierre Fazende, a free man of color working as a grocer in New Orleans, inherited a narrow strip of land along an irrigation ditch on an old sugar plantation outside of town. After the Civil War, Fazende subdivided his land and sold the small plots off to freedmen; soon, a small village coalesced along one side of a dirt road leading to the Mississippi River levee. Fazendeville numbered just 200 people at its peak, but for five generations, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, it acquired that force of magnetism called community—a place that people came from and returned to.

The community and battlefield coexisted. An obelisk stood about 100 yards west of the village, and residents sold pecans to tourists. Sometimes they dug up cannonballs. But over time, local boosters began to dream of a more expansive battlefield park, run by the National Park Service, with a big blank field like a canvas where tourists could reimagine the past. Fazendeville was small, black and in the way. Residents were faced with a choice: take a buyout, or get evicted. By the time of the battle’s sesquicentennial in 1965, there were only two houses left to raze.

These places are the product of human choices, at fixed moments in time, about whose stories matter. It’s up to us to figure out a better story to tell.

The story of Chalmette is unique in its particulars but familiar in its scope: displacement is foundational to the idea of national parks. The first parks in the West rose out of the forced evictions of Indigenous peoples. Yosemite’s natural wonders were first brought to the attention of speculators back east during the Mariposa War, when soldiers attacked Ahwahneechees and Chowchilla living in the valley to clear the Sierras for mining interests. Yellowstone was just five years old when the US Army drove the Nez Perce out of the caldera. One of the first things forest rangers did at what became Grand Canyon National Park was prohibit the Havasupai who lived in the canyon from hunting and gathering on the South Rim. Doing so, they warned, would be “trespassing.”

Elsewhere, the displacement of native peoples came at the hands of successive waves of mostly white settlers. But as the parks project ramped up, the ancestors of these homesteaders found themselves in the way, too. Beginning in the 1920s, more than 2,000 people—the majority of them subsistence farmers—were cleared out to make room for Virginia’s first national park. More than 600 families were forced out to make room for Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Nearly 6,000 people were displaced by the creation of Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1944, a West Texas woman wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to complain that her son’s land had been absorbed by the new Big Bend National Park while he was fighting Nazis overseas. “Why should all of those honest, patriotic ranchmen have to move or give up their business of production,” she asked, “while our boys are fighting?” The park had opened a week after D-Day.

These stories are an unsettling corrective to the gauzy narrative of conservation and preservation that’s doled out at big parks like handfuls of gorp. And admittedly, they’re a buzzkill: people do not want to think about eminent domain and racist bureaucrats while backpacking with their friends. But the story of displacement is a burr that sticks, because it gets at a dissonance that’s at the heart of the parks enterprise: In order to provide visitors with the kind of pristine space they came to expect, the park service and its allies had to create it. These places are the product of human choices, at fixed moments in time, about whose stories matter. It’s up to us to figure out a better story to tell.

• • •

One pleasant spring afternoon a few years back, I was hiking in Shenandoah National Park near the town of Sperryville, Virginia, when I came to a clearing in the woods—a few dozen tombstones, some old and some new, hemmed in by a stone wall under a ring of old maples. I was still a few miles from the trailhead and there were no other landmarks around, but the cast-iron gate offered a clue: “Bolen.” This was an old family plot. The hollow I’d been walking through had been somebody’s home.

When plans for the establishment of Shenandoah were set in motion, the only national park east of the Mississippi was tiny Acadia, in Maine, which was pieced together by donations from wealthy benefactors. The proposed new park, where a smitten Herbert Hoover had caught trout and found bliss, was occupied by farmers, not Rockefellers. If Shenandoah was to be the big, scenic “western park in the east” that promoters wanted, it would have to pursue a different course: the commonwealth of Virginia would have to acquire and clear thousands of individual tracts of land before the federal government would accept it. But many residents had lived there for generations, had adapted to the land and did not want to go.

There’s a quote from this time that I think about a lot. Hubert Work, the secretary of the interior, was at a resort near the proposed Skyline Drive, speaking to a group of boosters. “Here in the Blue Ridge of Virginia in the very heart of civilized America,” he said, “lies preserved for our use a bit of nature that is identical with the virgin territory found by Captain John Smith and his heroic followers.”

It’s a perfect quote, because it is such a transparent load of shit—wrong in equal measure about both Appalachia and Jamestown, and wrong in ways that the man overseeing public lands in the United States, even in 1925, couldn’t help but have known. But in hindsight, the words have the effect of dictum. Work had found his “virgin territory;” now, he just needed to clear it.

Three years later, Virginia passed a law condemning every home in a 160,000-acre area. Supporters argued that the mountains had made these people destitute and degenerate; forcing them out was the humanitarian thing to do. The eviction push came to a head in 1933, with the publication of a book called Hollow Folk based on research that had been done by an employee of one of the park’s biggest promoters. The authors described a community known as Colvin Hollow. It was a community “without contact with law or government,” populated by people “not of the twentieth century,” with “no community government, no organized religion, little social organization wider than that of the family and clan, and only traces of organized industry.”

Corbin Hollow (the locale’s real name) was not doing great—in 1933, few places were. But it wasn’t the nightmare it was presented as, either. Residents were in regular contact with other communities. They had modern consumer goods. Many of them even had jobs at the resort where Work presented his vision. And it was only one particular patch of a vast swath of land that was home to a socially and economically diverse range of people.

Hollow Folk served its purpose, though. Washington declined to stop the evictions, and the park opened the day after Christmas in 1935. “Blue Ridge Hillbillies Get a Transfer—From 19th to 20th Century,” a Washington Post front page that year cheerfully announced. They would move from “lowly shacks” to “model homes.” Above the fold was a photo of a stern-looking woman, a stand-in for the hollow folks who lucked into this special new life. But the eugenicist overtones of the propaganda campaign were more than just overtones. Sifting through old records decades later, the documentarian Richard Robinson found something startling: a letter from a local doctor involved in an early stage of the Hollow Folks project to the director of the National Park Service, about “colonizing” residents of Corbin Hollow. It was a reference to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, where at least 11 residents of Corbin Hollow would eventually be sent to be sterilized. The woman in that Post story? According to Robinson’s research, her daughter had been institutionalized two days earlier.

Work could uproot—but not erase—the park’s communities. As part of the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps came through and cleared out Shendoah’s human habitations, but it missed a house on Old Rag mountain and other signs here and there. Some things they couldn’t move and let be—family cemeteries, old roads, stone chimneys scattered in the woods. Shenandoah is a human landscape; it always has been. What do you do with a story like that?

The upshot of this sordid history is that Shenandoah is honest about what built it in a way that few places in the United States actually are. Drop by the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitors Center at Big Meadows and you’ll find a permanent exhibit on the displacement, where the residents of places like Corbin Hollow are protagonists, not scenery. There is an exhibit on Hollow Folk, and the tropes it propagated, and a door with an eviction notice slipped inside. Here the story is less about John Muir than about Melanchton Cliser, one of the park’s last holdouts, who chose to be hauled away in handcuffs rather than give up the gas station and diner he owned along the future Skyline Drive. You can read Cliser’s letter to Hoover. You can even pose for photos next to a life-size cutout of the man, overalls and all.

• • •

The Shenandoah evictions were national news. The photo of two men dragging Cliser away—his wife Carrie sitting on the porch, arms folded—was splashed across newspapers from New York to Spokane. Efforts to commemorate what happened benefited from an organized lobbying effort by a large group of descendants and from the whiteness of the characters involved. There are monuments to the displacement in three different counties.

The closest thing Fazendeville has to a visitor center of its own is Peter Pierre’s living room. Pierre, a 77-year-old retired security guard, lives in the town of Meraux, a few miles up the road in St. Bernard Parish. When I visited him at his apartment, he’d emptied envelopes of old documents and newspaper clippings across his kitchen table. A poster of the town hung over the television; pointing, he told me he lived in the second house from the left.

Pierre dates his family’s time in Fazendeville back to at least the 1880 census, when his great-grandfather, Henry Clay Cager, a farmer from Virginia, showed up on the rolls with his wife, Marguerite. His mother was a housekeeper and his father worked construction. As he shuffled through obituaries and old paperwork, it seemed as if he were related to half the town.

Pierre was in the Army when his childhood home was razed, but his memories of the place were fresh. Growing up in a house in an alley off the town’s one long street, he and his six siblings treated the battlefield like their playground, hunting rabbits on the levee and playing in the derelict mansion near a cluster of old oak trees. On weekends, bars swelled with men and women from surrounding African-American communities.

“That place used to pop, man!” he said. “Fats Domino used to play in there, back before he got real famous.”

Sometimes, it seems as if the planners of the past were given Sharpies, and the park service of today is holding pencils; you can try to write a new story, but you can’t undo what was done.

I looked it up; it’s true. After we’d talked a while, he offered to take me on a tour of what was left of Fazendeville, and we set off in his Nissan. A few miles down the road, in the middle of a mostly white residential neighborhood, we came to the town’s cemetery, a mix of above-ground vaults in the Louisiana style and small, fading markers that predated Fazendeville itself. His parents, Eugene and Frances Pierre, were buried by the front gate, near a smattering of uncles and cousins, neighbors and ancestors.

We crossed into the city limits and entered the Lower Ninth Ward. Because of the segregation in St. Bernard Parish in the 1960s, there weren’t a lot of places for Fazendeville residents to go. A new subdivision called Buccaneer Village—named for the French pirates who fought with Jackson—was opening just up the street, but only whites could live there. So most of the families moved to the closest place where African-Americans could buy homes in large numbers: in the low-lying areabelow the industrial canal. And they brought their traditions with them.

On Flood Street, we parked in front of a modest brick building with an angular roof and got out to look. It was surrounded by empty lots, but the grass inside the chain-link fence was freshly cut and flowers lined the perimeter. Pierre had stopped attending after he joined the Army, but he pointed to the names on the white cornerstone and placed them in his family tree. A sign on the awning identified it as Battle Ground Baptist Church. It opened in 1965 and survived Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina. You can move a place, but you can never really erase where it came from.

• • •

Pierre once told a friend that if he ever won the lottery, he’d bring back Fazendeville. But really what he wants is recognition. Residents moved on with their lives, for better and for worse, yet it’s the blank spot on the map that irks them. “If they had some kind of memorial plaque or something,” he said, thinking it through. “They got a little thing out there, but nobody ever said that it was wrong to do it! It’s just empty space there now.”

Changing a national park is a fickle process, beholden to staffing shortages and funding gaps and bureaucratic slow-walking. The homesteads of Mammoth Cave were destroyed almost overnight; now, it takes 10 years to shoot a deer. Sometimes, it seems as if the planners of the past were given Sharpies, and the park service of today is holding pencils; you can try to write a new story, but you can’t undo what was done.

Over the last two decades, in fits and spurts, there has been a slow movement both inside and outside the park service to try to reclaim some of what was lost at Chalmette. In the early 2000s, the National Park Service hired an anthropologist at Louisiana State University to interview former residents for an oral history project, focused largely on the history of Battle Ground Baptist, and in 2008 installed a painting of the town on a new wayside, where the the old Fazendeville Road used to be. (It’s the same image that hangs in Pierre’s apartment.)

When Alyssa Arnell started working at the park in 2015, she was only vaguely aware of the history of the area, but after studying up, she took her history class at Dillard University to visit Chalmette. “Some of them cried,” she recalled of that first visit. She decided to host a series of dialogues at the visitor center with members of the community, to try to get a sense of what the park service could do to repair what it had broken.

“What we were told is they wanted to be welcomed back,” she said.

Because Fazendeville residents hadn’t just been evicted. They’d been ignored. For a long time afterward, the church had been allowed access to the grounds on Sunday mornings to perform baptisms. Eventually, though, that access was rescinded. Their pecan trees were chopped down, and they were left out of the official remembrances.

“It was one thing after another,” Arnell said. “The removal of their place and their physical memories on that property. And that was something that had to be reckoned with.”

The meetings culminated in 2017 on Fazendeville Day, a daylong festival at the battlefield where old families reunited and shared stories. Arnell left the park not long after (she’s working on a dissertation on the community’s history), but another project she’d help get off the ground kept going.

The park reached out to a few area universities to see what kind of collaborative work might be done. In the park archives, rangers found hundreds of old photos of the town taken by National Guard surveyors in the 1960s. They’d been part of a project to set school-district lines, but the park service had found another use for them—to prove that the community it wanted to move was, in fact, blighted. It would help make the legal case for eminent domain.

“They didn’t want photographs from the front of the street because they actually looked like the houses were well kept, whereas from the back, you got like old sheds that weren’t kept up and things like that,” said John Seefeldt, an interactive media professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. “So they took photos from the back of most of the buildings, and aerial photographs, and then wide shots of the whole town.”

Seefeldt hit upon an idea of using those photographs to print a 3D model of the town, something tangible that could be brought to classrooms around the city. For now, it’s in storage at the park’s French Quarter offices, but I was able to get a peek. The houses are small, like Monopoly pieces, and the display, which folds to fit into a carrying case, is no more than a few feet from one end to the other. But there was something quietly radical about it. Like the authors of Hollow Folk, the park had once used selective editing to tell the story it wanted, to argue that the community’s true value lay only in its destruction. Now, those photographs were being used to piece it back together.

• • •

One of the only structures from Pierre’s youth that’s still standing is the two-story mansion he and his friends used to think was haunted. It’s the first thing you see when exiting the boat, and the first thing you learn is that it had nothing to do with the Battle of New Orleans. The Malus-Beauregard house, it turns out, was built seven years after the war as a summer house for people you haven’t heard of. But one of them was a Beauregard, kin to the Confederate general, and it does have a Creole grandeur about it—colonnades, light salmon wash—that screams antebellum wealth. So, in 1965, as the residents of Fazendeville were restarting their lives because their non-period houses did not match the ambience of the park, the National Park Service paid $247,000 (more than it spent to buy out Fazendeville) to renovate a non-period building directly in the line of fire on Jackson’s right flank.

Professional caretakers of public memory have long treated plantations as places that matter, but in a very particular way: they’re pretty and rich and old, and the kinds of visitors they’re trying to appeal to would rather think about those things than, well, other things. (A recent Washington Post story about teaching slavery on plantation tours included an anecdote about a woman who was upset that her Monticello garden tour was being disturbed: “You should be talking about the plants,” she said.) Malus-Beauregard looks like a plantation house, and so, even though it is irrelevant to the story that Chalmette bulldozed a community to tell, its image is splashed across many of the things the park sells—magnets, bookmarks, T-shirts, hats.

It is easy to pick on the park’s early boosters, not least because they deserve it. But the truth is there are a lot of Fazendevilles out there. There’s probably one near you. The story of Fazendeville is a story every bit as essential to the American experience as the ignominious defeat of Packenham, because it’s a constant across generations. It is the story of displacement and erasure, and the factors of race and class and power that nudge it along.

Fazendeville wasn’t in the way; it’s where the story of the Battle of New Orleans kept going if you didn’t shut the book. It’s the story of freedmen building new lives and institutions for themselves after Reconstruction—a revolutionary epoch of American history so ignored for so long that it didn’t have its own dedicated NPS unit until 2017. It’s the story of the Choctaw, betrayed by the man they’d help make famous, and by the country they’d helped to save. The park is a shrine to Andrew Jackson. But what’s Andrew Jackson without that?

Chalmette is a relic of a broken way of thinking that held that the best way to tell history is to isolate it from everything else and focus on tactics and strategy, rather than the arcs of people and places. Stripping the battle from everything else that happened on that field renders the land itself irrelevant. You might as well have staged it on a Paramount lot. Sometimes, the mind doesn’t want an empty canvas, it wants a big jumble to make sense of itself; it wants the old in with the new, an ongoing evolution and conversation between centuries.

Work’s quote about Shenandoah sticks with you. The great lie was that there was ever such a thing as a virgin forest, that there was ever a history that wasn’t alive.

• • •

As I was standing by the edge of the field one day in August, trying to place the village in my head, an older ranger cut the engine on his four-wheeler and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he volunteered something surprising: in the dry months, when he cuts the grass, he comes across little ruts in the ground where the houses might have been. If I wanted, I could walk out there, he said. But watch out for snakes.

The next morning, equipped with an old map of deed holders I’d found in the park’s archives, I set off on foot, tracing the names as I went. Sebastian Smith’s house was a swamp and Moses Ruffin’s was on the park road, but it wasn’t hard to pick up the trail. Once I knew where to look, it suddenly seemed so clear—the whole field parted, tall grass on one side, a tangle of weeds and wildflowers on the other. The road, with ditches on either side, would have run right up that seam.

It was like walking into a bog; water rose up to my ankles as I high-stepped through the sedge, past Rose Payton’s house, and Louis Munster’s house, and on to a row of familiar names. There was Oscar Cager (Peter’s kin), and William Gant, the pastor. Up the street lived the schoolteacher (Peter’s aunt). Sweating under the late-morning sun, brushing buttercups aside, I reached the church and kept heading north, past the K-3 school and finally, drawing even with the monument, arrived at plot 16. Or close enough, anyway. Dorothy Stewart, my map told me. Somewhere behind me, in an old bar, lived the Pierres.

The morning tour had been canceled and the battlefield was quiet save for the chirping of the cricket frogs. The cranes of the port towered over the monument. I looked out across the tall grass and tried, for a moment, see what wasn’t there. Then I put the map in my pocket and walked back, down Fazendeville Road.

CONTRIBUTOR

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, based in New York. He has visited 36 national parks.

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