Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Hannah Conway is an assistant professor of history at Duke University. Their research focuses on infrastructural degradation and environmental justice in the Deep South and Appalachia, and their recent writing about the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and rural resistance appears in “Y'all Means All: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia.”

Enjoy our conversation about Appalachia’s enforced modernization, the polluting infrastructures of the Mississippi Delta, and the layered history of rural American dispossession, below.

An oil platform in the Atchafalaya Basin. (Photos from Hannah Conway)

Olivia Weeks, Deesmealz: Can you start with some personal background information? I’d love to hear a little about where you grew up, and then about how your interests in both photography and historical writing developed.

Hannah Conway: I grew up in Boones Mill, Virginia which is about 30 minutes outside of Roanoke. My Mom has worked as a k-12, special education, and pre-k teacher and speech therapist in the Franklin County Public school system for over 35 years and my dad is a contractor and architect who has run his own small homebuilding business in the county since 1986. I’m an only child, and the house I grew up in was in a small spread-out neighborhood in a really rural area – I spent a lot of time running around by myself in the woods behind our house. When I wasn’t doing that (and probably sometimes while I was doing that) I had my head in a book. I don’t remember any part of my life where I wasn’t in love with reading. My interests in writing just kind of grew naturally out of a love of reading for me – I wrote all kinds of short stories and poems growing up and I “published” a short-lived neighborhood newsletter for the like 6 houses on our dirt road. I’ve always had a pretty elaborate inner world going on in my head and as a kid I think reading and writing was a conduit for channeling that.

Most of what I read growing up wasn’t historical, although I always had a tangential interest in history. I think because a lot of history classes in the k-12 level are about reading, reading comprehension, and writing, I mostly enjoyed history because it was easy for me, and I did well in those classes. I guess around middle school they started assigning us papers to write in history classes and the process of researching and telling stories about what I had found just flowed for me – I found it really exciting. I’m pretty sure I turned in something like a 20-page paper (I can guarantee we absolutely were not supposed to write that much) to my poor seventh grade history teacher about Jack the Ripper, complete with crime scene photos. I’m not sure if she’s still around but if she is I’m sorry – that was excessive.

Loving reading probably came from my mom and her work as a teacher. My grandparents on her side as well were always big readers and they really encouraged that in the grandkid generation (three of the five of us have subsequently gone into some kind of education field.) Art and photography come from my pops and his mom. My dad is a phenomenal painter and drawer – he still does all his blueprints by hand – and he always took photographs as a hobby. My grandmother loved to travel and when she would come and visit, she would show us her photos and videos from her trips. When I was in high school dad gave me his old 1974 Nikkormat. This was in the early 2000s so digital photography was starting to be more popular, but I lugged that heavy camera everywhere. I loved it. Once I got my license, I would just drive around the county taking photos. In high school I got looped into drama club and did technical theater for all four years. I took some filmmaking classes out at Mill Mountain in Roanoke too, and when I was thinking about college, I was interested in either theater or film as my major. When I got to Appalachian State I didn’t love the theater department, but I knew some folks over in the photography program and switched into that.

My problem with art was that I don’t have a lot of patience for stuff I’m not immediately good at. I always kind of had it in my head that you were either good at art or you weren’t – but that’s of course not true. Every good artist has to work at it. But I was just a pretty mediocre photographer in college, and I wasn’t interested in putting in the effort to improve. I had really grand ambitions when I was 18 and started in that program that I would get this photography degree and go out into the world and be a big-shot documentary photographer. But by the time I graduated I had a dog I didn’t want to leave all the time and I wasn’t exactly in the tax bracket for extensive international travel to build up a photography portfolio. I was also pretty discouraged with my art practice by then. So, I moved to the beach to wait tables and tend bar for a few years. While I was at AppState I had taken a history of science class and really loved it. We read Steve Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, which opens with the line “there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it.” I don’t really know why but that blew my little twenty-year-old mind. I loved that class – but I didn’t understand what being a historian looked like as a career, so I didn’t even think about switching my major or pursuing that further. After a few years of digesting what I wanted to do with my life though I decided I wanted to try and get a master’s degree and remembered how much I had enjoyed the history of science. I went over to the College of Charleston and met with Dr. Jason Coy in the history department and enrolled in the classes I needed to get into the MA. The program and the people there are great and when I was headed into my thesis year my advisors and mentors encouraged me to apply to PhDs. Working with the incredible faculty there was what really changed the game for me and made me decide this was something I could see myself building a career out of.

Hannah Conway, Assistant Professor of History. (Photo by John West, Trinity Communications)

DY: You’ve written about your own ambivalence around claiming an Appalachian identity as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation – can you describe those feelings a bit?

HC: Franklin County is like a lot of small-town Appalachia: many of the families that are there have been there for a long time. My parent’s both grew up in Florida though and moved up to that area for grad school – dad at Tech and mom at Radford. Dad found a good niche building homes on Smith Mountain Lake, which at that point had only been around for 20 years or so and was pretty rapidly developing, and they loved the area, so they stayed. But growing up I didn’t feel like we were as connected to the county as a lot of my friends were and none of my other family lived there. We also didn’t go to church. I know that seems like a pretty inconsequential thing but I’m sure other folks from the rural South will understand that kind of immediately ostracizes you a little bit. I think I was in kindergarten the first time some kid asked me if we worshiped the devil because we didn’t go to church. Sundays at our house were for mowing the grass and watching NASCAR. I do have a “raise hell praise Dale” sticker on my truck now though so – maybe? I think growing up I would have struggled to feel like I fit in anywhere – I was kind of a weird kid – but those two things always made me feel different.

I didn’t grow up super connected to the Cherokee Nation either. My Grandma was the last of our family to live in Oklahoma, and she had only been there when she was young – she was mostly raised in Memphis. Her mom was enrolled but I guess hadn’t gotten Grandma enrolled since they were only in Muskogee for a little while after she was born, and my great-grandfather wasn’t Cherokee. At some point when I was a kid, she decided she wanted to get her, dad, and I re-enrolled – I think after she had traveled back to Oklahoma to visit our Adair family’s graves and do some research on our family’s land allotment. I remember when she brought us our blue cards and Cherokee Nation t-shirts – but we didn’t do much meaningful reconnecting beyond that. Grandma loved Native art though, particularly from the Southwest. She had a beautiful collection of paintings, pottery, crafts, and jewelry from predominantly Hopi, Zuni, and Diné artists that I’m very honored to now be the caretaker for. We went to the Gathering of Nations when I was in high school and visited Acoma – but never went to any events in Tahlequah. A few years ago, I started trying to do more meaningful reconnecting work – taking classes with the Cherokee Nation language program and getting involved with the Cherokee Scholars group. Grandma was really excited about that, but our relationship was difficult by then for a number of reasons and I think she was intimidated by the idea of trying to learn the language even though she was really interested in it. I wish I had gotten us involved in those kinds of things while she was still able to have the energy for it. She passed on in March.

I guess to make a long answer short I really didn’t grow up feeling like I fit in with either of these identities and now I feel like the two are at odds with each other a little. There’s a real tendency towards self-Indigenization in Appalachian culture that is troublesome – it’s hard to hear folks talk about their families being there for generations and not think about how that lineage is wholly at the expense of Southeastern Natives, that the reason I grew up so disconnected from my Cherokee culture was because of that dispossession and the cultural fracturing and forgetting that resulted from it. But there is also a lot of very genuine love for the land in Appalachia and working-class Appalachian communities have been systematically exploited and under-resourced for generations. That trauma is very real too. I have a lot of respect for folks that recognize we all deserve better than this, and I think a lot in my work about how to reconcile those things into something that looks like meaningful solidarity between Appalachian settlers and Southeastern Native peoples whose ancestral land is here.

DY: I was really interested in your writing on the distinction between poverty and subsistence in mid-20th century Appalachia. As you put it, images of deprivation in the region could also be seen as “portraits of lifeways removed from commodity and industrial capitalism.” At the same time, you caution against romanticizing the geographic inequality of technological development. How do you think the Appalachian people depicted by this “poverty porn” saw that inequality? Does your research show that the residents of towns flooded out by the TVA, for instance, made the same distinction you do?

HC: I’m not sure I can specifically answer how Appalachian people in the past viewed their economic positions – there are probably a lot of folks whose elders can tell those stories better or scholars who have worked more closely on those things than I have. I think the way I’d rearticulate it is like this: when the TVA came to Appalachia it didn’t just tell people, “hey, we want to bring you this new technology because we think you deserve to have these resources,” they came to Appalachia and they told people that the way they were living was wrong. They conveniently did this just after three decades of some of the most violent suppression of union organizing in the history of this country had taken place in Appalachia. At the end of the Mine Wars, UMWA membership was half of what it had been. The state police force in Tennessee was organized in part to suppress labor uprisings. Then the Depression made everyone desperate for any kind of work.

Before the TVA various other forms of “regional uplift” to solve “the labor problem” had been proposed: Benton MacKaye, the designer of the Appalachian Trail, actually very explicitly envisioned the AT in 1921 as just one part of a larger socialist reformation of the rural working class anchored in Appalachia. He pitched it as an antidote to the alienation of industry, a series of self-sufficient cooperative towns strung together by a walking trail. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison came down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama that same year, and Ford wanted to buy the dam and employ a million workers in a 75-mile rural-industrial city he would build and own using the power of the Tennessee River (so, a giant company town, really). Lots of people had big dreams for how they could make a lot of money in Appalachia before the TVA was formed. When the TVA act was signed in 1933, the Authority recognized labor unions and the passage of the NLRA in 1935 fully legalized the rights of workers to unionize. UMWA numbers bounced back, but by the late 1940s the “right to work” movement had started to gain a lot of traction in the South and the WWII anti-communist paranoia was building up to its 1950s fever pitch. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 pretty permanently undermined union organizing power. The TVA was subsequently industrializing a huge swath of the country that now had some of the nation’s weakest labor protections.

When the TVA started on its first dam project, they hired New York photographer Lewis Hine to come and document the first community they flooded: Loyston, Tennessee. When I wrote about those photographs, I viewed them against a 1944 propaganda film “The Valley of the Tennessee” made by the war department. I set them all out – these images of people in their homes, working on their farms, going to church, kids in their school – and asked myself what story these images told by themselves if we completely forget the narrative the TVA had imposed on them through things like that film. When I did that, I didn’t see the same level of desperation or overwhelming destitution. I just saw people living their lives in their communities – but they were living in a subsistence manner that the U.S. had decided it needed to move on from if it was going to become a “modern” nation. They weren’t interested in alleviating poverty by coming into those communities and asking them “What do you need? How can we help you flourish?” and then going from there. They wanted to build a big, showy piece of infrastructure so that these places they saw as going to waste could contribute to a growing national economy and boost everyone out of the Depression. The rest of that archive documents very real community loss – not because of that pre-existing poverty but because of the TVA, because of how flooding Loyston tore that community apart. Instead, they built a new whites-only “planned community” called Norris that housed workers but didn’t genuinely rebuild what had been there before.What that piece was trying to argue is that Loyston did have problems that needed solutions, but it wasn’t only a place of desolation – that view of it comes specifically from the idea that capitalist, productive, technological societies are the ultimate expression of modernity and progress. That we all need to be moving towards that or we are not fulfilling our potential. I don’t feel like I have the ability (or the right) to say how Loyston residents thought about their own economic situation or their lifeways. But I do think that if I could take a little time machine and go back and knock on all those doors in 1932 and ask folks what they thought would tangibly improve the material conditions of their lives they probably wouldn’t say “oh I really wish a bunch of guys from D.C. that think we don’t know any better would come out here and put all of this stuff we worked so hard to build under 200 feet of water.” Once WWII got going, the TVA moved away from building hydroelectric dams and started building coal-fired behemoth power plants to support the war effort. More power plants meant more strip mines, more mountain top removal, more folks dying to pull all that coal out of the ground. Now all those communities are dealing with the toxic residuals from half a century of burning coal and the pollutants from the industries that electricity powered – including legacy nuclear waste from Oak Ridge Labs. Appalachia has electricity but none of what causes persistent poverty in the region has been fixed. When you look at it that way, the TVA kind of just gave everyone an extra bill to pay. They did it cheaper than a private electricity company would have though – I guess we can give them that.

DY: How did aging infrastructure become the focus of your study of environmental racism?

HC: My interest in infrastructure actually predates my attention to issues of environmental justice. My first master’s thesis was on the development of lighthouse technologies in 19th century Britain – which became a form of infrastructure once they were de-privatized and consolidated under state control in the mid-1800s. When I got to Harvard I was still focused on the history of technology, but a friend and colleague was working with Dr. Naomi Oreskes on a project related to the Clean Air Act and she brought me on as a research assistant. I thought Naomi was doing good, impactful work and that she would be a great advisor, so I started developing a project that would be something in her area of expertise and we could keep working together.

Placid Refining Company, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Next door to Port Allen Elementary School.

I also took a “Technical Lands” class with Peter Galison where we visited a bunch of land art and nuclear sites out West including the Trinity Test site, and he had a real enthusiasm for my work and encouraged me to start taking my photography seriously as a part of my research. Coming off that trip and that class I worked with Peter to build a reading list for my general examinations in the field of anthropology of infrastructure that was coming from scholars working mainly on the “Global South” – South Asia, Latin America, Africa. In reading their critiques of extractive neocolonialism, racial capitalism, and under or uneven development I kept thinking about how adequately these frameworks also described the situation in lots of places in the U.S. – specifically the South and on Native Reservations. And that they did it in a way that wasn’t reductive but showed how and why certain places and communities are valued and allowed to benefit from infrastructure while certain places and communities are denied or excluded from that.

Being at Harvard also made me painfully aware of how the rest of the U.S. views the South, and I wanted to push against that. But I didn’t want to just extract these stories out of the South and put them on parade for a bunch of folks in the Ivy League so that I could get them to think we deserved their attention. I wanted to do this history in a way that was directly beneficial for the communities I cared about – both Indigenous and Southern. The shift in my academic focus from environmental history to environmental justice history opened pathways for me to do that. In the 1991 Principles of EJ, the authors laid out arguments for the importance of community sovereignty, self-determination, and mutual respect as the necessary foundations for building healthy environments. I decided that I would start from community-identified environmental justice concerns and then take these principles and use them to frame how I analyzed my archival evidence related to the development of harmful present-day conditions: How have different decisions about land use either enacted or undermined these goals? What might environmental remediation for EJ conflicts look like if we explicitly centered these principles instead of treating them as afterthoughts (if and when they are considered at all)?

When you start looking at the landscape of EJ issues specifically (but not only) in the South it’s hard not to see their connection to infrastructure: power plants, waste disposal sites, lack of sewers and clean water, pipelines, the petrochemical corridor. Huge sectors of national and global economies are getting rich off the resources and labor of the South, but our communities pay a steep price for it without benefitting from all that wealth we produce. The infrastructures that work are the ones that support industries, while the ones that support people are falling apart or never existed in the first place. The issues of bad labor protections are one part of it, legacies of plantation economies and Jim Crow that have trapped Black communities within a regime of exploitative racial capitalism is another. All of it happens on stolen Native land, but even within the broader landscape of Indigenous activism in the U.S., the Southeast is really left out of the narrative. The big five Southeastern tribes are in Oklahoma, largely disconnected from our ancestral land, and we only have a handful of tribes in the South that have been able to get federal recognition. Federal regulatory agencies don’t have to work with the state recognized tribes as tribal entities, so there’s very little meaningful Indigenous consultation or involvement on either environmental or infrastructural issues in the Southeast. Our ancestors produced knowledge about this land for thousands of years before Native removal and genocide severed those intergenerational ways of knowing. I felt that this kind of a project – that looked explicitly at how infrastructure has remade our ancestral land in incredibly unjust ways – was a way of reclaiming some of our lost epistemic authority.

DY: You’re from Appalachian Virginia but a lot of your research is on the Deep South and the Lower Mississippi Delta in particular. How did that region come to capture your interest?

HC: I did my undergrad in North Carolina, moved to South Carolina after that. My folks grew up in Florida. Dad’s family has been in the South on our settler side since before the American Revolution and on our Cherokee side since time immemorial. (My Mom’s side of the family isn’t from the South but we won’t talk about that – they’re all down here now.) I lived in the South my whole life until I moved to Cambridge, and I was ready to get back down here pretty much as soon as I arrived. I wanted to write about the South because it’s my home, it's where I want to live and work, and because our ancestral land is down here. On a personal level my folks still live in Franklin County, and it was important to me to build my career in a way that allowed me to eventually live near them and support them as they age.

The focus on the lower Mississippi Delta specifically emerged kind of circumstantially and out of the particular demands of a dissertation as a coherent piece of scholarship. I spent a couple weeks with a friend in Memphis in the summer of 2016 and got keyed in to the coal ash issue there, and when I was working on my prospectus the fights over the Bayou Bridge and Mountain Valley Pipelines were getting going. Louisiana felt like it made more sense geographically in relationship to Memphis than the MVP did and that organizing was predominately led by Native women, which was something I wanted to center in the book. I started the project with those two case studies established and a third, tentative case study in Alabama but that didn’t make a lot of sense in terms of bounding the book conceptually. Once I got into the archives this stretch of the lower Mississippi Delta between Memphis and the Gulf emerged as a very specific region that was interconnected in compelling ways – politically, culturally, infrastructurally, and hydro-geologically. It was also, frankly, a significantly more affordable place to live than Cambridge was, and I figured my research funds would get me further if I worked in places that were near each other and near to where I lived. I moved to Memphis in 2019 and it was the best decision I ever made for my work. Not only was it a personally more enjoyable place to live but my research needed to be done in a community I would be accountable to and actively participating in.

The Delta is an area where you can really see all of these ingredients of environmental injustice come together quite plainly – it was one of the most densely occupied areas for Native people east of the Mississippi prior to Native removal, then it was the heart of the cotton plantation regime that grew into the petroleum corridor, and now it’s one of the most under-resourced regions in the nation despite being home to hundreds of billion dollar industries. Some of the oldest historically Black communities in the United States are in the Delta – so you can draw a direct connection between the existence of those communities since before emancipation and the development of polluting infrastructures around them. There’s no room for the “oh maybe it’s just accidental or that’s just who can afford to live there” critique of EJ – it’s very clear and explicit. White planter politicians in the Delta weren’t exactly quiet about who they thought should benefit from the infrastructure they were building. The Yazoo Pumps project that became the third case study for the book was something I’m not sure I would have ever encountered had I not already been living and working in the Delta, but it (literally) filled in the gap between Memphis and Louisiana in a way that really made sense.

As the book developed though it became clear that the Delta and Appalachia have a lot in common in how they function as extraction zones for both national and international industries. There was a Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission in the 1990s that was inspired by the Appalachian Regional Commission – and that similarly failed to achieve many of the goals in terms of alleviating the poverty that it set out to address. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are two of the most important infrastructure building entities in the history of the U.S. and they come together in the Delta in interesting ways as well. It’s been generative to think about these two seemingly very different places together. It was a privilege to call the Delta home for the four years I was working on the dissertation.

DY: Living in Memphis, what did you learn about the interactions, or relationships, between Delta cities like that one and the countryside that surrounds them? Anything surprising?

HC: Working in the Delta has really reframed how I view the constructed urban/rural divide. I’m thinking here about a traditional urban-rural relationship where the rural areas around a city act as sites of production or extraction that benefit and support the urban center and how the countryside also occupies a specific place in the American imagination as an idealized place to escape troubles with wilderness and all that. But that relationship doesn’t hold up as much in the Delta. The entire Delta – Memphis included – operates as a kind of hinterland for the rest of the U.S. If you go and look at the international port of Memphis, the endless acres of cotton and soy fields in the Yazoo, or the petrochemical facilities that are bigger than whole towns in Louisiana it’s pretty clear that it isn’t just Memphis, Jackson, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans that are benefitting from this production. What is probably most apparent is that very little of that wealth benefits these places at all.

The rest of the U.S. views these cities as a little “wild” as well – that perceived dangerousness or remoteness of the country bleeds into these relatively small urban centers that lots of folks view as inconsequential except when they make for a good headline about rising crime rates. The cities that sit along the Mississippi River all emerged as ports for the shipment of plantation goods out of the Delta to rich colonial metropoles on the other side of the globe. Until the early twentieth century most of them resemble undeveloped frontier towns more than they resemble anything that looks like a city. They grew into urban centers in large part because of the theft of rural property holdings from Black land owners after emancipation. The Great Migration of Black Southerners certainly took lots of people out of the South, but it also brought people who probably would have rather stayed in the country to the cities of the Delta for work or for community that was still close to where they had already been living. Black communities built up places like Memphis, Jackson, and New Orleans, but white flight during the civil rights era moved the wealth concentration out of these downtowns into the suburbs. They’ve remained mostly neglected since, unless they catch the eye of developers for gentrification and “urban renewal.”

In the Delta that idea of the country as some kind of romantic opposite to the city also becomes less idealized and more radical. Rural Mississippi is where the connection between sovereignty over land and liberation for African American communities is maybe most powerfully articulated and enacted. After emancipation, plantation land holdings in the Delta were redistributed to formerly enslaved people and they formed cooperative farms that supported each other. These folks worked to build thriving African American communities with the hopes that they would be meaningfully incorporated into the body of the nation state with the same political and economic autonomy that their white counterparts enjoyed. But that dream was fully denied by the failed project of reconstruction, much of that land was given directly back to former plantation owners just a few years later, and Black land ownership was systematically undermined in the Delta during the twentieth century as property consolidated back into the hands of the white planter minority. In the Yazoo now you have counties that are 70-80% African American, but land ownership is upwards of 90% white and most of it is used for large-scale, intensive agricultural production. Infrastructures like the USACE levee system were integral to this process of dispossession. Following emancipation the Army Corps established levee worker camps for their predominantly Black workers – being unhoused or unemployed in public as a Black man in the Delta could land you in one of these camps as punishment. Slavery was reformed into the carceral state, and that labor was used for infrastructure projects that primarily benefited plantations and industries. After the great flood of 1927, the Corps forced African American flood refugees to rebuild the failed levees and carried on running these camps into the 30s and 40s as it built the Mississippi River and Tributaries project – their crown jewel of the Lower Mississippi Delta.

It’s really apparent in the history of the Delta how land is life giving and life sustaining. When communities are cut off from the ability to support themselves on the land, they are made to be dependent on consumption to meet their needs. The twentieth-century dispossession of Black land mirrored how planters claimed the Delta from its Indigenous people in the first place – they undermined our traditional subsistence economies, traded land for debt relief, and made us dependent on consumption and wage labor to survive. Eventually they had enough of a stronghold over the Southeast that they forced us all out to Oklahoma away from the land that had sustained our people since time immemorial. In both the Delta and on reservations people live with persistent poverty as a direct result of the loss of sovereignty over land. These connections between land sovereignty and liberation are rearticulated across time in the Delta: Fannie Lou Hamer saw land sovereignty as central to her civil rights work in the 1960s. There is still a strong cooperative tradition of Black farming across Mississippi – in both rural and urban areas.

Folks like MacKaye and Ford came down to Tennessee and Alabama and got a few sips of fresh air and romanticized the land of Appalachia and the South. They decided they needed to start the whole settler colonial project over again because they messed it up so bad the first time (MacKaye literally proposed what he called a “re-colonization” of Appalachia under a restructured Homestead Act.) But Black cooperative farms in the rural Delta get so much closer to righting those wrongs than any of those guys could have ever imagined. These white progressive-era thinkers that viewed the country as something distinct from the city had a fundamentally different worldview of the land – their relationship to it was based on entitlement, not liberation. Appalachia and the Delta are both evidence that we can’t infrastructure our way into a just world – in either a rural or an urban context – if we don’t address the root causes of harm.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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