Updated: May 8
Erasure is an aspect of genocide that removes the memory, historical and visible footprint of a people from the landscape and from public discourse. Erasure comes in so many forms and is only one aspect of the events that fall under its name; erasure coincides with forced removal, land seizure, land base loss, and loss of intergenerational wealth, alongside visibility and awareness.
Here, we will examine just one form of a major mode of genocidal erasure as practiced against many vulnerable minorities in America by the power-holding Euroamerican wealth minority. We’re talking about the drowning of historically Black communities in the name of public water supply for substantially White communities of higher economic standing. The dynamics presented here in large part pertain also to post-Colonial Indigenous communities and poor rural White communities.
Central Park Reservoir sits atop historic Black Yorkville neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. Yorkville is extremely affluent today, but west Yorkville was Black in earlier times. Evicted Black residents of Yorkville went to Seneca Village, now part of Central Park, from which they were also later removed.
Detail of Yorkville and nearby, p, 62 from Decolonizing Our Story. . . :
Targeting Black communities for disappearance by eminent domain seizure and servicing the needs of mostly White communities of privilege is more common than one might imagine. Indigenous, Black, Latinx and poor rural White communities are across the nation the target of land seizures for public works projects, military installations, and toxic waste/toxic industry installations.
Eminent domain removals as a tool of racial oppression have their early history in seaboard towns of the Northeast and their repeated encroachments on treaty lands of Indigenous communities. This pattern continues on every level today for every type of public works from the DAPL Standing Rock controversy, where the original plan was to pass through 98% White Bismarck, ND. The project was quickly rerouted through Standing Rock treaty land when folks in Bismarck objected.
The Kinzua Dam in Western New York was built in the 1960’s on Seneca treaty land, in violation of that treaty and after forcing Seneca off their land at gunpoint. Seneca were forced to leave possessions behind during violent removal on short notice, and houses were even burned to keep owners from returning to retrieve property. Then the houses, towns, farms, cemeteries and all were drowned under a reservoir. Seneca now refer to the place as “The Valley of Smoke” and remembered 50 years of removal in 2014.
(PURCELL, AARON D. “The Engineering of Forever: Arthur E. Morgan, the Seneca Indians, and the Kinzua Dam.” New York History, vol. 78, no. 3, New York State Historical Association, 1997, pp. 309–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23182507.)
Histories of African-American freetowns and post-emancipation communities echo the forced removal, lack of compensation, and erased legacy. A case that should be famous, but is not, models the violent dynamic underpinning the erasure of Black towns and enclaves: Lake Lanier, Georgia.
Lake Lanier evokes today Eurocentered imagery of second-home class watersports and semi-luxury vacationing. The history that literally lies under the water is a Black town that was lynched out of existence, and whose refugee residents and their descendants remain uncompensated. This is the drowned history of Oscarville, Georgia.
Oscarville, Forsyth County, Organized Lynching Campaigns Become Lake Lanier
It’s hard to find scholarly studies on what happened in 1912 at Oscarville, Georgia and subsequently in Forsyth County, Georgia. That appears to be due to lack of investment by colleges or the state in studying this, one of the most violent race attacks in US history.
Patrick Phillips is the main source on these events, detailed in his Blood at the Root
In 1912, near Oscarville in Forsyth County, Georgia, there were two incidents that sparked an insane race purge by conservative Whites. First, one Mae Crow was found deceased under suspicious circumstances. The only young Black men living in the area were charged with the crime, by default.
Right away, a young man named Rob Edwards was lynched publicly, with thousands of people joining in and even firing bullets into the young man as he died. Oscar Daniel and Ernest Knox, both minors, were lynched next. All these murders took place with even semblance of a trial. One accused man was dragged from his cell by a crowd and murdered.
Racist agitators fanned the violence while newspapers participated. All this resulted in murders of many Black families and a series of night-time attacks and daytime lynchings that drove all 1.098 Black residents of Forsyth County to flee. To this day, some extremist racists openly boast that Forsyth “doesn’t allow Blacks to live here.”
- Other sources on Oscarville and Lake Lanier
The racial conflict continued still in 2019:
Drowning Black Archaeology and Sporting Privilege
After all this was said and done, in 1956 the county of Forsyth buried their skeletons, literally, by drowning the whole landscape under Lake Lanier, then peddling small lots for high real estate prices and cashing in across the board. The Chattahoochee River was dammed, which also sits on stolen Indigenous land. Indigenous archaeological sites were also drowned. Then the lake was named for a Confederate soldier who came from privilege.
The case of Oscarville-come-Lake Lanier is not isolated. Historically Indigenous, then Black Kowaliga, Alabama now sits under Lake Martin, another Confederate secessionist. Drowning Black property and history is not a Southern syndrome, but rather a national injustice. Across the US, Black towns have been drowned under reservoirs to serve mostly non-Black communities.
Central Park, Rechewanis and Black Yorkville
Central Park Reservoir lies atop an historically Black neighborhood that was taken by eminent domain and converted to that use. The reservoir is not the city’s drinking water, which comes from appropriated Indigenous land in Westchester County and the Catskills. The celebrated Olmstead design include ethnic/racial cleansing and pre-gentrification. Once the part was developed, Yorkville became instantly desirable for big Manhattan money. This lies just west of Kokaadekonch, south of Muscoota and west of Rechewanis, land of Rechawawank and Wekwesgek people.
The dispossessed residents of Yorkville relocated again to unused marginal land a bit south that became known as Seneca Village. It’s not clear if there was any Indigenous element to the neighborhood, but such names are commonly applied to marginalized mixed populations in a perjorative sense and without much differentiation. Seneca Village suffered the same fate as Yorkville, except the space is dry land in Central Park. The twice-dispossessed community does not appear to have remained cohesive after that. Some families from Saxon Woods, an historic Black enclave in Scarsdale, New York, may be traced to Seneca Village. Saxon Woods was also eventually squeezed out of existence and its archaeology and history are somewhat neglected and not taught alongside other local histories (for more read Historical Archaeology of Free African-American Communities - Saxon Woods, New York Remembered at: https://www.ethicarch.org/today-in-ma).
In Our Own Backyard: Drowning Black Archaeology and The Quabbin Reservoir
In the backyard of Boston elites, Quabbin Reservoir drowned several farming communities after much protest. Quabbin is the main water source for Boston, but also drowned much of the prime agricultural land of Massachusetts. Swift River Valley soils are second only to the farmlands of Hadley area. The valley is also highly rich in Indigenous archaeological and cultural heritage.
Near historic Greenwich and Enfield (also near Indigenous Wequaes and Wembemesisk) on the Quabbin Reservoir, in Nipmuk homeland. The land was seized for Boston’s water needs.
What most don’t know is that 3 historically Black communities were taken and drowned in that process. In terms of proportion, there are more than 150 majority White communities in Massachusetts, but less than a dozen majority Black. Here, we find the erasure of three such communities. To this day, it remains difficult to unearth the Black history of Dana, Enfield and Greenwich, Massachusetts. Records show that remains were removed from cemeteries that were known on record, but most African-Americans were refused burial in churchyards and often lie, as do convert Indigenous persons, in unmarked graves outside Euroamerican churchyards. Links to various historical collections at University of Massachusetts Amherst all return dead link messages. Results of further investigation will be shared as available.
Henry Island and McKee Island lie under Lake Gunthersville, Alabama. Kennet, Baird, Elmore and Morley, California were all seized and flooded. Cebolla, Spanero and Dillon, Colorado were likewise seized for reservoirs and recreational lakes. So, too, went Prentiss, Mississippi, Jerusalem, Connecticut, Brown’s Station and Old Navesink, New York, Old Fairfield, Indiana, Round Valley, New Jersey, and Warren, Maryland.
These seizures and drownings of property and history were undercompensated at best, then completed without any funds or time given to gathering in the archaeology of the peoples there. In the case of Euroamerican communities, graves were mostly relocated and properties were removed and compensated, though probably under market value. Not so, the case of other races, who are almost uniformly removed without compensation, or grossly undercompensated, without time to remove property, and without relocation of burials.
Though the policies of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Historical Commission both declare their support for equal protection, equal service and equal preservation without regard to origin, reality shows that the status of historic preservation and archaeological investigation are completely imbalanced in regard to race and ethnic origin. Through ethical practice and actual application of our pretended policies of equality, we can come to represent something real in terms of a democratic and egalitarian society.