Every $50 donation is a chance to win the exclusive Backyard Bliss Bundle featuring autographed issues, custom OA gear, and MORE!

Become A Member Shop Login

Coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, Dec. 25, 2008. Photograph by Dot Griffith/Appalachian Voices. Flight courtesy of Southwings

Issue 125, Summer 2024

Brackish Water

How the TVA deals with the living and the dead

It was after midnight. Stars made pinholes in the cold, black sky above the coal-fired Kingston Fossil Plant, while the East Tennessee earth trembled awake. After decades of accumulation and neglect, after pressing, pushing, and plunging between cracks in a six-foot, mud-slicked wall, the toxic pond that buried the plant’s waste finally breached its resting place. The dark sludge exploded into the quiet night like a small bomb.

Wet, gray slurry, fermenting in the same pit for half a century, slammed into the Emory River. The deadly mudslide surged into shoreline homes. Houses shook from their foundations and animals suffocated, overcome by the muck. By sunrise on December 22, 2008, the slush had swamped three hundred acres of rural Roane County. The mud chugged miles downstream, clogging Tennessee Valley waterways like wet plaster.

This story is, and is not, about that coal plant. By now, as a writer who covered the spill’s aftermath for six years, I’ve told the story of this disaster almost a dozen times. From memory, I can rehearse the same timeline, the same observations and reports, the same voices in my ear—workers, utility spokespeople, scientists, neighbors, politicians, journalists, experts—retelling a sequence of events that led to the nation’s largest industrial disaster to date, and one of the country’s most controversial cleanup operations. But, for me, the loudest voice in this narrative has always been Janie Clark’s.


JANIE

I’m alone and wondering where our grief goes. So I pick up my cell phone and call Janie.

“Austyn?” she says, her voice hooked at the end with a honeyed twang. She starts the conversation, one of dozens we’ve had over the last four years, by telling me it’s been hot in Knoxville but she’s staying in shape repainting her fence, mowing her two-acre lawn, hunching over to weed her flower beds. She jokes that in the age of Pelotons, she’s endorsing the penny-pincher’s “garden workout.”

Over the years, I’ve been able to form a picture when we talk. I imagine her small, round face pitched wide into a smile, her gray hair brushed to shine and curl at her shoulders; silver hoops and a cardinal necklace, an untucked but pressed button-up shirt, maybe soft white or striped blue, and easy slacks. I know where she keeps the books I’ve sent her—on the wooden side table behind the tiny clay turtles with mud-green shells—but I can’t see into the bedrooms or the kitchen, shadowy places I haven’t entered in a relationship that weaves between professional and personal.

Janie knows grief in a way that I can transcribe but can’t comprehend. She’s the one who answered the phone around 4 A.M. the morning of the 2008 slurry spill. It was her husband Ansol’s boss, asking him to drive to Kingston right away, where he’d worked the last five years as a member of the Knoxville 917 Teamsters Union. “I had no idea he would be placed in a situation that would destroy his life,” Janie told me when we first spoke for a story in 2019. “He didn’t either.” That morning, Ansol became one of hundreds who would assist in the seven-year cleanup, a cleanup for which workers claim they had little to no knowledge and little to no protection from the toxic sludge that covered their bodies.

The sludge was coal ash, a fine, feathery dust left over from burning coal for electricity, then mixed with water and stored in unlined pits next to plants across the country, like at Kingston. While coal as a fossil rock is largely innocuous, when it’s burned it concentrates unsafe, sometimes radioactive elements that can then be ingested via inhalation, skin contact, or drinking contaminated water. These elements include arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead, and radium, heavy metals that can impact every major organ system in the human body. Prolonged exposure can cause birth defects; heart, lung, and neurological diseases; and cancers including lung cancer and leukemia. Last fall, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted for the first time that the health effects from coal ash radiation included risks of cancer thirty-five times higher than previously suggested.

Back in 2008, when the spill happened, the dangers of coal ash were largely unknown by the public. It was unregulated for decades. The federal government’s toothless recommendations for how to store and monitor the ash had long been ignored across the coal industry. Instead, to save money, coal plants had spent the last century storing waste material like ash near the waterways that cooled the coal furnaces. They sold it to construction companies to be used as fill for embankments, roadways, sports fields, and airport runways. The ash seeped into groundwater and contaminated soil, creating toxic sites across the country that could lead to multimillion-dollar cleanups. The dams that stored the ash were also poorly regulated. When Ansol’s best friend Tommy reported leaks in the side of Kingston’s dumps, he was ignored, even though the 120-acre pond had been in a critical state of failure for years.

Tommy and Ansol worked long hours during the cleanup. But even during the mess of those first few years, Ansol brought stories home to Janie of something beautiful: his lunch hour. He’d found a peaceful spot in the woods, a bit overgrown, where he parked his truck and took a slow, short walk. Ansol was a gentle, quiet man. He took to adopting backyard turkeys as pets and rescuing doves from the ash site. He told Janie he felt tranquil watching the Emory River shimmer between gaps in the trees. His toes sometimes knocked the edges of fieldstones. His hands, thick and weathered from a life of manual labor, swiped dried leaves from the top of graves. He could have seen Emma Mahoney, her gray granite stone outlined in wild roses, or her family members Jennie, Charles, and Austin, all of whom died in the early twentieth century. Or he could’ve paused at the single stone noting the deaths of three children, all under two, engraved with a small, curled up lamb. Other graves were too worn, moss-covered, or darkened with age to read.

Kingston Fossil Plant. Photograph by Morgan Hornsby

Icalled Janie for the first time in 2019 because she’d made a name for herself in local media as a homemaker turned public advocate over the dangers of coal ash, and I was reporting a story on the eleventh anniversary of the Kingston spill, southeast of where I grew up in Kentucky. I wanted to write about the women involved—both the female workers and the workers’ wives. I did not expect to continue talking to Janie, but as she would tell me in the intervening years, over and over like an invocation, sometimes a story has deep roots. Sometimes, it roots into you.

Coal ash is the prerequisite, the condition, according to a Knoxville-based jury, for the illnesses that upended so many hundreds of blue-collar lives after Kingston. But Janie’s grief, her story, is not rooted in the existence of a substance called coal ash. It’s rooted in the insistence that lives like her husband’s became conditional in the service of maintaining a narrative that coal ash was safe. Based on a 2009 email from his boss Sean Healey, safety manager Tom Bock told cleanup workers that they could eat a pound a day without getting sick. Both were employed by Jacobs, Inc., the contractor paid $64 million for cleaning up the Kingston site.

Despite what Bock and Healey claimed, cleaning up the ash quickly sickened workers with a combination of coughing fits, sinus infections, and labored breathing they called the Kingston crud or the fly ash flu. Their bellies swelled, they passed out while operating heavy machinery, they saw chunks of hair fall to the floor, they brushed over ringworm-like sores that crested over their arms, backs, and faces. They whispered to friends about plummeting testosterone and skyrocketing blood pressure. They shared the beginning stages of neuropathy, a tingling and numbness in their hands, feet, and legs. Diagnoses began: asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer.

Jacobs later said Healey’s statement wasn’t meant to be taken literally. But even in 2019—four years after Congress passed its first rule regulating the substance—Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) spokesperson Scott Brooks told me that eating fly ash would be equivalent to eating dirt.

“We wouldn’t recommend you eat either, but it depends on the amount,” he said. (Brooks did not respond to a query about whether he’d stand by this statement today.) In late 2023, coal ash became a top priority for enforcement by the EPA—along with mitigating climate change and reducing toxic air pollution—because of the widespread contamination from coal ash sites across the country. The EPA wrote that part of their reason for prioritizing coal ash was its association “with cancer and other serious health effects.”

Ansol was one of the dozens of Kingston cleanup workers who got sick with illnesses linked to coal ash exposure. In 2010, at fifty-nine, he suffered his first stroke. He was looking out his bedroom window when he collapsed. He was treated for congestive heart failure after fluid started siphoning into his midsection and legs. He took early retirement to deal with his progressing illnesses. In 2013, dozens of workers and their families joined a lawsuit against the cleanup contractor, Jacobs. They didn’t know it yet, but the case would drag on for a decade.

From the start, Janie collected information on the spill and the experiences of the cleanup workers. She gathered the papers in a packet addressed to her local paper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and hid them in a drawer, ready for the right moment to send them. In 2015, the year the cleanup ended, Ansol collapsed from a second stroke in the same spot where he’d had his first. He was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a rare form of blood cancer. Every so often Janie would get ready to mail the packet, but an inner voice told her she needed to wait. Then one day in 2017, Jamie Satterfield, then an investigative reporter with the Sentinel, reached out.

“I knew if I could get her to come over, we could convince her to tell the truth,” Janie told me. When Satterfield did visit, she discovered that Janie was good at narrating the tales of not only Ansol, but the broader plight of the Kingston workers and their never-ending lawsuit and legal drama. Satterfield would become deeply involved, labeling the workers “the expendables” and covering the spill until she left her position five years later.

The more I talked to Janie, the more I began looking forward to our phone calls, hearing about her daily housekeeping tasks, what she’d watched recently or read, what dreams she’d lost—once she told me she’d never seen the ocean, and with Ansol so sick, she doubted she ever would.

But on every call, it wasn’t just the shared life with Ansol Janie recalled, or the ash she indicted. She increasingly focused on the utility responsible for the disaster—the Tennessee Valley Authority, the owner-operator of the Kingston plant who’d monopolized the regional landscape, infrastructure, and power grid decades before she was born. The utility was once known for the pride it engendered in the valley, for providing electricity and raising up a middle-class population who could buy boats and send their kids to college. But after the disaster and the flawed cleanup, TVA’s reputation in the valley was changing. While the workers’ trial dragged on, Janie scrutinized how TVA, backed by billions of dollars from the federal government, had unshaped and reshaped her region. She nicknamed the organization the Tennessee Valley Atrocity.

In 1933, Congress passed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, creating a public power company with a mandate to control the Tennessee River, electrify the Southeast, and facilitate economic development. While TVA wielded wide federal powers across seven states, it concentrated its construction of dozens of dams and power plants in Tennessee. Over its first decade, TVA electrified not only the Tennessee Valley but a world at war. TVA hydroelectric power was siphoned into Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a secret atomic city that helped produce the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Kingston was built about twenty miles downstream, in part to power this facility. At the time, it was the largest coal-fired plant in the world. But the cost of providing thousands of megawatts of electricity turned out to be removing thousands of families from their land, flooding farms, and erecting smokestacks atop former homesteads. Along with living families, TVA also removed the dead, digging up and reburying bodies into cemeteries that, over the following century, were neglected and forgotten.

Between 1933 and 1982, TVA operations impacted 30,762 graves across five states, with the utility moving almost half. TVA does not provide maintenance services for cemeteries, according to TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks, but will facilitate partnerships if volunteers wish to maintain them. During its first hydroelectric project, the Norris Dam, TVA created its Cemetery Relocation Policy, which stated that “the Authority should bear all reasonable expense of moving graves from the flooded areas below the 1,030 contour (for Norris specifically) and from isolated areas to comparable burial places nearby, that the removal shall be made in accordance with the wishes of the nearest of kin, and that after relocation the Authority should have no further obligation for care or upkeep of the relocated grave.”

Over the decades, beneath a looming row of nine gray smokestacks, the cemetery Ansol visited—where he saw a stone-carved lamb resting on the gravestone of three children—would, like others, soften into the forest at the back corner of TVA property, largely forgotten as the utility’s grid system grew. In this system, every fossil-fired and hydroelectric project was interconnected, one blueprint in a master plan that had a grander vision than individual lives or deaths. The electric vision was nationalistic and hegemonic. Within a couple decades, it became all-powerful enough to sweep up what was tiny and lamb-like.

“TVA has a long history of positively affecting the lives of the people we serve. We acknowledge and recognize the sacrifices made along the way that allowed for the region to flourish,” Brooks told the Oxford American in a statement, adding that the utility has “a long-standing commitment to preserve our culture and history.”

But Janie homed in on the sacrifices made in the name of flourishing. In her refusal to let the story of Kingston be forgotten, Janie studied this part of TVA’s history in particular: its legacy of re-burying the dead. Unearthing these stories became a new attempt to be heard. If TVA continued ignoring the pleas of hundreds of ill workers, their widows, and their children, at least Janie could demonstrate tangible proof of TVA’s disrespect for the land and the dead buried within it.

“People paid a big price for their energy besides paying for their big bills,” said Janie. “But the fact that they have a cemetery right now on their Kingston site, inside their plant, and they’re not taking care of it and their dead? It’s dishonorable what they’ve done.”

The story of the cemeteries served as a pinhole, a tiny beam of light in a pitch-dark sky.

Janie Clark with her late husband, Ansol, at the memorial he constructed near the Kingston Fossil Plant, Aug. 6, 2019 © AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

By 2020, Janie and Ansol were leaders for the community of workers and families affected by the Kingston spill, a movement that had spilled over into neighboring counties, like East Tennessee’s Anderson County, which hosted Bull Run, Kingston’s smaller sister coal plant. TVA had announced that Bull Run would close soon, and some of the workers and their wives, newly minted activists against coal ash, wanted to see a responsible cleanup and disposal of the ash. So while Ansol fielded calls from the workers, Janie printed hats that read SPECIAL OPS for a group of women involved with the plaintiffs, and together they attended local commissioners’ meetings in Anderson and Roane Counties where coal ash and TVA were put on blast. Janie was increasingly attuned to any whiff of injustice.

Meanwhile, Janie discovered that the burial ground Ansol visited on Kingston’s property was now known as Green-Mahoney Cemetery. Enshrined in property records as Land Map 10 N 47, Tract No. 898, the property originally held fifty graves. All but two of the original graves were owned by a local physician named Dr. Green, who requested that the forty-eight interred remain on the property, including thirty gravesites whose identities were unknown. The remaining two were owned by Edgar Mahoney, who requested the same. In 1941, almost fifteen years before Kingston started burning coal, TVA reinterred forty-seven new graves here, sidling them up to the existing fieldstones and small monuments like new neighbors. These graves, dated from 1847 to 1905, included at least three infants and twenty enslaved persons.

This was just one of many reinterments in service of TVA power generation. About thirty miles downstream, Bull Run also relocated cemeteries in order to burn coal. So in the summer of 2020, as Ansol was driving down Old Blacksferry Lane, a dead-end road near Bull Run, Janie hollered at him to pull over after two signs blurred past the passenger window: one read BLACK CEMETERY and another—blue, bent, and rusting, pressed into a chain-link fence—read TVA NO TRESPASSING U.S. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY. As Ansol crunched to a stop over the gravel, Janie peered through the chain-link fence. But, even when she walked up to curl her fingers around the rusty wires, squinting through the forest, she couldn’t find any evidence of a cemetery. Her mind quickly jumped to its worst conclusion: just like at Kingston, TVA had left this cemetery, possibly full of people of color, in profound neglect. Janie called her best friend Sharon Todd, one of the women who wore a SPECIAL OPS hat, and whose house bordered Bull Run, to tell her what she’d discovered. Sharon called her neighbor Leo York.


LEO

On a rainy afternoon last September, I knocked on Leo York’s front door, his lush garden of flowers and potted plants almost overtaking his porch. Inside, he put down a book called The Most Tolerant Small Town. I sat in the corner of the couch while Leo, now seventy-two, told me the cemetery’s story.

When he was ten, Leo recalled, his mother Jeanette threw him out of the house like she did with her seven kids every summer day. Leo and his siblings tramped through their rural neighborhood, weaving down to the banks of the Clinch River or exploring the log cabin where their mother grew up. But on this particular day, the troop of kids ran in the opposite direction, north on Old Blacksferry Lane, until they reached a curve in the road. At this wooded corner, a truck was unloading pine boxes. Inside the boxes were bones and bodies.

“We watched them dig the new graves, and we watched when they brought in a new flat bed with all these boxes of human remains in them,” said Leo. The bodies were the ones relocated to make way for Bull Run, and initially, the dead freaked out little Leo. But once TVA’s reinterment work was done, Leo remembered the cemetery looked nice. Lined with stones, all in neat rows, a protective fence, and each grave matched with a marker. Leo and his siblings spent summer afternoons slipping over the slopes of graves and hopping between fieldstones, exploring the new space. But for their mother, history was repeating itself.

At eleven years old, Jeanette Prater had lived along an artery of the Powell River with her fifty-six-year-old grandparents, who she called Mommy and Daddy, in a three-bedroom home with no electricity or telephone. She used an outdoor toilet and warmed herself in winter from the glow of the fireplace. She collected water from a spring one hundred yards away. She was raised Baptist, and she went to Privy Flat Elementary School with a coterie of kids who were all, technically, her cousins. Her grandfather, who had a fifth-grade education, had farmed the land for the last five decades. They didn’t have any books or magazines, but they had a family Bible.

Just before summer turned to fall, a TVA fieldman had arrived in Jeanette’s hometown of Mossy Springs. He informed her relatives that they were being forcibly removed from their property, but that this eviction was for their own good. TVA was building the Norris Dam to provide electricity to the region. The TVA Act included rules of eminent domain, granting the public company the authority to remove families, either through financial persuasion or federal enforcement.

TVA moved Jeanette’s family—until they found new property—to a tent above Mossy Springs. From here, Jeanette watched TVA disinter her relatives from the family burial grounds and relocate them away from her community. Then she watched her house, her yard, her barn, and her entire hometown disappear under a gray seam of water once known as the Powell River.

Family readjustment, as it was known, occurred for at least 8,107 farm families across fifteen reservoirs under TVA’s landscape-level surgeries. In the 1940s, TVA released a film documenting the declared need for geographic, and social, renovation. While aerial views across the eastern United States showed a prosperous nation, where pioneers once marched across the land to “raise their children in freedom” and set “new and higher standards of living,” in the Tennessee Valley, a narrator proclaimed that “something went wrong.”

The TVA film told a tale of a forgotten land, victim to the mighty Tennessee River, which flooded towns, smashed industry, and decimated prosperity. People drowned by the hundreds, and were homeless by the thousands, TVA attested. Perhaps worse, the river’s untapped energy potential had, so far, been wasted. The Tennessee Valley, the narrator concluded, required not only a reconstruction of land to thrive, but a reconstruction of people. TVA insisted that its democratic experiment—removing residents and improving their “sub-marginal” land—was for the benefit of all. TVA wasn’t a power company; it was a savior of the destitute.

“The problem, of course, was that the government had sole authority to determine the definition of ‘sub-marginal,’” writes Elizabeth Catte in her book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. Many residents, she says, thought the government sold a version of the region as impoverished and underdeveloped to suit its vision of industrial development. Federal agents “framed the relocation of farmers as a benevolent process that would move residents geographically, but also temporally, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.” Catte’s own family’s land, bought for the Norris Dam, was never flooded, but was also never returned, eventually becoming part of a state park.

Scott Brooks, the TVA spokesperson, said the utility “cannot speculate on what residents ‘thought’ in decades past, but the plight of the average family in the Tennessee Valley is well-documented.” TVA historian Pat Ezzell noted numerous challenges facing the region, including longtime flooding issues, mistreatment of the land from mining and logging, low crop yields, little industry, high rates of poverty, and no rural electrification. According to Ezzell, prior to TVA, only three out of one hundred farmers had electricity and even fewer had running water.

But, as he began his own research into TVA’s family readjustment, Leo was more moved by the singular than the regional, by his own family’s history. Eventually, he discovered a similar fate to Catte’s for his mother’s familial property. Before Jeanette died, around age ninety, Leo took her back to Mossy Springs. He said his mother cried when she saw the home site.

“It’s not even under water, which just really infuriates me,” Leo recalled. Today, Jeanette’s family land is owned by the state as the Chuck Swan Wildlife Management Area. According to Knoxville’s tourism website, the 25,000-acre land grab that replaced Jeanette’s family farm is “one of the most underused forests in East Tennessee.”

“They didn’t need her property because the area was going to flood,” said Leo. Instead, Leo believes his family was “part of a social experiment to remove the people.” An amateur historian (Anderson County proclaimed November 20, 2021, “Leo York Day” for his contributions), he’s spent years combing through TVA records of land relocations. “Years later, most of the people didn’t have better lives,” he insists.

Brooks said TVA “was created to improve the quality of life of the people of the region,” and did so by managing floodwaters, creating a navigable river, and providing affordable electricity to rural areas. While TVA is often referred to as a “social experiment” in New Deal literature, Brooks said Leo’s statement “is an opinion and a generalization,” adding that the utility couldn’t “speak to individual circumstances.”

But the individual experiences are what matter to Leo. He gave the example of his mother: TVA built Norris Dam to electrify the valley. Electricity generation began in 1936; Jeanette was still in a house without electricity by 1945.

“Ten years later, her and her family sacrificed that for what? They gained nothing,” said Leo. “They gained absolutely nothing.”

One county over, before he ever met Janie, Leo’s obsession over how TVA treated the living and the dead began to mirror Janie’s own.

Leo’s obsession over how TVA treated the living and the dead began to mirror Janie’s own.

In 2012, Leo asked TVA for access to Black Cemetery, the burial place he’d seen the utility reinter from the Bull Run property to a one-acre slice of land belonging to the Black family in 1962. The cemetery, directly next to TVA property, now holds more than two hundred graves, including members of the Black family, next to the remains of seventy-five unidentified enslaved people, according to Satterfield, who initially reported on Leo’s archival work in 2021. (A TVA spokesperson said that Black Cemetery was relocated not to land owned by the utility, but to family property adjacent to the Bull Run site that wouldn’t be needed to build the steam plant. Leo said this request had come from A. B. Cox, a descendant of the slave-holding Black family who was then president of Knoxville’s General Electric Company.)

But Leo said that at the time of his request, TVA was in charge of cemetery access and gave him the runaround, pinging him between offices across the state. Over six months, he persisted, parking his truck outside the padlocked forest road and unloading hand tools, loppers, and a chainsaw. With the help of friends and neighbors, he began clearing a path to the neglected burial ground. In that era, the cemetery was a mess. In 1993, a tornado had toppled trees and spiraled debris that hadn’t been properly cleaned up. People began using the cemetery’s abandoned access road to strip stolen cars and then set them on fire; they had sex; they dumped trash. TVA had blocked access with a single steel cable held to a chain-link fence with a padlock—until the Sentinel published Leo’s plight on the paper’s front page. That afternoon, TVA showed up and hand-delivered Leo a key.

“One of the problems I had was TVA couldn’t understand why I wanted to clean the cemetery up when I had no family members down there,” recalled Leo. “And the reason is, it’s my neighborhood. And it’s been neglected. And you, TVA, have been the cause of the neglect.”

Leo became a different kind of cleanup worker, dragging limbs off the forest road, maintaining the path that curved to the right up a hill of poison ivy, and raking leaves to uncover fieldstones. He studied family trees and historical records of plot sales, planting small green flags where he estimated reinterments had taken place—eventually, over one hundred sprouted from between gravestones and trees.

One of the burials Leo discovered in the historical record was that of Hade Black. Like many other interments in Black Cemetery, no stone marked the grave; but, unlike those other interments, Hade didn’t show up in the Black family genealogy. He also didn’t show up in census records or appear to have records of owning a plot in the original cemetery. After months of searching, Leo finally found a death certificate, and realized why—Hade had been enslaved, along with his mother, by the Black family. Records held by the family revealed that John Black bought Hade and his mother in 1860, when Hade was ten. Five years later, at the conclusion of the Civil War, Hade’s enslavement ended.

Hade then lived and worked as a tenant farmer in Anderson County on a small plot of land left in John Black’s will, “so long as he lives on it and behaves himself,” the will reads. In 1921, Hade died at home under the care of his wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Cross. He was buried in Black Cemetery, and his land was returned to the Black family.

As a result, Lizzie lost her home. She moved into a house in Gadson Town, a community founded by the formerly enslaved. Five years later she died of gallbladder cancer in the segregated wing of the Knox General Hospital. Instead of burying her with Hade, the hospital left her body in a pauper’s cemetery that would eventually swell to forty thousand interred. The cemetery did not record a grave marker or plot number for Lizzie.

Over time Leo became obsessed with the tragedy of the couple’s story, estranged not in life but after death. He had a deep desire to reunite the spouses, even if it was only ceremonial. Leo began leading tours around Black Cemetery for community members, wearing his purple t-shirt and khakis, an iPad on hand to check details like grave markers and dates. He began sharing Hade and Lizzie’s story on Facebook, raising enough funds for a gravestone for Hade that reads BORN A SLAVE NOW FREE.

Leo’s work to mark Hade’s grave echoes the work that has been undertaken by volunteers in nearby Knoxville to restore Citizens Cemetery, the city’s oldest cemetery dedicated specifically to interring Black people. Established in 1836, three decades before slavery was outlawed in the United States, the burial site is the final resting place for up to six thousand enslaved Africans, freedmen, and their descendants.

“If you don’t bring these people back to life, their stories don’t get told,” said George Kemp, leader of the Knoxville Re-Animation Coalition, a group dedicated to memorializing the dead in Black cemeteries. Kemp, a retired schoolteacher and principal, and a lifelong Knoxville resident, grew up within walking distance of Citizens and a neighboring Black cemetery, Odd Fellows, both of which were so neglected they’d returned to forest. Kemp’s father, who died when Kemp was in the fourth grade, was buried on the edge of Citizens, in a plot next to the street; kids who walked past the headstone on the way to school often asked why his grave was in the woods. Because of the state of Citizens and Odd Fellows, Kemp said his community members felt like the interred didn’t matter.

“It’s important for everyone, but especially if you’re African American and you don’t know your history, you don’t have a sense of worth,” said Kemp.

Tatianna Griffin, a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, began documenting the reclamation project at Citizens taken on by Kemp for her graduate thesis. The work was meaningful to Griffin, who grew up tagging along with her grandmother to maintain the family church cemetery in Maryland, mowing between graves and cleaning off headstones. She was used to seeing a cemetery respected, so witnessing Citizens in such disarray was upsetting. Due to horrors of enslavement, Griffin doesn’t know her family genealogy beyond her grandparents. She knows her mother’s family came from Virginia, her father’s from Mississippi.

“But with the trading of slaves, who knows if we came from Tennessee or Florida or Texas,” said Griffin. Now when she walks through Citizens or Odd Fellows, she wonders what graves among them could have a familial link. The space gives her some consolation for her own lack of family records. Over Zoom, Griffin told me that the work is about giving those at rest recognition, and, thereby, giving them their humanity back.

I told Griffin, who was not involved with the Black Cemetery in Anderson County, about Leo’s work to reunite Hade with his wife after death. She called it an “act of memorialization.” “I feel like it gives Hade a little bit of his agency back,” Griffin said, tearing up.

I asked Leo what prompted him to spend so much time resurfacing the past. Especially when he was a self-proclaimed neighbor, not a relative. In TVA records, it doesn’t appear that Hade and Lizzie had children, or that their relatives had descendants. In the record, the family trickles out. Well, Leo said, when it came to Hade Black and Lizzie Cross, he felt he’d gotten to know them personally.

“They come back to life for a brief period of time, or it seems like they do,” said Leo, his hands pressed down onto his gray shorts. A man who lets his feelings well near the surface, he’d cried over the phone, and in person, when he spoke about the couple separated in death, reminding me, “It still makes me sad.”

After he created a headstone for Hade at Summer and Sons Monuments—he installed the heavy totem at Grave A4, where TVA had marked Hade’s relocation—he dug a shovelful of soil from the 1926 section of the pauper’s burial ground outside the old hospital, the approximate location of Lizzie’s resting place.

He reburied the symbolic soil next to Hade. Then, he posted on Facebook about fundraising for the cost of her headstone—about $500. Within three hours, donations started pinging into his inbox, quickly covering the cost of the granite marker. When the Sentinel published the story of the reunited couple, Leo said letters of support poured in from as far away as California.

“People like feeling there’s justice even if it’s a decade or a century later,” Leo said, leaning forward from his chair in the living room. People cared about the reunion of Hade and Lizzie, and caretaking Black Cemetery, because “it provides closure,” he said. People liked to feel, he added, like they were righting a historic wrong.

Graves in Black Cemetery. Photograph by Morgan Hornsby

Leo met Janie for the first time on Easter Sunday, 2021. The air was cool, with new buds starting to pollinate the woods and patches of grass coming up between copper leaves that crinkled like tissue paper. Janie, accompanied by her friend Sharon, had come on Leo’s tour of Black Cemetery to learn more about the graves, and how Leo had gained access, as she mulled over what to do about the overgrown Green-Mahoney Cemetery where Ansol had once wandered.

“I will find a way to enter that cemetery, and I will do it with God’s help,” she’d told me, again and again. She was on a mission. “Cemeteries are a big part of Southern heritage, so the fact that TVA has so callously disrupted places of rest for people shows its true character.”

She wanted to know whether these graves were taken care of, or if they were neglected like the graves in Black Cemetery. She admired what Leo had done to reclaim the plot of land a few hundred feet from where he lived. She called him the Guardian of the Forgotten. She wanted TVA to show the dead some “basic respect.”

“Ansol is getting sicker by the day, and his quality of life is just so pitiful,” Janie told me just before she met Leo, in February. Ansol had just returned home from the hospital after his heart flooded with fluid. Janie worried over getting COVID-19 from the visit. He was on the couch, eating a banana for his potassium levels. “There’s no end to what TVA has done the more you look at it,” she said. “I want to have some accountability for what has happened.”

Ansol was too ill to attend the Easter tour, but in her pocket Janie carried a picture of an eight-foot-tall white cross, a memorial Ansol had built for the tenth anniversary of the Kingston spill. Back in 2018, when Ansol was a little less sick, he’d lifted the cross on his back over a ditch of riprap and up a grassy hill. The hill overlooked the Kingston plant and the Emory River. What was once a sea of thick gray ash had returned to a recreational river and a manicured lawn. Janie shared the photo of the cross with Leo. She felt he would understand about people treated unkindly. About people overlooked. About bodies seen as expendable. She wanted to show that this wasn’t the only example of a history of disregarding the dead; it happened in other cemeteries; it happened in other lives.

Less than a month later, Ansol had a heart attack at home. Janie screamed over him and called an ambulance. He spent three days at the hospital. He passed at 8 A.M. on May 1, 2021, in a bed between Janie and their son.

Two years after Ansol’s death, Janie showed up to speak at a TVA board meeting in funerary attire. In a recorded video, I watched Janie walk up to the podium in a long black shirt and black slacks and stand spine straight, all five feet one inch of her. Her small frame held the gaze of a crowd of supporters who leaned forward from dozens of red fold-out chairs. They listened intently over the hum of the air conditioning in the Norris Middle School gymnasium while she delivered her message directly to TVA CEO Jeffrey Lyash, who sat at the end of a U-shaped table, his shoulders turned to Janie.

“I’ve heard it said that you should judge a society by the way they treat the most vulnerable,” Janie said, while the two made unflinching eye contact. “There are far too many widows, and far too many orphans, as a result of the aftermath of the Kingston coal ash spill…. I believe they [the workers] were deprived of their own basic fundamental right to life,” she said. The crowd behind her applauded. Lyash, who’d met Ansol back in 2019 when Ansol was alive, turned back to his meeting.

A week after her speech, Janie, who since her widowhood had found it increasingly difficult to leave home, felt empowered enough to drive with me to Kingston. She loaded my car with snacks, and we took off with Sharon in the back and Morgan—a photographer who’d previously taken pictures of the Kingston workers—in the passenger seat.

We drove the same forty-five-minute route Ansol took over a decade earlier, and soon the Kingston Fossil Plant rose above us like a fortress, all chain-link fences and squat, rectangular buildings. Janie had expected the cemetery to resemble pictures Sharon had found online, where the Green-Mahoney Cemetery appears overgrown and weed-choked, webbed in by thick green bushes and ivy. But after we tailed the pickup of a security guard a few miles through plant property, we saw that the present tense version of the cemetery looked well cared for. It appeared recently cleared. A new granite marker stood at the entry to a rough-hewn, split-rail fence that cordoned off the thirty or so visible markers. Surrounding the fence was a freshly raked dirt path; the Emory River shimmered beyond the tree line. In the corner, a black snake wound down a fence post. Next to it, Janie looked very small.

For a while, the only sound my recorder caught was feet shuffling through dried leaves as we walked among the few graves we could see, commenting on the height of the trees or the blur of the headstones. Birds called. From somewhere across the river came the sound of a lawnmower.

Janie had arrived expecting a showdown; she wanted to put TVA in their place by exposing this neglected holy ground that symbolized, in her mind, the neglect of the more than sixty cleanup workers who had died since the Kingston disaster. Instead, Janie at first seemed deflated. And then, weaving between fieldstones, she told me that she, like Ansol, felt a calm settle over her.

“I feel very peaceful, actually,” Janie said, after admitting her surprise. She felt, oddly, relieved. “Isn’t that amazing? That the cemetery is so tranquil?”

Janie’s thoughts echoed something Griffin had told me: that witnessing and reclaiming cemeteries could be a reflective act. “It feels like this work, even if you’re not actively cleaning up a cemetery, gives people a chance to sit and pause and think about how we let society get this way, and what we can do as individual citizens,” Griffin said.

Before I dropped Janie back at her Knoxville home, she asked to stop by Ansol’s memorial of the Kingston workers that overlooked the plant. She found a penny on my floorboard and implored me to walk over the riprap and up the small hill and to place the coin on a stone beneath the cross alongside others that had been left by visitors. I’d come to the cross before; since then, the pile of pennies rusting on the flat piece of limestone had grown. For Janie and the other workers and widows who leave pennies at the cross, they are powerful symbols. They represent their fury: their feeling that the lives of the workers weren’t worth one cent to TVA.

Late that afternoon, while I drove home, Janie walked inside her house and saw a message flashing on her landline, the same phone that rang calling for Ansol to become a first responder fifteen years earlier. Her friend Betty Johnson, married to Ansol’s best friend Tommy, had called. Janie knew that a few days earlier during a Sunday church service, Tommy had suffered a blackout spell that had ended in a coma. The women didn’t know it yet, but in ten days, the Kingston lawsuit would officially end and a settlement would be reached. The terms of the settlement are confidential; former workers and widows like Janie can never share the details.

But many workers, including Ansol and Tommy, would never know the settlement details either. After I got home to my apartment in Kentucky, my phone lit up with a text from Sharon. She told me that Tommy, who I’d interviewed for previous stories, had died, writing, “The penny you left at the cross was for him.”

Hade Black’s gravestone at Black Cemetery in Clinton, TN, 2021 © Calvin Mattheis/USA Today Network


MATTIE

While I was talking to Janie and trying to write this story of her search for justice, I came across another story of a woman whose life was upended by TVA: that of Mattie Randolph. Mattie first received a caller from TVA to her two-room, log cabin home along a steep bank of the Powell River back in the summer of 1934. The man offered to buy the family’s fourteen acres for $530. The house was cramped for Mattie, her husband Jim, and their six children, and the family’s poverty was evident in the chinks between logs that let in cold air and the gaps in the roof where blue sky could be seen. But Mattie refused the man’s offer. On December 11, a TVA official again visited the property, asking the Randolphs to vacate their farm before it was flooded for the Norris Dam. According to his notes, the seven-year-old was cross-eyed with skin irritation on her body; the thirteen-year-old chewed tobacco and was an “expert spitter”; and, as the family lacked an outhouse, the official had witnessed Wanda, the four-year-old, peeing on the porch. Wanting to remain in such a ramshackle home, with such a low standard of living, mystified the TVA official, who wrote in his notes, “The six children seemed happy, but why or how is the question.” When TVA officials returned again, Mattie threatened them with a shotgun.

Mattie had bought the property after spending four years as a sharecropper. For three years since, the family planted fruit trees, constructed fence rows, and grew a few acres of corn, beans, and potatoes. They raised twenty-five chickens, two cows, and a pair of pigs, and they didn’t seem to want more material resources than they already had, which TVA officials blamed on their “limited experiences” along with a general lack of education. The family did not “want a better place to live, or electric lights, or a bath room, or any other high-falutin thing. Their real needs are great, but their desires have been thwarted,” the officials wrote.

A few months later, a local newspaper wrote that Mattie’s opposition had become a threat to the $36 million Norris Dam project: “TVA has encountered a snag in the person of Mattie Randolph,” the article read, reporting that Mattie declared she’d hold on to her family land “in spite of hell and high water.”

Her family was one of few in the area to outright refuse to leave for Norris, according to TVA. They remained on their farm as the impounded waters rose around them. When TVA erected a tent on higher ground, they stayed put. TVA caseworkers tied a boat to the porch. According to a retelling of the family story in Slate, Charlie Randolph, Mattie’s son, remembered using the boat to pick corn as water submerged the family’s fields.

 

Janie was grieving, still and forever, a raw, complex, and unmitigated grief that was not bound by logic or clear answers or apology.

Acouple weeks before Christmas, and less than ten days before the spill’s fifteenth anniversary, I left my own home for South Carolina, where I was meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Janie and I had gone perhaps our longest time without speaking, since July, back when I was fully alone and mourning the end of a four-year relationship with a woman who at one time I thought I’d marry. The day before my flight, I’d turned thirty-three. I still felt the same fear I’d felt in the summer—the fear of change and of loss. Put next to Janie’s, my problems were abominably small, but I’d begun to trust her. For the first time, over the summer, we’d crossed the barrier I’d erected between source and journalist. I told her I was having a hard time writing this story, a difficulty following the thread, finding the point of it all. I told her I was sad.

Janie was grieving, still and forever, a raw, complex, and unmitigated grief that was not bound by logic or clear answers or apology. When I talked to Janie a couple years earlier, just after Ansol died, she told me it was hard to get out of bed. She was reading about Anthony Bourdain. The grief can kill you, she said. It can kill you.

Janie was married young and all her life, for fifty years. She doesn’t remember a lot about her childhood. “The sum total of my existence is being married to Ansol,” she told me once, “so when he died, everything I ever knew, all my memories, it was just gone.” She said she felt like a pet returned to the pound after a lifetime with their owner’s family. She felt abandoned. Ansol, she said, had been taken from her.

Now, two days after arriving in South Carolina, I called Janie again. She listened as I explained my human fears, and like a godmother might, she spoon-fed my reality check. You need to suffer some, she told me. She meant basic necessity suffering. She meant the grief of irrecoverable loss, not the grief of the loss of a thread, a pathway, an idea. She implied that I had no reason not to write, no reason good enough not to trust a new image of life. With a soft laugh, she said, “You need to have a determination not to be whipped.”

I remembered how, in the story of Mattie Randolph, TVA described the family’s problems as “psychological,” a refusal to accept the utility’s good intentions. She refused nine farms offered by TVA. She and her husband Jim were “antagonistic” from the beginning, TVA wrote, with Mattie demonstrating an “unreasonable attitude” after she decided “to remain permanently in home even after covered with water.” Mattie complained that when TVA closed the gates of the dam, it drowned her garden at just the time she wanted to pick beans.

But they didn’t fool her, she told TVA officials, hands on her hips. For she “just took her shoes off, waded down in the water, and picked the beans anyway.”

But on January 18, 1936, Mattie stepped out onto her front porch to see a U.S. marshal, a photographer for the Knoxville Journal, and over half a dozen officials, including Norris Police officers and TVA caseworkers, surrounding her home. “The only sign of emotion shown by Mrs. Randolph was tears rolling down her cheeks,” a TVA official wrote in their documentation.

They set her house on fire, so no one could ever move back in. Once Mattie was evicted by boat, “she did not look back and was not crying, as might be expected,” the same official wrote. Mattie and her family spent the winter of 1936 in a tent during high winds and snowfall on the Campbell County Poor Farm. Eventually, she relocated to a new farm after “some man”—not TVA—reached out and offered to sell to her privately. While legal eviction was rare, five families were forced by the court to vacate for the Norris project. Almost 3,000 families moved for Norris Lake, which became an ocean, burying the property, and the life, that Mattie and others had fought so hard to keep.

The day after I talked to Janie, I’d swim in the Atlantic with my new partner, and Janie would wake up and listen to her favorite female pastor on YouTube, both of us, in different ways, wading into a determination to go on. I remember when we got off the phone, the light was soft and pink over the low-tide brushes of the Colleton River, the sun’s reflection in the brackish water like a pinhole leading, eventually, to another ocean.





Austyn Gaffney

Austyn Gaffney is a writer based in Kentucky. Her essays have been published in Ecotone, The Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner, among others. Her reporting has appeared in The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.