John McFerren of Fayette County, Tennessee — in his own words

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, Bernetiae Reed

One of our pilot communities for the community driven archives grant is the Appalachian Student Health Coalition. Members of the coalition are historically and currently dispersed across the country and have lived extraordinary lives, often intersecting with some of the most courageous, hard working, and brilliant people that the world has never heard of. Dana Ellis, a coalition member in 1973-1975, worked with local community activists in West Tennessee (Fayette County) and introduced us to John McFerren’s story.

John McFerren is a World War II veteran and local legend. Both he and his deceased wife, Viola, played strong roles in civil rights actions surrounding Fayette County, Tennessee. In Robert Hamburger’s book “Our portion of hell: Fayette County, Tennessee; an oral history of the struggle for civil rights,” John McFerren’s words are revealing. 

“In 1959 we got a charter called the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League. Fourteen of us started out in that charter. We tried to support a white liberal candidate that was named L. T. Redfearn in the sheriff election and the local Democrat party refused to let Negroes vote.”

Five African American men in suits

Four Freedom Fighters counsel with Attorney J. P. Estes, Source: Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, Memphis, TN https://www.memphis.edu/tentcity/movement/fayette-timeline-1958.php

 ”We brought a suit against the Democrat party and I went to Washington for a civil-rights hearing. Myself and [James F.] Estes and Harpman Jameson made the trip. It took us twenty-two hours steady drivin. We met John Doar  . . . they told us they wasgonna indict the landowners who kept us from voting . . .”

John Doar was  assigned to create civil litigation, Fayette County is included. Source: Taylor Branch Papers #05047, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH, Series 4, Folder 598, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05047/

Just after that, in 1960, in January, we organized [timeline] a thousand Negroes to line up at the courthouse to register to vote . . . this county it was 72 percent Negroes . . . So in October and November they started putting people offa the land . . . they took your job . . . in November, we had three hundred people forced to live in tents on Shepard Towles’s land . . . White Citizen’s Counciland Ku Klux Klan started shooting in the tents . . . ”  

An African American family loading household items into a flatbed truck

Photo courtesy of Ernest Withers – In September 1960, after the crops were gathered, white landowners in Fayette and Haywood counties forced black sharecroppers off their land because they were trying to vote. Source:  http://orig.jacksonsun.com/civilrights/sec4_tent_city.shtml

“Tent City was parta an economic squeeze . . . Once you registered you couldn’t buy for credit or cash.”

“. . . I went into business the first of 1960, to supply the Negroes . . . had to haul everything I bought from other towns . . . the White Citizen Council in our district chased me just about every time. I had a ’55 Ford with a Thunderbird motor in it and two four-barreled carburetors on it. And it would run about 135. The sheriff told me one day, he says “Every time we get after you, I just sees two balls of fire goin over the hill. . . “ 

a black car parked on the grass

1955 Ford Thunderbird BYT568.jpg. (2015, June 21). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 14:50, February 13, 2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:1955_Ford_Thunderbird_BYT568.jpg&oldid=163946028.

During and after the late 1950s, John Doar, in his role within the Justice Department, was very involved with civil rights struggles across the South. Additionally, Black veterans were often in the forefront. Re-entry into their marginalized communities after service created a will to act. John McFerren fits this mold. But of note here, the meeting with Doar in DC probably acted as a significant catalyst for the massive voter registration events afterwards; which in turn, lead to the development of Tent City and garnered national attention, including support from Martin Luther King Jr 

A white man walks toward the camera with a crowd of policemen behind him

John Doar walks toward protesters during unrest that followed the 1963 funeral of slain black leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., Newspaper, Taylor Branch Papers #05047, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH, Series 4, Folder 599, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05047/

You can learn more about Tent City, Fayette County, and John McFerren on the University of Memphis website, Tent City: Stories of Civil Rights in Fayette County, TN. We also have some mentions in the Taylor Branch Papers here in the Southern Historical Collection.  John Doar Papers in Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library will open to researchers in June 2019 and the University of Maryland’s Thurgood Marshall Law Library has historical publications of the United State Commission on Civil Rights, which could also shed light.

An African American man standing in front of a crowd of African American men

Early photo of John McFerren smiling as he stands outside his grocery store” , Hamburger, Robert.1973. Our Portion of Hell: Fayette County, Tennessee: An Oral History of the Struggle for Civil Rights. (Photo by Michael Abrams)

 “McFerren stated the Justice Department “brought suit against the big landowners, but yet and still they did not break the boycott against me. They did something and then left and did nothin’ more.”  

 

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