National Archive records tell TVA's larger story

Posted at 6:01 AM, Aug 31, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-01 05:12:00-04

It looked nothing like one of those grand historic moments that are so often dramatized in paintings that hang on museum walls.

This was just three ordinary-looking men.

They were gathered in a semicircle, sitting on wooden fruit crates in an unfinished hotel room in Washington, D.C., in 1933.

But that inauspicious gathering was the very first meeting of the first board of directors of the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority.

In time, that agency would change the landscape and waterways of its namesake valley, bring electricity to remote corners of the South, impact and mostly improve the lives of millions of Southerners in many other ways.

The cost was more than money. The building of so many dams required the relocation of families, and in many cases of the cemeteries where their loved ones were buried.

Over time, TVA grew, its role expanded, its influence became global. Along the way, it gathered devoted supporters, made a few implacable enemies and spawned occasional major controversies.

It is a story that the National Archives branch in Atlanta has recently undertaken to tell on its website. And TVA’s story has been selected as the topic of the archives’ annual daylong history symposium on Sept. 20 in Atlanta.

“Valley of the Dams: The Impact and Legacy of the Tennessee Valley Authority” is the theme of the symposium and the online exhibits.

TVA was the brainchild of U.S. Sen. George Norris, a Nebraska Republican who strongly believed rural electrification would generate countless benefits as well as electricity. The town of Norris is named for him.

He tried to get legislation creating such an agency passed in 1928 and 1930. TVA finally became a reality as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s historic first 100 days in office.

In 1963, in a heavily researched and detailed story celebrating TVA’s 30th anniversary, UPI reporter Lowry Bowman found that many Americans thought of TVA as just “something ‘vaguely socialistic’ that produces electricity and controls floods in one little pocket of the nation.”

It often seemed, he said, that citizens of other countries knew more about TVA than many Americans did. To this day, TVA’s full impact remains unknown to many. But the archives’ holdings on TVA, dubbed the TVA Records Group, has enough material to plug in almost any gap in anyone’s knowledge about TVA.

Those records include correspondence, memorandums, meeting minutes, documents, maps, posters, TVA-generated publications, oral histories, various other materials — and about a million photographs.

“They have all of our historically significant records,” said Pat Ezzell, TVA’s in-house historian.

From that trove, the archive staff selected a variety of material for its online exhibit. It is organized by nine major categories, such as power production, displacement of people and cemeteries, support for the World War II effort, even political cartoons.

“We took a relatively broad approach, to tell as many different aspects of the TVA story as we could,” said Joel Walker, the archives’ education specialist. “We are aware that it is still a much bigger story than a lot of people realize.”

The TVA Records Group has already proved popular with academic researchers, some writers, and of course genealogists.

Still, Walker said, “We think these records have been underutilized.

“We want to promote more research into these records.” The archives is hoping the online exhibit and the symposium will do just that.

Panelists on the symposium will include academics, writers and even an artist who have used the records for their various projects.

But it will be Ezzell who will lead it off.

Ezzell’s task at the symposium will to give an overview of TVA, which she said will be a great opportunity to underscore that the agency did a lot more than just build a few dams in Dixie.

“We are expecting a wide variety of folks,” said Ezzell. “We are expecting a full house.”

She said the archives has notified more than two dozen colleges and universities in the region of the symposium and the extent of its holdings.

The online exhibit is available at

Attendance for the symposium is limited to 200.

Admission is free, but reservations are required by Sept. 15.

Many more than 100 people have signed up. For more information on the symposium, visit