David Todd Lawrence and Elaine J. Lawless

Dec 4, 2020

When They Blew the Levee

Race, Politics, and Community in Pinhook, Missouri

University Press of Mississippi 2018

The town of Pinhook in Missouri was founded in the 1940s by southern Black farmers who were looking for land that they could purchase and own in the face of limited options. It was low land that was often flooded, but the farmers were able to clear it and successfully farm it for decades to come while building up a small town. However, in 2011, after heavy rains and historic flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to breach the Birds Point levee. Pinhook, directly in the flood zone, was completely destroyed.

David Todd Lawrence and Elaine Lawless, in their book When They Blew the Levee: Race, Politics, and Community in Pinhook, Missouri (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), document the narratives of the town’s former residents which counter the official story from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers - that the levee breach was a success story of saved lives and property. Winner of the 2019 Chicago Folklore Prize, the book offers a vivid portrait of the town’s efforts to rebuild and maintain their community ties, and theorizes the destruction and government neglect of this town.

In our conversation, Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Lawless discuss the events that led to the flooding of Pinhook and the question of historical racism in overlooking the town when the decision was made to breach the levee. The authors describe life and community in the town of Pinhook and what happened after the flood. We also talk about the role and responsibilities of the researcher when collaborating with communities. Lastly, we hear about Debra Robinson-Tarver who organized the evacuation of the residents and continued to keep the Pinhook community together as they pursued recompense.

You can learn more about the efforts to rebuild Pinhook here and the documentary film Taking Pinhook can be viewed here.

Dr. David Todd Lawrence is an Associate Professor who teaches folklore and African American literature and culture at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is currently working with the Urban Art Mapping Project on street art in the Twin Cities. Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, they have been collecting images of street art related to the movement for the George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database. If you would like to contribute images, please submit them here or email Dr. Lawrence directly at DTLAWRENCE@stthomas.edu.

Dr. Elaine Lawless is Professor Emerita at the University of Missouri where she taught folklore and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of six books, including Troubling Violence: A Performance Project (University Press of Mississippi, 2010). Dr. Lawless is currently based in North Carolina.

Nancy Yan received her PhD in folklore from The Ohio State University and taught First Year Writing, Comparative Studies, and Asian American studies for several years before returning to organizing work.

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Nancy Yan

Nancy Yan received her PhD in folklore from The Ohio State University and taught First Year Writing, Comparative Studies, and Asian American studies for several years before returning to organizing work.

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