FACETIME- Woman of letters- Displaced demand 'Answer at once'

Katrina Powell

Many of the million or so annual visitors to Shenandoah National Park have no idea of its pre-park life, when it was home to around 500 families who were booted off the land for the public good.

Katrina Powell always was aware.

"My father grew up in Madison County," she explains. "Our family wasn't directly affected or displaced by the park, but he thought was important for us to know about the place we enjoyed so much, to know the history."

An avidpark hiker, Powell would spot old building foundations, chimneys, and well-marked grave sites, and she'd ponder the idea that former residents were not given a choice about whether to leave when the government seized their property in the 1930s.

In 2001, Powell– then at her first teaching job at Louisiana State University– learned that archives of the Shenandoah National Park were open, and she was moved by the collection of 300 letters from residents who were being forced to leave their homes.

"I was mesmerized about what people wrote and how they felt about having to imminently move," says 42-year-old Powell in a phone interview from Virginia Tech, where she teaches English.

Those letters resulted in two books about the people forced to leave. The first was 2007's The Anguish of Displacement, published by the University of Virginia Press. And in 2009, nearly 200 letters fill 'Answer at Once': Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938.

"What struck me the most," says Powell, "it was a hopeless situation at that point– the park had already been formed. But they demanded from the government the right to be heard."

And they often signed their letters with "Answer at once." 

In justification for the confiscation, residents of what become Shenandoah National Park were often characterized as illiterates, thieves, and bootleggers.

"People assume that if you don't have formal education, that impacts your ability to communicate with government," she says. "That didn't happen. They were rhetorically powerful even if the spelling and grammar were not standard English. You can hear their dialects, and I found them very beautiful."

"She has a way of giving voice to the people removed from the park," says Richard Robinson, who is making a documentary about Depression-era photographer Arthur Rothstein, whom Robinson and Powell believe stereotypically photographed the displaced to look extra poor. "She understands," Robinson adds, "that the way you frame a situation has a lot to do with the way you see it."

The families of the park were not the first to be removed from their homes, reminds Powell, citing the Monacan Indians. And she's not finished looking at eminent domain struggles. 

The effects of taking someone's land, says Powell, "is very poignant to me."


Powell takes part in two Virginia Festival of the Book events: "Appalachia and the South in the 20th Century" at 6pm Friday, March 19, at City Council Chambers, and "Answer at Once: Families Displaced from Shenandoah National Park" at 4pm Saturday, March 20, at the Greene County Library.