71.1 February 2024

Erased by Design: An Antenarrative of Ellenton and the Savannah River Plant


By Jamal-Jared Alexander and Avery C. Edenfield


Purpose: The purpose of this article is to examine the Atomic Energy Commission’s use of eminent domain to seize the town of Ellenton and initiate the Savannah River Plant (SRP). We disrupt the presiding race-neutral history by reframing the story of Ellenton’s African American residents, who were both disproportionately impacted by the seizure and whose experiences were erased from Ellenton’s history.

Method: We analyze official SRP’s histories alongside counter-narratives for examples of deceptive messaging and whiteness as property.

Results: Through our analysis of the “race-neutral histories,” we recognize that African Americans—particularly sharecroppers and their families—bore the brunt of the Cold War’s Savannah River Site’s bomb plant.

Conclusion: Practitioners who are interested in organizational DEI work should recognize the danger of race-neutral accounts and actively search out excluded perspectives to give fuller context to their organization’s work.

Keywords: Antenarrative, Deceptive Messaging, Displacement, Social Justice, Racism

Practitioner’s Takeaway

By extending conversations in the field of TPC, we:

  • Examine SRP’s historical documents and demonstrate the need for an antenarrative that fills in the gaps of published historical text surrounding displacement of African Americans in Ellenton.
  • Lay the foundation for a series-project while inviting readers to examine erased stories of other minoritized communities that have been displaced throughout history.
  • Explore deceptive messages and extend the concept to TPC rhetors responsible for capturing the experiences of all involved.


In 1950, The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now Department of Energy) took over several small towns in South Carolina along the southern border of the Savannah River through an act of eminent domain. The largest of these towns was known as Ellenton, primarily populated by African American sharecroppers and their families. The purpose of the seizure was to build the Savannah River Plant (SRP, now Savannah River Site) to process tritium and plutonium-239—materials required in nuclear weapons. While many archival documents were produced by SRP and related organizations (e.g., Savannah River Archaeological Research Program) over the next decades, few documents speak to the displacement in the inter/national and local contexts of violent anti-African American racism, white backlash against gains made during Reconstruction, the codified system of racial apartheid in the “Jim Crow” South, the Cold War, and nuclear armament to deter and, if necessary, win wars of (colonial) conquest abroad.

Throughout this article, we explore the unexpected and under-documented exodus and displacement of African American citizens in Ellenton—the site of a former plantation and the scene of white supremacist terrorism against its African American inhabitants (refer to Cassels, 1971; U.S. Senate Record, “Testimony”). We provide readers with a reexamination of the SRP’s founding and mission to intentionally disrupt the presiding jingoist and race-neutral history (for a detailed discussion of race-neutral or “colorblind” racism, explore Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Crenshaw, 2019; Delgado & Stefanic, 2023). In other words, we focus on the exclusion of voices rather than providing readers with depictions of the missing voices by intentionally examining the gaps in the documents we exhumed. We examine whose voices were missing from these documents and identify the ideological choices that were made to exclude them—creating space for us to engage with displaced citizens and their families in Phase 2 of this project-series. Specifically, we’ll look to review oral narratives from displaced families in hopes of amplifying the voices that were placed in the margins.

The necessity of revisiting documented recordings of an organization’s history should not come as a surprise. The field of technical and professional communication (TPC) has historically recognized that documentation is never neutral but, rather, is rhetorical (Miller, 1979), cultural (Agboka, 2014; Scott & Longo, 2006), and may be implicated in oppression, including racist oppression (refer to the authors’ previous work as well Bartolotta, 2019; Jones et al., 2016; Jones & Williams, 2018; Katz, 1992; Shelton, 2020; Williams, 2010; among others). By extending the work of Jones and Williams (2018), this project-series examines official histories alongside antenarratives (Jones et al., 2016) of former Ellenton residents. In the context of this article, we argue that antenarratives are useful for drawing attention to gaps in data, stories, and experiences that have been overshadowed and erased by design. Like Jones and Williams (2018), we consider the absence or hidden nature of some of these documents as evidence of a value system placed on whose narratives “count” as worth saving and sharing for our first phase. They write,

The scarcity of these documents emphasizes how texts and technologies can be used in rhetorically and materially oppressive ways in terms of the access and availability of texts. In this way, access to texts and technologies can be used for oppressive purposes by ignoring, burying, or making historical documents harder to access in attempts to make history more palatable. (Jones & Williams, 2018, p. 386)

We have identified similar motivations in our review of Ellenton’s historical records and provide readers with contemporary parallels of what antenarratives allow us to do.

This article will largely present the findings of archival work to offer a critical rhetorical analysis of the historical documentation of Ellenton citizens’ displacement. In doing so, we identify the long-term ramifications of its historic erasures. Moreover, the documents we examine reveal not only gaps but also oppressive, supposedly race-neutral, policies that could pass in a court of law and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The presiding narrative about the displacement is one of sadness over a loss of a town, curtailed by pride in a patriotic sacrifice for the greater good. Historical documentation of the founding of SRP often highlights this “sacrifice” residents made in relocating (Ritchie, 2009). For example, one commonly shared photograph shows a hand-painted sign that reads:

It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone else’s town that they love as much as we love ours. But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the U.S., but in the world. We love these dear hearts and gentle people who live in our Home Town [sic]. (“I Don’t Live There Anymore”)

Despite this patriotic narrative, an examination of the gaps between records unveils how African American Ellenton citizens were robbed of equal protection under the law and fair compensation for their property—with long-term generational consequences. Further, we argue the absence of racial violence and oppression from historical accounts forgives past white supremacist violence in the area, generating a sentimental, race-neutral history for the ghost of Ellenton. By doing so, we hope to offer new possibilities for TPC scholars and practitioners working within government agencies to acknowledge a more complex past and present. When we say practitioners, we refer to three specific types:

  • TPC specialist working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in government organizations,
  • Non-academic researchers working to create more just organizations—i.e., creating full histories of the field that speak to systemic racism, and
  • Non-TPC research teams and specialists who create historical content.

Moreover, we provide readers with tools toward explicit efforts to rectify past mistakes and move forward with more just documentation.

Black Feminist Thought

In order to understand the complexities of the SRP displacement of African Americans in the rural South, we explore the concept of antenarrative by introducing Black Feminist Theory as the analytical framework for the article. Jones et al. (2016) argue that the antenarrative approach of microstoria analysis explicitly focuses on the narratives of minoritized individuals while creating a space that invites scholars to actively disrupt dominant narratives (also refer to Boje, 2001). To successfully put the fragments of the missing story back together, we turned to Collins’ (1989) Black feminist epistemology by centering the lived experiences of Ellenton’s African American community.

Black Feminist Epistemology

Any discussion of Black feminist consciousness must begin with a definition derived from the ideas and experiences of Black women. Simien (2004) argues that “black feminist consciousness is the recognition that African American women are status deprived because they face discrimination on the basis of race and gender” (p. 83). African American women are doubly disadvantaged in socioeconomic structures, since they often bear the burdens of prejudice that challenge people of color and the various forms of subjugation that hinder women (Simien, 2004). Examples of these overlapping disadvantages can be found in a small cadre of Black female intellectuals—e.g., Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde, to name a few. Simien (2004) shows how these specific scholars have provided a range of perspectives with recurring themes that delineate the contours of Black Feminist Thought:

  • The idea that a “sense of belonging or conscious loyalty to the group in question (i.e., Black women) arises from everyday experiences with race, class, and gender oppression,”
  • The concept of intersectionality, where gender, sexuality, and race are “co-dependent variables that cannot be separated or ranked in political practice, scholarship, or in lived experience” (Ransby, 2000),
  • The belief that gender inequality exists within the Black community and points to the patriarchal nature of Black male-female relationships, and
  • The notion that “feminism benefits the [B]lack community by challenging patriarchy as an institutionalized oppressive structure and advocating the building of coalitions” (pp. 84-85).

While the perspectives above display the concept of Black feminist consciousness as rich and well-developed, Collins (1989) provides a unique experience with Black feminist epistemology that can be found as the core of this article. For example, “[B]lack women’s everyday acts of resistance challenge two prevailing approaches to studying the consciousness of oppressed groups. One approach claims that subordinate groups identify with the powerful and have no valid independent interpretation of their own oppression” (Collins, 1989, p. 746). In the context of this article, oppressed African Americans of Ellenton, SC—known as a subordinate group—had this false consciousness since they identify with powerful entities known as sharecroppers and landowners without realizing they were often at the center of oppressive structures.

A second approach assumes that “the oppressed are less human than their rulers and, therefore, are less capable of articulating their own standpoint” (Collins, 1989, pp. 746–747). African Americans of Ellenton in the 1950s were one or two generations removed from the abolishment of slavery. Therefore, we argue that minimum (or lack of) education played into this notion of the oppressed not being knowledgeable enough to know (let alone understand) the intricacies of land ownership, property value, quality of land, or the actual value of one’s land when Savannah River Plant looked to purchase property in Ellenton.

Collins (1989) shows how both approaches can be identified as “any independent consciousness expressed by an oppressed or dominant group as being not of the group’s own making and/or inferior to the perspective of the dominant group” (p. 747). By taking a more critical eye that examines three public documents (Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, SRS.gov timeline and history pages, and the Savannah River Site at 50)—and the intentional harm and deceptive rhetoric used by Savannah River Plant, we take readers on a journey that explores the hidden stories and the lack of access to land ownership. We intentionally aim to disrupt the polished narrative given by those in power by highlighting race-neutral language and approaches they often took to bury the voices and experiences of African Americans, and the effects of the displacement on thousands of families. Specifically, as in Jones and Williams (2018), we introduce practitioners to deceptive messaging (McCornack, 1992) by extending the concepts in our rhetorical analysis below.

Deceptive Messaging

In his article, “Information Manipulation Theory,” McCornack (1992) argues how “the principal claim of Information Manipulation Theory that messages that are commonly thought of as deceptive derive from covert violations of the conversational maxims. Because the speaker purposefully violates one (or more) of the maxims, s/he[/they] deviates from what can be considered rational and cooperative behavior…” (p. 5). In the context of this article, the production (or presentation) of deceptive text is considered a phenomenon in which SRP exploited the belief on the part of the listeners that they, the rhetors, adhered to at some deeper level. In other words, readers may have been misled by their belief that the rhetor of these historical documents were functioning in a cooperative fashion—intentionally leaving out information that they felt wouldn’t interest them (McCornick, 1992). McCornick (1992) and Camden et al. (1984) believe deceptive messaging involves diversion, not distortion; moreover, they note how “many lies are designed with the goal being to control the conversation, either by redirecting it or by withholding critical sensitive information” (p. 3; refer also to Camden et al., 1984, p. 313). The key here is that SRP avoided discussion of African American history but does not distort it.

Whiteness as Property

We highlight other cases of disenfranchisement in the segregated South by providing examples of whiteness as property. When we say, whiteness as property, we’re referring to one of the tenets from Critical Race Theory where certain rights allow members of a dominate cultural group to establish an “exclusive club whose membership [is] closely and grudgingly guarded” (Harris, 1993, p. 1736; refer also to Delgado & Stefancic, 2017, p. 85). Whiteness and white identity granted “tangible and economically valuable benefits and was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard” (Harris, 1993, p. 1726; emphases added). One example of whiteness as property can be identified by those individuals who have historically had access to land through segregated Black Codes—better known as policies and land ownership procedures designed to disempower (McCoy & Rodricks, 2015)—and displacement.

In the context of this article, property includes the right to own, purchase, transfer, or sell land to Savannah River Plant (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Harris, 1993; refer also to McCoy & Rodricks, 2015, p. 11). Here, we quote McCoy and Rodricks (2015) at length, as their study connects Whiteness to power relations:

Whiteness as a concept is based on power relations (Harris, 1993). More specifically, whiteness is based on White dominance and the subordination of People of Color. In describing the meaning and value associated with Whiteness, Ladson-Billings (1998) positioned critical race theory as an important intellectual and social tool for “deconstruction, reconstruction, and construction: deconstruction of oppressive structures and discourses, reconstruction of human agency, and construction of equitable and socially just relations of power” (p. 9). Critical race scholars have claimed that the concept of Whiteness can be considered a property interest because those individuals allowed to self-identify as White have social advantages (DeCuir & Dixson, 2005; Harris, 1993).

Communities such as Ellenton have experienced such power relations in the form of displacement throughout America’s history, with many African Americans (in)voluntarily migrating across lands in the form of chattel or modern enslavement (i.e., Jim Crow Laws) (Garba & Sorentino, 2020). Many scholars define displacement as the indirect, gradual, or community-level processes of succession (Marcuse, 1985; Slater, 2009). However, Mascia and Claus (2009) provide us with a more concrete definition that centers around exclusion and fits the contexts of our antenarrative: economic and social exclusion (Cernea, 2000), and the product of physical exclusion—“a phenomenon conceptually and morally distinct from the loss of economic or resource use rights” (p. 17; also refer to Agrawal & Redford, 2007). Both definitions highlight how the disempowered and the divergent ways they lose rights, as well as the empowered, who often gain rights (Mascia & Claus, 2009). By examining both, we provide you, our readers, with insights into issues of power, equity, and justice.

Official Histories

In this section, we rhetorically analyze official documentation—that is, documentation of SRP history vetted and or produced by SRP or related, invested organizations. We call specific attention to examples of the erasure performed through race-neutral language and evidences of whiteness as property. These three documents include brief documentation from Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, SRS.gov’s timeline and history webpages, and, most extensively, The Savannah River Site at 50 (Reed, 2002).

Savannah River Archaeological Research Program

The Savannah River Archaeological Research Program (SRARP) manages the archeological history of the Central Savannah River Area, known as the CSRA. The program is hosted in the SC Institute for Archeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina and issues several publications. Its website provides history and archeological findings from the area. A 159-page report of resource management available on the site, “Archaeological Resource Management Plan of The Savannah River Archaeological Research Program,” lists the goals of the partnership between SRARP and the AEC (now Department of Energy) are “cultural resource management, research and public education,” (Archaeological Resource Management Plan, 1989, p. 10). Pertinent to this article, reckoning with past racial violence could be read as falling under research goal 1: “Conduct archaeological, geoarchaeological and historical research pertinent to the SRS and the Savannah River Valley” (p. 10). The report includes history back to 2000 BCE (p. 24) but does not once mention the area’s long history of racial violence, despite discussion of other kinds of historic “human activity” in the area.

SRS. Gov’s Timeline | “History Highlights”

SRS.gov, the official government website of SRS, includes a “History” page in the “About” drop-down menu. The page lists historical data in a timeline delineated by decades, beginning in the 1950s (“History Highlights,” 2021). Though we recognize the significant interplay between environments and humans, that environmental impacts are not discreet from human impact (e.g., Bennett, 2010). “History Highlights” (2021) focuses almost exclusively on nuclear, technological advancements with one exception. Worker safety is discussed multiple times throughout the timeline, which ends in the 2010s. Highlighting worker safety to the exclusion of other cultural concerns redirects the reader’s attention away from questions of justice to positive (human-focused) associations (nuclear energy is safe).

We are given, however, glimpses of the ways human impact was understood and communicated by SRS through small images and short captions on the timeline. While on this timeline there is almost no mention of Ellenton residents’ displacement, the seizure of people’s land and, in some cases, livelihood is acknowledged by a single line: “1950: Selection of location of Savannah River Plant (SRP), between Aiken, SC, and Augusta, GA, on the Savannah River, is announced.” In the timeline is a grainy black and white image of a house hoisted on a flatbed truck with the caption, “House being relocated from the future Savannah River Plant” (“History Highlights,” 2021). The 200×146 JPEG image does not provide much information, but we can make out four adults and one smaller person, possibly a child. There is an unreadable mile marker sign, but it’s difficult to make out the races and genders of the people standing in the image, though it may be assumed by their attire that the adults are men. A reverse image search lists only this page as a source. Further down the timeline, we find another image of a large crowd lining the stairs that lead to a large unmarked wooden building. The caption reads, “SRP offered employment to thousands.” Again, the caption and small images offer few details of whom these “thousands” were. The images and text solely depict white community members, excluding African American community members and their daily struggle against racism out of the discussion.

The Savannah River Site at 50

Reed’s (2002) The Savannah River Site at 50 provides us with a definitive history of SRS. The page offering the online PDF of the book describes it this way: “Through text and images, this 50th anniversary book presents an interactive comprehensive history of the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, one of the major research and production facilities in in [sic] the United States’ nuclear complex” (“The Savannah River Site at Fifty [1950–2000]”.) Like other documents, The Savannah River site at Fifty documents the history of SRS from the arms race to AEC announcement, displacement, groundbreaking, and industry highlights. An unpaged section at the beginning of the book, “An Atomic History,” begins with the announcement by the AEC of the location of the plant, met with excitement by the neighboring towns of Augusta, Aiken, and Barnwell, towns that would not be dismantled, but “In contrast, residents of the proposed site area listened sadly and carefully as U.S. Corps of Engineers officials outlined an eighteen-month staged evacuation of 1500 families” (Reed, 2002, para. 1). In this book, we do find some acknowledgement of race and racism.

According to Reed (2002), gossip columnist and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen conjured a scene from the antebellum South (i.e., a region whose economy and social structure relied on brutal chattel slavery), saying “It is as if Scarlett O’Hara had come home from the ball, wriggled out of her satin gown, and put on a space suit” (para. 3). Kilgallen’s metaphor centers the main character in Gone with the Wind, a film John Ridley (2020), screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave, describes as not merely carrying out the stereotypes of its time, but as one “that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color” (para. 3). Ridley (2020) describes Gone with the Wind as “a film that … romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was—a bloody insurrection to maintain the “right” to own, sell and buy human beings” (para. 3–4). Kilgallen’s comment conceals the centering of whiteness while sidelining people of color’s experiences.

Further, Chapter 7, “Site Selection,” describes how the site was decided upon (defense zones, distance from Russia, available natural resources, housing requirements, etc.). In comparing the two final destinations, the text notes, “The availability of skilled labor was scarce at both venues and the report notes that the South Carolina population, both white and African American, was rural and lacking in industrial experience” (Reed, 2002, p. 123). Further, surveyors and researchers for Du Pont, tasked with overseeing the project, noted that segregation and racism would be an issue:

In pragmatic terms [a technical advisor] also advised that racial discrimination could be a problem at the South Carolina site…The documentary record suggests that Du Pont was already considering how to uphold the nation’s law while working within a milieu that did not… “A check of Camp Gordon [another federal project, now named U.S. Army Fort Eisenhower] reveals that within the reservation the Military practice is no segregation; however, on bus line leaving the reservation, there prevails the practice of segregation. On a project such as we expect to construct, it appears that the no-segregation law would be impractical to administer.”… Notably, race would not surface in subsequent reports as an issue. (p. 125, emphasis ours)

Given the construction of the plant occurred in the height of Jim Crow apartheid and with staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond (Clymer, 2003) as governor, that race would not surface again in reports is an example of race neutrality in Du Pont’s reports and The Savannah River Site at 50.

Regarding site selection, a primarily agricultural economy, Reed (2002) notes that “most of the farms were tenant-operated and the majority of the agricultural work force was African-American” (p. 125). The Army Corps of Engineers was designated to handle the acquisition of land from Ellenton and other smaller towns taken up by AEC for the plant. A document reporting the area “from the perspective of a buyer,” notes “that the acquisition would affect up to 8,000 farmers of whom the majority were African American” (p. 142). The book does not discuss the fate of those farmers, and we can only speculate why: the AEC and/or related organizations and contacts did not deal justly with those farmers and their families. Without a full account, we can only speculate. That their fate is obscured in the text demonstrates an act of deceptive messaging, pointing the reader’s attention somewhere else.

However, Reed (2002) does include an insert titled “African American Displacement.” The inclusion of the insert points to the exclusion of African American stories throughout the rest of the history. Here, we are greeted with photographs of a barbecue, family reunion, and various smiling inhabitants; absent are facts or narratives on African American impacts. Instead, readers are given “happy” stereotypes. This section does, however, include few details of African American residents and the displacement’s impact. For example, the authors write:

The story of African American displacement caused by the making of the site is little known. While population figures from 1950 suggest that African Americans were in the majority within the future project area, the exact number of those affected has not been tallied. (p. 144, emphasis ours)

Corroborating this finding, Smith (1994) cites a U.S. Senate map that shows that, although it predates the AEC takeover of Ellenton, there was a vibrant and thriving African American population in the area.

In 1875, the South Carolina population of white males over age 21 was 74,199; the adult black [sic] male population, 110,744. In Aiken County, where Ellenton was located, the adult white male population was 2,494, the adult black [sic] male population about 1,000 more; total white population was 12,397, total black [sic] population 17,907. (p. 143)

In other words, although thousands of African American men, women, and children were impacted by the DOE project, and some reports state that African American families were the majority of the population, there is little to no documentation of that impact on their lives, histories, or wellbeing. The missing numbers here cannot be by accident, but rather an intentional carving out of information, an act of injustice via race-neutral language. Reed (2002) himself clearly notes—in passive voice which does not place the blame on any one person—documentary bias as the primary reasons for this lack: “Accurate population statistics are difficult to extract from the existing data that is weighted toward describing mainstream history or is focused upon the site’s Cold War history. The absence of primary documentary sources that relate to the black [sic] communities also plays a role in this bias” (p. 144). Note that “mainstream” means “white” history. Reed does not address who is responsible for this documentary absence.

Further, Reed (2002) notes that the SRARP has conducted research to uncover more African American history in the area, but “Despite these efforts, no systematic study has addressed how African Americans dealt with the changes required of them in 1950 and where these changes led them” (p. 145). Reed’s statement is an indictment against past and present historians who have not valued African American history enough to study the long-term impacts of the AEC project. “Black land ownership was on the rise, and the news of the sale must have been devastating. Even worse for African American sharecroppers where “little help was available to guide them through the relocation process” (Reed, 2002, p. 145). Passive language further obscures intentionality. We have revised Reed’s (2002) quote below to highlight privilege and danger hidden by the race-neutral language:

For those (white individuals) who had the financial wherewithal to move regardless of the financial outcome on their land in the project area, it was fairly straightforward. These (white) individuals or families were able to move quickly before inflation set in and had a better selection of available house sites or farms. For (the majority African American individuals or families) those who share-cropped or rented, choices were to move elsewhere and continue farming or to apply to the project’s employment office. (p. 150, italics and parenthesis ours, though whether families had the option to apply for employment is unclear).

Yet, despite Du Pont’s observation of segregation, the historical realities of Jim Crow and historic racial violence, the power of the Ku Klux Klan, a segregationist governor, and other racial injustices, there is no mention of how much more difficult relocation must have been for African American families, again, many who were second or third generations away from enslavement.

Exploring What Was Erased

In this section, we pick at the loose threads in the above official documentation to call to the center the stories that have been erased: African Americans bore the brunt of the displacement and have not been paid their due. Official histories whitewash the story to focus on white “sacrifice.” By ignoring the struggles of African American landowners and sharecroppers and ignoring the racist historical context of the towns, SRP engaged in strategies that support whiteness as property and engages in deceptive messaging.

Whiteness as Property

To recall, whiteness as property refers to the ways in which white identity grants “tangible and economically valuable benefits” (Harris, 1993, p. 1726). For African Americans in Ellenton, examples of whiteness as property include claims of disparate pay for property, sharecroppers, and housekeepers; most folks in the area left without anything, with empty hands and on their own in hostile territory.

John Mullhouse (2005) operates a blog exploring “dead towns” titled “City of Dust.” “Dead towns: South Carolina” includes narratives and images of Ellenton. Mullhouse (2005) describes the process of appraisal and compensation, noting that compensation was perceived as far from fair, even for white folks in the area.

The government told the residents of the area that it would buy back their homes, and 6,000 people sold. For all the property, including 210,000 acres of land, the government paid 19 million dollars. The estimated value of just the timber at the time was 28 million dollars. The former residents of what was now going to be one of the largest nuclear facilities in the world were not happy. Many found themselves moving into pre-fab government homes built just beyond the boundaries of the Savannah River Plant. (para. 2)

Aside from the long-term economic impact of the displacement, Mullhouse (2005) also describes the mental impact. He writes,

When Ellenton was vacated, many of the younger residents left the area and never returned. Of those over the age of 50 that tried to make a go of it in New Ellenton, more than half were dead within 10 years. (para. 3)

Here, Mullhouse does not mention African Americans, leaving “residents” to stand in for both white and African American residents. Upon contact, Mullhouse shared a former resident’s story with us.

The saddest story involves the minority community from the area. This was at a time where segregation was strong in the South and few if any minority living in the area owned any real property as they were mostly farm hands who might share-crop or housekeepers working in homes of the non minority of the community. When it came down to move the minority of the area got nothing because they owned nothing. If you worked for a farmer, that farmer just couldn’t buy acres of land a few miles off the site to keep farming as land being used or that could be used for a farm was not readily for sale. So you as a minority were out of a job, a rental or employer provided house, and had to look for work elsewhere. Most of the non minority specifically the farmers were in the same boat but had money from their land and structure sale to the government to restart on… (personal correspondence, Nov. 10, 2022).

This personal narrative adds a missing element of the story of the impacts of displacement. Despite Reed (2002) acknowledging that African Americans were in the majority at the time and that many were sharecroppers, the “comprehensive history” does not include that many people were left on their own with nothing in the segregated South. Only one or two generations away from forced enslavement, many were left with nothing by the AEC takeover.

Deceptive Messaging

To recall, deceptive messaging is an act of intentionally misleading a listener (or reader). McCornick (1992) believes deceptive messages involve diversion, not distortion; moreover, they note how “many lies are designed with the goal being to control the conversation, either by redirecting it or by withholding critical sensitive information” (p. 3). We recognize deceptive messaging in the stories told (or untold) of African American experiences prior to, during, and after the AEC takeover of Ellenton and the surrounding villages.

We argue that by constructing narratives that are race-neutral, SRP engages in deceptive messaging, obscuring the disparate impacts. To be clear, as Reed (2002) acknowledges, “The story of African American displacement caused by the making of the site is little known” (p. 144). We declare that this story is “little known” by design. Official histories intentionally left out African American impact in favor of race-neutrality. In the case of collecting, saving, retaining, publishing, and sharing history of the people impacted by SRS’s actions, for African Americans, no one cared: their stories were not included.

And yet, we still do not know how many people were impacted. The numbers do not add up. The introduction to Reed (2002) states, “[R]esidents of the proposed site area listened sadly and carefully as U.S. Corps of Engineers (COE) officials outlined an eighteen-month staged evacuation of 1500 families” (para 1). Later, Reed (2002) states “that the acquisition would affect up to 8,000 farmers of whom the majority were African American” (p. 142). Mullhouse (2005) gives a different number: “The government told the residents of the area that it would buy back their homes, and 6,000 people sold” (para. 2). Because these numbers are race-neutral, i.e., they do not delineate by race, we can’t know the total number of African American families who were impacted by the displacement, and we can’t know the total number of economic losses. Because even Du Pont’s own records do not discuss race, we can’t know how they internally navigated segregation within the plant’s borders.

Understanding that many lies were intentionally implemented via historical text that whitewashed the history of the Ellenton, the African American experience, or lack thereof, is, within itself, deceptive messaging. We claim that rhetors intentionally erased or elided African American topics due to (a) a lack of interest or appeal to the general reader/public and (b) to keep African American community members in the dark, causing them to relocate with little to no resources. Oral histories often compete against these historical documents, yet the experience of the marginalized continues to be erased to center white supremacist demand.

Moving back and taking a holistic account of the scene requires us to also account for the racist context in which the AEC takeover happened. None of the accounts we encountered reckoned with the area’s history of violent suppression and white backlash against African American advances and ambitions. Prior to SRP, this violence was what the area was known for, although this history is never mentioned in any of the SRP accounts we found. Details of these events, the “Ellenton Riot,” in particular, has been obscured. Ritchie (2009) shares one account as a footnote to an article on Ellenton. Before November 28, 1950, the town of Ellenton was known for the “Ellenton Riots” of 1876. Smith (1994) threshes through multiple letters, affidavits, and other accounts to give a composite narrative, writing:

The riot lasted from September 15 to September 21, ranged over an area from Rouse’s Bridge to parts of the Port Royal Rail Road, attracted Democratic rifle clubs from as far away as Augusta, and claimed the lives of up to one hundred blacks [sic], one white, with five or six whites wounded. To be sure, some of the facts regarding the riot will always remain elusive. There is no way, for example, to ascertain the exact number of blacks [sic] killed in the riot. The best that can be said of this matter is that between twenty five and one hundred lost their lives. (p. 152)

Smith (1994) writes that this particular anti-African American violence was about political intimidation, but clearly the violence is white supremacist violence. “Thomas also alludes to the desire of Ellenton’s white Democrats to attain political hegemony over the black community: ‘If there should be an effort on the part of blacks to avenge their black prides, the whites…will not spare man of them—they intend to rule or kill the negroes [sic]’” (p. 154). In fact, racial violence in Ellenton was of such magnitude that the United States Congress investigated the matter, recorded in the Congressional journal’s Denial of elective franchise in South Carolina at elections of 1875 and 1876. Despite the so-called Ellenton Riot and the shockwaves of white violence against African Americans, none of this history has appeared in the SRS historical documentation or, as far as we have found, SRARP, again, the organization tasked with keeping the area’s history.

What would readers learn if these African American stories were included? How might the narrative shift to address anti-Black intimidation and ruthlessly unjust practices (systematically and life-related)? What would we learn about African American survival were we to have a fuller account? Were we to comprehend the full economic, social, and generational devastation of Ellenton, Dunbarton, and Meyer’s Mill’s African American communities, how much would be owed to them?

Filling in the Gaps

By highlighting the discrepancies found within historical documents—whether it be an honest mistake, simple oversight, or what we believe to be deceptive messaging—we can conclude that something is missing. Ahmed (2020) writes, “documents are not simply objects; they are a means of doing or not doing something” (p. 85). In this sense, these historical documents may best be understood as nonperformative—i.e., they don’t do what they say. Nonperformativity “describes the ‘reiterative and citational practice by which discourse’ does not produce the effects that it names (Ahmed, 2020, p. 117, quoting Butler, 2011, p. 2, emphasis in original). Yet, we can imagine a history of Ellenton and SRP that enacts justice through unveiling to white audiences the pain that had generational consequences for African Americans. Broader, we believe that alternative histories may help documents to influence action, helping government organizations create more holistic and inclusive histories that call out their role in systems of oppression.

In order to provide a (more) complete account of what took place at SRP, more work is needed that centers and explores the accounts of the marginalized. Throughout this article, we have intentionally provided and analyzed example text of historical documents to home in on SRP property displacement and the effects it had on the Ellenton community. We acknowledge that highlighting these texts is not enough, and capturing personal accounts from remaining citizens is the best approach to discover what truly happened to Ellenton’s African American citizens during the displacement.

Thinking of this article as the foundational piece to a project-series, the next phase introduces readers to a variety of missing pieces to the narratives mentioned throughout the three documents we addressed earlier. By exhuming the stories that were passed down from one generation to the next, we offer readers a glimpse into a more complete narrative of SRP by documenting the encounters of those that were displaced. In other words, we argue that the missing pieces weren’t seen as a priority at the time these documents were created—even though writers of these documents could have easily kept these records if the experiences of African Americans mattered to them. By taking an empirical approach to interview the surviving citizens that were originally displaced (and their families), we hope to provide readers with the effects this displacement has had from one generation to the next—e.g., financial hardship, access to medical resources, educational advancement, etc.

Furthermore, we extend Collins’ (1989) epistemology by documenting oral accounts of undocumented recorded interviews as antenarratives of the oppressed—filling in the gaps where we can. In other words, we provide readers with snippets of transcribed accounts of Ellenton’s residents who have shared their lived experiences of the accounts we’ve outlined throughout this article. By sharing our unique experiences with government officials and SRP, we, too, hold ourselves personally accountable for being stewards of these antenarratives as technical communicators by ensuring the stories of the erased are finally told—70 years after the displacement. By taking this approach, we offer readers comparison examples of deceptive messaging and explore different realities that citizens were subjected to—resulting in disproportionate outcomes.

We invite readers to exhume other stories of displacement and deceptive messaging that have had (or continue to have) a major impact on marginalized communities. As TPC scholars and practitioners, we have a chance to retell the histories of those that are often forgotten, and cases such as SRP are one of thousands that are waiting to be told.


Agboka, G. Y. (2014). Decolonial methodologies: Social justice perspectives in intercultural technical communication research. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 44(3), 297–327. https://doi.org/10.2190/TW.44.3.e

Agrawal, A., & K. H. Redford. 2007. Conservation and displacement. In K. H. Redford & E. Fearn (Eds.), Protected areas and human displacement: a conservation perspective (pp. 4–15). Working paper 29. Wildlife Conservation Society.

Ahmed, S. (2020). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press.

Bartolotta, J. (2019). Usability testing for oppression. Communication Design Quarterly Review, 7(3), 16–29. https://doi.org/10.1145/3321388.3321390

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Boje, D. (2001). Narrative methods for organizational & communication research. Narrative Methods for Organizational & Communication Research, 1–160.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Butler, J. (2011). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

Camden, C., Motley, M. T., & Wilson, A. (1984). White lies in interpersonal communication: A taxonomy and preliminary investigation of social motivations. The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48, 309–325. https://doi.org10.1080/10570318409374167

Cassels, L. (1971). The unexpected exodus. Sand Hill Press.

Cernea, M. M. (2000). Risks, safeguards and reconstruction: A model for population displacement and resettlement. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(41), 3659–3678. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4409836

Clymer, A. (2003, June 27). Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/27/us/strom-thurmond-foe-of-integration-dies-at-100.html

Collins, P. H. (1989). The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14(4), 745–773. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781526421036800465

Crenshaw, K. W., Harris, L. C., HoSang, D. M., & Lipsitz, G. (Eds.). (2019). Seeing race again: Countering colorblindness across the disciplines. Univ of California Press.

DeCuir, J. T., & Dixson, A. D. (2004). “So when it comes out, they aren’t that surprised that it is there”: Using critical race theory as a tool of analysis of race and racism in education. Educational Researcher, 33(5), 26–31. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X0330050

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (3rd ed.). NYU Press.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2023). Critical race theory: An introduction (Vol. 87). NYU press.

Garba, T., & Sorentino, S. M. (2020). Slavery is a metaphor: A critical commentary on Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 52(3), 764–782. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12615

Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707–1791. https://doi.org/10.2307/1341787

“History Highlights.” (April 7, 2021). Savannah River Site. https://www.srs.gov/general/about/history1.htm

“I Don’t Live There Anymore.” (n.d.). https://www.idlta.com/

Jones, N. N., & Williams, M. F. (2018). Technologies of disenfranchisement: Literacy tests and black voters in the U.S. from 1890 to 1965. Technical Communication, 65(4), 371–386. https://www.stc.org/techcomm/2018/11/08/technologies-of-disenfranchisement-literacy-tests-and-black-voters-in-the-us-from-1890-to-1965/

Jones, N. N., Moore, K. R., & Walton, R. (2016). Disrupting the past to disrupt the future: An antenarrative of technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 25(4), 211–229. https://doi.org/10.1080/10572252.2016.1224655

Katz, S. B. (1992). The ethic of expediency: Classical rhetoric, technology, and the Holocaust. College English, 54(3), 255–275. https://doi.org/10.2307/378062

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/095183998236863

Marcuse, P. (1985). Gentrification, abandonment, and displacement: Connections, causes, and policy responses in New York City. Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, 28, 195–240. https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1396&context=law_urbanlaw

Mascia, M. B., & Claus, C. A. (2009). A property rights approach to understanding human displacement from protected areas: the case of marine protected areas. Conservation Biology, 23(1), 16–23. https://oceanfdn.org/sites/default/files/A%20Property%20Rights%20Approach%20to%20Understanding%20Human%20Displacement%20from%20Protected%20Areas.pdf

McCornack, S. A. (1992). Information manipulation theory. Communications Monographs, 59(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759209376245

McCoy, D. L., & Rodricks, D. J. (2015). Critical Race Theory in Higher Education: 20 Years of Theoretical and Research Innovations: ASHE Higher Education Report, 41(3), 1–117. https://doi.org/10.1002/aehe.20021

Miller, C. R. (1979). A humanistic rationale for technical writing. College English, 40(6), 610–617. https://doi.org/10.2307/375964

Mullhouse, J. (2005). “Dead towns: South Carolina.” https://cityofdust.blogspot.com/2005/02/dead-towns-south-carolina.html.

Ransby, B. (2000). Black feminism at twenty-one: Reflections on the evolution of a national community. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 25(4), 1215-1221.

Reed, M. B. (2002). Savanna River Site at Fifty. U.S. Department of Energy.

Ridley, J. (2020, June 8). Op-Ed: Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-08/hbo-max-racism-gone-with-the-wind-movie

Ritchie, S. (2009). “That others may live:” The Cold War sacrifice of Ellenton, South Carolina. (2009). All Theses. 560. https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_theses/560

Simien, E. M. (2004). Black feminist theory: charting a course for black women’s studies in political science. Women & Politics, 26(2), 81–93. https://doi.org/10.1300/J014v26n02_04

Scott, J. B., & Longo, B. (2006). Guest editors’ introduction: Making the cultural turn. Technical Communication Quarterly, 15(1), 37. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq1501_2

Shelton, C. (2020) Shifting out of neutral: Centering difference, bias, and social justice in a business writing course. Technical Communication Quarterly, 29(1), 18–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/10572252.2019.1640287

Slater, T. (2009). Missing Marcuse: On gentrification and displacement. City, 13(2-3), 292–311. https://doi.org/10.1080/13604810902982250

Smith, M. M. (1994). “All is not quiet in our hellish county”: Facts, fiction, politics, and race: The Ellenton Riot of 1876. The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 95(2), 142–155.

Testimony as to the denial of the elective franchise in South Carolina at the elections of 1875 and 1876, taken under the resolution of the Senate of December 5, 1876. Congressional Serial Set 1727 S.misdoc.48.

“The Savannah River Site at Fifty [19502000].” (2020). Savannah River Site. https://www.srs.gov/general/about/50anniv/CONTENTS.pdf

Williams, M. F. (2010). From Black codes to recodification: Removing the veil from regulatory writing. Baywood.

Williams, M. F. (2012). A survey of emerging research: Debunking the fallacy of colorblind technical communication. Programmatic Perspectives, 5(1), 86–93.

About the Authors

Jamal-Jared Alexander, Ph.D. is a social justice researcher and scholar-activist trained in qualitative methodology. Using Critical Race and Black Feminist Theory as his theoretical lenses, his research aims to create dedicated spaces and equitable opportunities for marginalized communities in professional and academic settings. His research also examines access and inclusion in the context of recruitment, retention, and medical rhetorics. Jamal-Jared Alexaner can be reached at jalexa71@utk.edu.

Avery Edenfield, Ph.D., is an associate professor of rhetoric and technical communication in the Department of English at Utah State University. His research agenda works at the intersections of technical, cultural, and public rhetorics with attention to the technical writing strategies marginalized communities employ for self-advocacy, particularly in extra-institutional contexts. Avery Edenfield can be reached at avery.edenfield@usu.edu.