Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The 1937 Portsmouth Flood: A Narrative of Redemption or of Racism?

Detail of the Portsmouth 1937 Flood mural, showing Bessie Tomlin (photo by the author)
Photo by Lisa Pasquinelli Rickey of Mural by Robert Dafford

In the video River Voices (2002), senior Portsmouth residents who had lived through the 1937 Flood shared their recollections and reflections of  what was up to that time  the country’s worst flood.   Portsmouth is located in the Bible Belt, a  geographical fact that is reflected in River Voices. Two major events in particular in the bible influenced River Voices, the first  of which  was the Great Flood and the second of which was  the coming  of Christ.  God’s main purpose in the Great Flood was to drown the  wicked descendants of Adam and Eve and start over again with the righteous Noah and his family. But that plan didn’t work out,  so God sent his son Jesus Christ who offered sinful humanity redemption by his sacrifice on the cross. Those who accepted Jesus as their savior were ipso fact saved.
In the narrative of redemption in River Voices, the savior of the 1937 Flood was not a male but a female, and not a white but a black female.   In “The Great Ohio River Flood” (2005), an informative scholarly paper that is available at the Shawnee State  library and online (click here). Lisa M. Pasquinelli (now Lisa P. Rickey) pointed out that  there was a white male, Everett Conley, who drowned in the ’37 Flood. He happened to be about the same age as Jesus, but  no one thought of him as a savior, probably  because  there was no place for him in  a  narrative of redemption, no place for him in River Voices, or anywhere else.  Conley had  not  been trying to rescue someone from drowning; he was rather trying to win a  bet that he could swim two hundred yards in the flood with his clothes on.  It is hard to imagine anyone making that  foolish bet sober. Sober or not, Conley was not  qualified to serve as the savior in   the narrative of redemption,  but Bessie Tomlin was.  She ended up in the water with her clothes on but not to win a bet. She was in the water because  the rowboat that was transferring her from the Washington School to the Lincoln School  had capsized. There  was no doubt about the location of  the capsizing—it was at the corner of  11th and Waller, but  there was doubt about why the boat capsized.  The explanation that came down to us is that Tomlin, after having been splashed by water from  a wave, had stood  up in a panic, causing the boat to tip over.

                                The Wave: Deus Ex Machina

About that wave. The weather during the flood  was not stormy and  the water was not surging. The weather had been unseasonably warm and rainy all winter. The weather remained calm throughout the flood. The many photos taken during the flood show water flowing everywhere but no turbulence, no waves. Before the river could surge over the  floodwall, wreaking havoc on life and property,  city engineers had opened the valves of  at least six sewers  so that river water would flow smoothly and gradually  into the city.  They were trying as much as possible to make it a controlled flood. It is possible that water  splashed on Tomlin, there was so much of it around, but it seems rather unlikely that it would have been from a wave. The wave may have been the deus ex machina of the narrative of redemption, the thing that explained the capsizing of the boat and the drowning of Tomlin. After the boat capsized, the fireman Walter Chick who was in charge  and who presumably had been doing the rowing,  either quickly righted the boat or was rescued by another boat. In either case, he would have been soaking wet. It was  7 PM, on  January 25th, so   it was already dark (this was before daylight saving time), making everything and everyone harder to see. This crucial episode in the narrative of redemption took  place figuratively as well as literally in the dark. In his depiction of Tomlin handing Alberta up to Chick (shown above),  Dafford, heightening the drama, depicted the water at the time of Tomlin’s drowning as tempestuous, but it was the artist, we might say, not nature, making waves. Dafford also depicts Chick as dry, as if he had not been in the water. In the central panel of the flood mural (shown below), painted from a photo, there are no waves. Flooded Portsmouth looks in the central panel as calm as a canal in Venice.

Flooded Portsmouth, looking in central panel  as calm as a canal in Venice
After handing Alberta up to Chick, Tomlin is reported to have cried,  “Save my baby! Save my baby!” Then she disappeared under the water. Because of her sacrifice, she was eventually transformed  into a Christ figure but not just because she had saved her daughter but also because she saved the  city, spiritually speaking. She set the example of self-sacrifice for  all the residents of the city. One of the voices in River Voices said the best thing about the flood was that it was “spiritual.” Another went so far as to say  the  flood was  the best thing that had ever happened to Portsmouth. As the chief victim of the spiritual flood, Tomlin has become arguably the most revered figure in the city’s history. 

                                        Real Time, Mythic Time

  In her paper,  Pasquinelli pointed out some facts related to the flood that I didn’t hear voiced in River Voices. Pasquinelli was not trying to confirm or refute the  narrative of redemption; she was simply trying to establish the truth.   As she wrote in the Acknowledgment, she was trying, in the words of one of her favorite authors,  “to absorb as much of the truth as I could, and to tell it, as best I knew how.” The most important episode of the redemption narrative, Tomlin’s death,   Pasquinelli acknowledged, was a problem. “It is unclear whether Chick was able to right his own boat or whether he had made his way to another boat,” she wrote. And what about Tomlin’s two other children and her mother-in-law, who had been in the boat and were presumably in the water? Like the flood water itself, at this  crucial point in  the narrative, things become murky. When there is  uncertainty about what actually happened in history, as there often is afterward,  and not just in a crisis, myth makers step in  to  reconcile inconsistencies, fill in the gaps with  might-have-beens to keep the narrative spinning,  turning what was  at best an ambiguous incident into a clearly defined one.  It was hard to understand  how  Chick could have taken  Alberta from  her mother in the darkness if the boat had just capsized. Had he righted the heavy sixteen-foot-long john boat, if that was the type of rowboat it was,  then he would have had to retrieve the oars in the dark and positioned the boat to rescue the mother and infant.  In real world there does not appear to have been enough time to do everything, and for everything to happen, but in the mythic time of art there is all the time in the world. 
John Lorentz suspects that the reason  Bessie Tomlin’s self-sacrifice  had been ignored in earlier  accounts  of the flood might have been because of racism. I've been told her original gravestone at the cemetery was quite small. (It has since been replaced by an imposing one.) But he does not voice that suspicion in River Voices because racism would cast a shadow over the narrative of redemption and reflect poorly on the people of Portsmouth, who were portrayed in River Voices as the salt of the earth. But there is another possible  reason why Tomlin’s sacrifice  had previously been ignored. When I was a member of the Scioto County Historical Society some years ago, I heard another account  of the Tomlin drowning from older white female members of the  society,  an account that I was told had originated in the Portsmouth black community. I  will not repeat that account here, since it might have been an unfounded,  possibly racist rumor that had originated in the white, not the black community. It is a very remote possibility, and I say it quite tentatively, but it is possible that Tomlin was a victim of de facto segregation because if she was not being transferred to  a de facto separate-but-equal refuge, she probably would not have drowned.

                                        De Facto Segregation

I gather from Pasquinelli’s paper that de facto segregation might have been  one of the factors that complicated flood relief efforts in Portsmouth. In the earliest stages of the flood, established patterns of behavior, distinctions of class and race in particular,  were tentatively suspended. The de facto segregation of pre-flood  Portsmouth was put on hold. Even Dreamland Pool, which normally was segregated, harbored people of color in the early stages of the flood. The residents of Hilltop were mostly white and a number  of them reportedly took in refugees  from the floodplain, but it is unlikely that  many  if any blacks were among those who were taken in at Hilltop homes.  At the beginning of the flood, before the schools in the floodplain were inundated,  both whites and blacks took refuge in them, but as the flood spread over the floodplain, Lincoln  School on the Hilltop became the school  to which  black refugees were transported.  Lincoln School was the destination the boat Tomlin was in until it capsized. There had been white refugees in the Lincoln School in the earliest stage of  the  flood, but the whites were moved out to make room for blacks because  Lincoln School  had become a sort of separate-but-equal facility for blacks during the flood. Not appreciating being crowded into the Lincoln School, the blacks there protested. “The protest,” Pasquinelli wrote, “was by several hundred African Americans who were being  housed at the still-crowded Lincoln School and who did not want to be removed from the city, fearing they would not be returned promptly after the flood was over.” On  Friday January 21, 1830, all the blacks of Portsmouth had been ordered out of the city. Whether or not they knew of  Black Friday, the blacks at the Lincoln School knew their presence in Portsmouth was not appreciated by some white residents who would just as soon they never returned, partly because they were reproducing so rapidly.  The twenty-two-year-old Tomlin had already given birth to three children and was very close at the time of the flood to giving birth to a fourth. “Overcrowding on the Hilltop,” Pasquinelli wrote, “became a significant problem.” Was part of the problem the protesting blacks in the Lincoln School? When the blacks at the Lincoln School  did finally agree under pressure to be evacuated to cities further north, the percentage of blacks  who were evacuated from the city was proportionally higher than the number of whites who were. When some of those blacks  arrived in Columbus they found themselves in segregated facilities.
In River Voices,  the Lorentzes were not just excellent videographers, they were also excellent myth makers. The enshrinement of Bessie Tomlin  helped  cover up, or at least mitigate,  Portsmouth’s racist past of which so-called  Black Friday was an infamous example. The author of A History of Scioto County (1903), Nelson W. Evans,  called Black Friday a “relic of barbarism,” but that day is no longer part of Portsmouth’s collective memory. Black Friday has been covered up, covered up beautifully it could be said,  both on the floodwall murals, where it was not depicted,  and in  River Voices, where it went unvoiced. 

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