Constance Alexander Recalls the Lasting Legacy of "Connecting People and Place"

May 20, 2020

This week marks the beginning of the second encore airing of Constance Alexander's Connecting People and Place, a thirteen-part series about the former residents of Between the Rivers. Alexander speaks with Tracy Ross about the creation and interviewing process of the oral history project.

Alexander moved from suburban New Jersey to western Kentucky in 1988, ten years prior to the first broadcasting of Connecting People and Place. She recalls driving from the Nashville airport into the lush, summertime green of the Land Between the Lakes area. "It was quite beautiful," she says. "My hometown was two square miles, landlocked by a bigger community. I had never seen so much land that was just there."

"After I was here about a year, I learned that there was a difference between Land Between the Lakes and the state parks and all of that," Alexander continues. "Then, I learned that the Pogue Library - which is a great repository of regional history - had [conducted] oral history projects. I befriended the person who ran the Pogue Library at the time. [He] was very interested in those oral histories. He was the one who got me really interested. It took a while then to discover we could do an oral history project and continue to save those voices."

The voices were those of former residents of the small strip of land between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Hundreds of families were forced to move and leave entire communities behind to make room for a national recreation area. "There was such turmoil and sadness and dislocation and grief caused by people having to move out of their communities," Alexander says. "As a writer, to me, that's material that needs to be preserved."

Over sixty people were interviewed for Connecting People and Place. "Every interview that I did, even with the most unpoetic of people, there was always some poetic element to the stories that people told," Alexander reminisces. "One of my early interviews was with Mildred Bruton, who was from the Tennessee portion of Between the Rivers. We used her voice repeatedly in almost every segment where she said, 'I just wish they could see it like I remember it.' She was so eloquent in describing her life growing up between the rivers."

Connecting People and Place will be re-broadcast for the second time since it's original airing, and there is little wonder why it's so popular amongst the WKMS listening area. "The people of this community...they lived through it," Alexander says. "Like many of us, we've all lived through a number of very important historic events, but we don't always have that perspective. We're living our everyday lives. Sometimes in reflection, you realize other dimensions of the past and other impacts that you may not have been able to absorb at the time that it was all happening."

"I think people are interested in knowing what the power of the government is and has been," Alexander continues. "The whole issue of the right to eminent domain, which was applied to the dislocation of hundreds of families and scores of communities between the rivers. Right of eminent domain continues to be an issue [today], especially if you are the one who is being moved away. People never feel that the compensation that they gain equals the loss that has been brought."

Alexander says that it wasn't until she revisited the series years later that she could more closely understand the full weight of the residents' suffering. "People would say that their grandparents, for example, died of grief. That they had to leave their home, their friends, their church. I had never thought of that. Now that I'm older, I think...it's an understatement to say people died of grief. It was a metaphorical amputation that couldn't really heal, I don't think."

The much broader context of Connecting People and Place Alexander hopes listeners gain from the series is "the importance of capturing your family history and the voices and experiences of the people you love or the people you grew up with. All of that is really important. I think at this particular time when there's such uncertainty over people's health...we have a virus that appears to be more deadly to the elderly...if there was any time that people should pay attention to getting this information together, this is it."

"It's so easy to record. We have the wherewithal to record video and audio of the voices of our families. There's all kinds of information online to give you questions. The other thing that I've learned, besides the importance of interviewing your relatives, is you don't have to ask may questions. People have so much that no one's asked them. Then all of a sudden, somebody's gone, and you realize, I'm not sure what their favorite flower was. I don't know who their teachers were, things like that. Those are the thoughts I would have to share with people - that all that history is so important, and this is the time to start collecting it," Alexander concludes. 

Listen to the first two half-hour installments of Connecting People and Place this Thursday, May 21st, at 12 noon. Rebroadcasts will continue every Thursday at noon through July 2nd. You can listen at 91-3 FM or online at wkms.org.