New Books Focus on Friendship, Tragedy
Professor Emerita Elaine Lawless is indefatigable. Having retired from the University of Missouri Department of English in 2015 with six books to her credit, Lawless has recently published two more books and has another scheduled to be released in 2019 by IU Press—a collection of her already published scholarly articles.
This past October, Indiana University Press published her book The Liberation of Winifred Bryan Horner, a memoir of sorts about her friend and mentor, MU professor Win Horner. In July 2018, the University of Mississippi Press will release another book Lawless has written, When They Blew the Levee: Race, Politics, and Community in Pinhook, Missouri. Lawless recently met with a couple of campus communicators to discuss her most recent works.
The Liberation of Winifred Bryan Horner
Lawless joined the MU English department in 1983 as an assistant professor and says when she met Win Horner, she assumed Horner had been a member of the faculty for a long time and was ready to retire. In reality, Horner had been a full professor for just two years when Lawless arrived on campus.
“As I got to know her better, I realized Win was almost 40 when she got her master’s degree at MU, and she had run the composition program for almost 20 years,” Lawless says. “She had decided she wasn’t going to get anywhere without a master’s. Then at the age of 52, she earned her PhD at the University of Michigan. At 62, Win got an endowed chair in rhetoric at Texas Christian University (TCU), and they kept her 15 years. She came back here at age 75 and was still vibrant and doing all sorts of stuff.”
Wednesdays with Win
Lawless says Horner had always talked about writing her memoir because she had an interesting story to tell and she thought other women might be encouraged by her struggles and her success. The pair met for wine each Wednesday. Lawless often suggested Horner tell her story, and she would record it and have the transcriptions typed, which then Win could develop into a book, but Horner resisted until her health began to fail around 2013 when she developed COPD.
‘Win was 90 and failing, so she called me up and said, ‘Okay, I’m ready—if you’ll record my oral history, my life story, and give me the transcriptions to edit, we can do this together,” Lawless says. They finished recording Horner’s story on Jan. 29, 2014. Win’s husband Dave called Lawless Feb. 4 to tell her his wife had died.
Lawless says Horner had wanted to be a writer since the age of 12. She and Dave both graduated from Washington University, and Dave wanted to farm, so they lived on a farm outside of Columbia for 20 years, where they were raising their four children. “She was not happy on the farm and became depressed—that’s why she came to MU and got her master’s and later her PhD,” Lawless says.
A Lasting Legacy
Lawless says Horner had a major impact at MU and at TCU. “The campus writing program at MU and the writing-across-the-curriculum model, which is now the national approach to teaching writing—she did it, that was part of her legacy,” Lawless says. “Her other legacy is her graduate students at TCU because they basically now teach and run the major rhetoric and composition programs in the country.”
Horner also served as a mentor to many young women, including Lawless when she arrived at MU in 1983. In fact, Horner established the Winifred Bryan Horner Scholarship in A & S for women who are single and the head of their household. Lawless has pledged that the proceeds from the sale of her book about Horner will be donated to the scholarship fund. Lawless also wants to turn Horner’s story into a play. The working title is, “Wednesdays with Win.”
When They Blew the Levee: Race, Politics, and Community in Pinhook, Missouri
In the middle of the night on May 2, 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew large holes in the Bird’s Point–New Madrid levee and flooded 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri in an attempt to save the town of Cairo, Illinois, from flooding. The small Missouri community of Pinhook remained under 28 feet of water for two weeks; nothing was salvageable when the floodwaters receded.
Lawless, who grew up in the Missouri Bootheel, had never heard of Pinhook.
“My mother still lived down there, so in 2011 when this happened, I was visiting her, and I read an article in the Sikeston Democrat about Pinhook, Missouri and how it had been destroyed by the Army Corps of Engineers when they breached the levee,” she says. The article included the phone number of Debra Tarver, the mayor of Pinhook, so Lawless asked to meet with her at her temporary home in Sikeston. “I told the mayor I was very interested in this town and what had happened to the residents there, and I told her that in all of the time I had lived there I had never heard of this African American town,” Lawless says.
Displaced and Dispersed
In fall 2011, Lawless was attending a conference in Bloomington, Indiana, and met with one of her former graduate students for coffee. Todd Lawrence, now a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, agreed to collaborate with Lawless as she researched the impact of the Corps’ levee breach on the community of Pinhook. Also raised in Missouri and with close ties to another African American town, called Penneytown, Lawrence drove to Columbia from Minnesota to pick up Lawless, and the pair would travel to Sikeston, East Prairie, Charleston, and other small communities where the displaced residents of Pinhook had found shelter. Their work researching the town and interviewing all the displaced Pinhook people took seven long years.
Pinhook was established in 1940–41 by a group of African-American farmers who had been told there was land available for black farmers to purchase in southern Missouri. That land happened to be located in the floodplain, and officials with the Corps of Engineers warned the farmers they had the right to flood it at any time. Undaunted, the new residents drained the swamps, built a town and farmed their fields, bringing the rest of their families up from Mississippi and Tennessee. In time, the community included a church, a gas station, and a fellowship hall. Lawless says it was an idyllic, safe, beautiful town for decades, until the events of May 2011. Debra Tarver told them the Corps met with local white farmers to warn them of the impending levee breach, but none of the black farmers were invited to the meetings with Corps officials, and no state or federal official ever warned the residents of Pinhook that disaster was eminent,
“Debra (Tarver) tells me that she heard on TV that there was a mandatory evacuation order for the area, and her brother called from New York to tell her the order was on the news and to pack up her stuff and get out. She kept thinking officials would come warn her, but they didn’t,” Lawless says. Community members rented U-Haul trucks and brought in tractors from the farms to evacuate the residents, all of whom made it out safely.
Lawless says the Federal Emergency Management Agency refuses to help the displaced residents because the levee breach “was not a natural disaster.” Residents had been unable to buy flood insurance since they lived in the floodplain. She says residents got a “meager amount of money” from the State Emergency Management Agency, but it was not enough to buy land or build a house. Tarver kept filling out paperwork seeking restitution to rebuild their town, but her frustrations grew.
“The matriarch of the community said to us, ‘You know, they say this isn’t about race, but I think it’s about race,’” Lawless says.
The Next Chapter
Lawless says the former residents of Pinhook gather each Memorial Day weekend to reconnect and reminisce. As always, she and Todd attended the event this year, finding developments she says complicate the story. Lawless say someone at Catholic Charities in the Bootheel, who had seen Lawless’ documentary on Pinhook [Taking Pinhook, on YouTube], contacted the Mennonite Disaster Relief Organization in Ohio, which sent Amish builders from the state to construct tract houses on the edge of Sikeston, next to a cotton field. She says about a dozen families now have new homes, but that she and Todd remain angered by the fact that because the charities stepped in and helped some people with individual houses, this will make it harder for the community to hold the government accountable for destroying their town.
“I think it means no one can go after the government,” she says. “How would you continue your fight for restitution if they are watching you get some new houses in Sikeston?” Lawless plans to continue to visit with the former Pinhook residents to see how their story unfolds. She and Lawrence plan to write an article for a major national magazine about what has happened to the citizens of Pinhook and why they should be able to argue for the relocation of their entire community on higher ground.
While serving as a faculty member in English, Lawless received the Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching, a Gold Chalk Award and a Purple Chalk Award, and she was named a Curators’ Professor and an MU Alumni Distinguished Professor. In the past several years, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work to establish a graduate program in Folklore Studies at MU and a Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award from the American Folklore Society. She served as President of the AFS from 2006-2010. This summer, she will join the faculty of the Society of the International Ethnological Association at the Summer Field School in Portsoy, Scotland.