Scot McFarlane received his Ph.D. in environmental history at Columbia University in spring 2021. His dissertation, Slavery, Pollution, and Politics on Texas’ Trinity River, studies the relationship between rivers, slavery, and urbanization in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, Scot’s work has been awarded several national fellowships including from the American Council of Learned Societies. Scot’s research has been published in the leading history journals such as The Journal of Southern History, Slavery and Abolition, and Environmental History in addition to national outlets like the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. Scot taught his own seminar at Columbia, Rivers, Politics, and Power in the US, and was a finalist for the university-wide Presidential Teaching Award. Scot created “Confluence: The History of North American Rivers” at riverhistories.org that bridges activism and academic methods of knowledge to explore the importance of rivers throughout our continent. In the fall of 2020 Scot organized a conference through the Jefferson Scholars Foundation called “All Water Has a Memory: Rivers and American History” with several hundreds of guests attending from academia, conservation, and local communities.
Slavery, Pollution, and Politics on Texas’ Trinity River
The Trinity River flows from the cities of Fort Worth and Dallas into rural East Texas, providing a physical connection between the urban Sunbelt and the rural South. This study of the Trinity River extends from the plantation economy of the mid-nineteenth century to the emergence of the environmental movement in the middle of the twentieth century in order to show how the river changed in response to the legacy of slavery and urbanization. Most of the major works written about the history of rivers in the United States have emphasized the way in which people and corporations have consolidated their power through the control of rivers to limit democracy. Yet many southern rivers experienced few sustained efforts to transform or control them until well into the twentieth century. In the South, rivers were just as likely to diffuse rather than consolidate any particular group’s power over people. Rural opposition to a proposed canal on the Trinity in the twentieth century was not only rooted in attachment to place, but in residents’ understanding of the river itself. Whereas the upstream cities had largely confined the Trinity between its levees, the people living downstream had dealt with worsened flooding on the Trinity as a direct result of upstream urbanization and this experience meant that they had a better understanding that a project to canalize the river was both financially and ecologically impractical.