The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 flooded 27,000 square miles over seven states over the course of many months. Levees bursting from Illinois to Louisiana after months of severe rain Thousands, if not millions, of people died. Many were buried or washed into the Gulf of Mexico under tons of river muck. Hundreds of thousands lost their houses, and more than 325,000 individuals, mostly Blacks, spent up to four months in Red Cross camps.
Despite the abolishment of chattel slavery, Black freedmen remained politically marginalized, and a socioeconomic structure based on debt servitude — sharecropping – emerged.
“Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” by John M. Barry, provides a greater understanding of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and how Black lives were horribly neglected.
“Controlling the Mississippi’s wild waters is critical for Louisiana’s Gulf ports and commercial river traffic. More over 40% of the continental United States is covered by the river and its tributaries.”
The interests of banks and planters dictated “flood control” practices along the Mississippi, as Barry documents in his book. Barry also discusses the engineering decisions that led to the construction of the levee system, which only served to exacerbate the natural disaster.
“The hundreds of miles of levees were built by black people who were formerly slaves, then mostly sharecroppers and criminals. The levee work camps were secluded, barbarous places where white foremen could get away with murder and where the pay was much less than picking cotton. When a Mississippi engineer ran out of sandbags during a flood in 1912, he ordered several hundred black convicts to lie down on top of a levee as the water washed over them. The story was concealed by the local press, but the New York Times called it “excellent.”
As a result, we learn that individuals who built the levees were poorly compensated, and that the materials needed to construct them were in short supply, forcing Black lives to be jeopardized in order to act as a barrier.
“As the rivers overflowed in 1927, black work gangs were called up to toil in perilous and ultimately futile attempts to keep the water out,” Barry says. Over 2,000 black men were forced to fill and hurl sandbags onto the levee near Mounds Landing, Mississippi, north of the main Delta town of Greenville. The levee was breached on April 21, gushing water with a force comparable to Niagara Falls. The torrent swept many of the construction teams who were rebuilding the levee.
“No lives were lost among the Guardsmen,” according to an official testimony from a National Guard officer on the scene.
“Everything in its path was washed away by the flood. One farmer barricaded his tenants in barns and cotton gin houses to keep them from fleeing the desolation. Black people who sought refuge in public buildings were forcibly dragged back into the water. Thousands of flood victims fled to or were violently driven to the levees’ narrow crowns, bringing nothing but their obligations to the planters with them. For fear of losing their cheap labor force, the Percy family, the primary planters in Greenville, blocked blacks from boarding barges meant to evacuate the homeless masses.
5,000 black people were compelled to take shelter in warehouses, stores, and other such facilities in the Greenville area alone, while up to 13,000 more lived on an eight-mile-long levee,” according to Barry.
Newspapers in New Orleans, which include vital banks and port facilities, refused to run flood warnings. Approximately 10,000 destitute people were displaced in the end—mostly trappers, fishers, and bootleggers—and few received more than a few dollars in compensation.
To make matters worse, “despite a record budget surplus, the federal government did not provide a dollar of direct relief to the thousands of flood victims.” In the flood zones, the Red Cross set up racially separated camps.
Black families slept in mud-floored tents with no cots, chairs, or utensils, and ate rationed food. Black men had to wear tags identifying them as laborers in order to receive rations and to show which plantation they “belonged to” when they were compelled to work on the levees without pay. Unless they obtained a letter from a white male, women without a working husband were denied supplies. The National Guard monitored the employees in the camps, whipping and abusing them. Guardsmen gang-raped and killed at least one black woman.
Typhoid, measles, mumps, malaria, and venereal diseases ravaged indigent tenant farmers and mill employees, who were already weak from poverty-related ailments including tuberculosis and pellagra. “Those who die are ripped open, filled with sand, and flung into the Mississippi River,” according to the Chicago Defender (4 June 1927). Such horrors served as strong evidence that the country was still afflicted by the poisonous legacy of chattel slavery 60 years after the Civil War.”
According to newspaper sources cited by Myles McMurchy of Dartmouth College in 2016, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 destroyed almost 100,000 homes and displaced nearly 637,000 people in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
While the flood was an act of God that claimed African-American lives and prompted one of the largest fundraising campaigns in American history, the kicker is what the Calvin Coolidge administration and the Red Cross did to people of that stock. In order to gain donations for the rebuilding effort, the Red Cross, together with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, purposefully disguised the atrocities that black refugees suffered in Red Cross camps. Leading black activists tried to bring attention to the atrocities, but Hoover and the Red Cross used the media to portray the rebuilding effort as one of racial harmony and triumph.
Hoover will next employ his mobilization effort a year later to win the presidency.”
The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was not just one of America’s worst natural disasters, but it was also one of its worst cover-ups.
Greenville, Mississippi, was the hardest hit, with 90 percent of the evacuees being black. Greenville’s relief camp saw the worst of the Red Cross’ misdeeds as well as the most egregious of Hoover’s PR stunts. Despite the fact that black flood refugees in Greenville wrote secret letters to the Defender exposing the Red Cross’ negligence, Hoover and the Red Cross told a different tale.
Hoover’s publicity effort, in the end, saved his humanitarian legacy by concealing Red Cross bigotry from the general public. Despite the Chicago Defender’s tireless efforts to bring attention to the Red Cross violations, Hoover’s reputation was not tarnished.
The Great Flood, on the other hand, was a watershed moment in racial relations, since it revealed that slavery was still a threat in Greenville in 1927, prompting black citizens to flee to northern cities like Chicago. Northern Blacks joined their southern counterparts in large protests, culminating in the Scottsboro Boys trial in 1931.