Betraying the Black Citizens of Greenville, MS, in 1927

On May 31 [1927], [MS Senator] LeRoy [Percy], Will [Percy], and the mayor [of Greenville, Mississippi] called an extraordinary mass meeting at City Hall, extraordinary because both races were explicitly urged to attend. A city councilman announced that the city had exhausted its financial resources buying sandbags and other materials to close the protection levee. It had no money to pay laborers. But it intended to have them if it required bayonets. The city council then voted a resolution: “We propose to close the gaps in the protection levee before the coming rise. To do this free labor is required. We hope to do the work with volunteers which will be asked for tonight. If, however, sufficient volunteers do not appear available then conscription means must be used.”

Only blacks would be conscripted. Those in attendance stiffened in protest. John McMiller, a black man who ran a burial association, rose. “The guns are the problem,” he said. “All the white folks carry guns. If you put the guns away, we’ll have a thousand colored men on the levee in the morning.”…

Sunday morning nearly 1,000 black men appeared on the levee, along with several dozen whites overseeing the work. One white man whom blacks already distrusted wore a pistol. McMiller told W. E. Elam, the engineer in charge, “I kept my promise. You didn’t keep yours.” Elam walked over to the man with the gun, pulled it out of its holster, and threw it into the water.

The blacks went to work. Every day they went to work, hundreds at a time, twenty-four hours a day, day after day. For eight days they sweated in the fetid heat, driving piling by hand, filling sandbags, building tramways to carry the sandbags to the gaps, working off two barges.

On the eighth day the levee was sealed and topped. They finished just as the water began rising. It reached four sacks high on the protection levee—two feet higher than the levee itself. But the levee held. In the long struggle of man against the river that year, the closing of the Greenville protection levee marked man’s only victory.

On June 7 the city celebrated at the Saenger Theater. Both black and white were invited. Red Cross stocks were combed for meat, flour, canned peaches, and even rare and valuable sugar, and hotel kitchens and restaurants prepared food. There was music and comedy on stage, laughter off it. It was the closest the city had come to pleasant relaxation since the flood fight began in March. Whites heaped praise on the black community. Will spoke. But he had become irrelevant. His speech went unreported in the paper even though the paper was run by one of his committee members. A resolution passed by the city council was read, thanking “our colored citizens for their very valuable services, so willingly rendered the citizens of Greenville, in their work on the Protection Levee. Their citizenship has been commendable.” Hazlewood Farish, a prominent attorney, told the blacks: “You have the undying thanks of the people of Greenville…. Here in the Delta, and especially in Washington County, there has always been perfect harmony between the races and there will never be anything else. The Mississippi Delta is the best home the negro could find. Here the white people will protect your interests and care for your homes. We want you always to have the same feeling of cooperation as has existed for the last few days.”…

BUT THE CITY had exhausted itself and the strains did not ease. Life was actually becoming harsher. L. O. Crosby, the state’s flood dictator, suggested to [Commerce Secretary and national flood czar Herbert] Hoover, “Believe food and feed rations for refugees and animals should be cut in half while water is up and no work to do.” The recommendation stunned Hoover, brought back to him that Mississippi was a different world. He vetoed cutting food for people but approved cutting feed to animals. Nonetheless, worried about having enough Red Cross money to survive the winter, rations were trimmed back. All refugee camps in Mississippi spent an average of 21 cents a day per capita on food; in Washington County camps spent 15 cents. Whites kept the good Red Cross food for themselves. Giving any to blacks, said one man, would “simply teach them a lot of expensive habits and there was no sense in giving them anything which they had not had before.”

SOURCE: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry (Touchstone, 1998), pp. 325-328

The patrician Senator Percy had until then tried to treat his black constituents decently. He had supported their right to vote, provided some of the best black schools in the South, confronted race-baiting politicians, and even defeated the Klan in Washington County (p. 308). But he needed black labor both to battle the flood and to reconstruct afterwards, so he engineered the reversal of a decision by the local Red Cross committee (headed by his own son Will) to evacuate black citizens along with the whites, keeping the former as labor conscripts guarded by armed white private citizens and National Guard troops. This was the last straw. The stream of blacks flowing upriver turned into a flood. The black population of Chicago grew from 44,103 in 1910, to 109,458 in 1920, to 233,903 in 1930 (p. 417).

UPDATE: The most recent issue of Southeastern Geographer has an article entitled “Black Homeplace Migration to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta: Ambiguous Journeys, Uncertain Outcomes” (Project Muse subscription required). Here’s the abstract:

Between 1910 and 1970, African Americans moved out of the southeastern U.S. in one of the largest movements in human history. Some estimates hold that more than 9 million black Southerners left the South for new lives in the North and West. The migration reached its peak in the 1950s, and began to slow in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, these black migrants and their descendants began coming home to the South, a trend that continues today. This study looks at one region to which many African Americans have returned, the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Regions like the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta have been largely ignored in black return migration studies. Much of the work that has been done to document the return migration of blacks to the South has focused on the South’s urban areas. What has been neglected is the fact that there is also a significant return of African Americans to the rural South, a region of chronic economic stagnation. While the U.S. Census Bureau collects information on its long forms that can lead the researcher to a better understanding of African American migration processes and place attachments, the data are imperfect and can only provide the backbone of understanding. In an attempt to dig beneath the available data, we employ ethnographic methodology in this study. We focus on the geographic life history of Mrs. Dorothy Mae Scott.

A surprising proportion of the “returnees” seem to be youths born and raised elsewhere who have ancestors or relatives from the Delta region. The primary case study involves a destitute lady who brought neither skills nor capital–only nostalgia–back with her.

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