THE MOUNDS LANDING LEVEE broke at seven-thirty on the morning of April 21. While Greenville waited for the water to reach the city’s rear protection levee, the city was in panic. Few fled by car, afraid of being caught by the water on the flat Delta land, but trains out of the city were packed. Grocery stores and wholesale suppliers of every imaginable good were packed. Meanwhile, late that morning, Will, representing the Red Cross, went to the Opera House, a three-story building one block from the levee, and sat down with Will Whittington, the Delta’s congressman, General Curtis Green, head of the Mississippi National Guard, A. G. Paxton, the local National Guard commander, and Billy Wynn, a rising power in the county, to plan for the disaster. Even if Greenville remained dry, refugees from the rest of the county would inundate it. Will was nominally in charge, but the meeting was disorderly and chaotic. Paxton spoke first. He was short and officious, and he loved the military (a general in Korea, his men nicknamed him “Bullwhip Shorty”). He stated that he had “commandeered” the building where they were meeting, and spoke of assigning labor battalions as though he were moving armies about. The congressman uselessly promised to demand federal aid. Green arranged for more men and matériel to hold the protection levee. Wynn did the most useful thing: he took responsibility for setting up kitchens for refugees. When the meeting adjourned, Will returned home and began working on his poetry. He would write feverishly deep into that night. He knew it could be his last opportunity for weeks.
While he wrote, the water reached David Cober’s house outside the city. Cober remembers: “We heard this storm coming through the woods. It wasn’t a storm. It was the water.” It came in as rolling surf first, five-foot-high breakers, crashing against the house; the house shook under the attack, then the water rose. “Our house was six or seven feet off the ground. The water came in fourteen or fifteen feet deep.” The house had only one story; water entered and forced them to stand on tables. It kept rising. In the darkness of the night, Cober dove down into the swirling water looking for an ax, kept diving until he found it, then hacked a hole in the roof and his family climbed out onto it.
The Greenville protection levee stood eight feet high. The water paused briefly, then ripped the levee apart as smoothly as if unzipping it. The fire whistle went off. The sound was, Will said, “like zero made audible.”
THEN CAME THE CHAOS. Water roared and hissed, the fire whistle blasted, church bells clanged, animals barked and neighed and bellowed in terror. In Newtown, the black neighborhood closest to the protection levee, hundreds of families began to wade through the rising water to the Mississippi levee, the highest ground in the Delta. Twenty-five hundred others fled to the courthouse, packed it tight. The water rose quickly to 3 feet, 5 feet, 8 feet, dark churning water, chocolate with brown foam. The currents poured into downtown, sweeping the streets empty. “Water was just rolling in, like you see the waves down in Gulfport,” recalled Jesse Pollard. “They were high—you saw horses and cows floating. If you were standing on the levee, you could see people floating who had drowned. It was a sight you never forget.”
One last train tried to escape. But outside the city the crevasse water was roaring over the railroad embankment, washing it away in its entirety, leaving the rails turned upright like a picket fence. A mile beyond the city limits the train derailed. It would remain there, a twisted Gargantua lying helpless, for months.
In the Percy home, father and son were on the phone long before dawn, collecting information, tracking the water, locating food supplies and boats, contracting for boats to be built. Now in the early daybreak, LeRoy told his son wearily, “Guess you better go while you can. I’ll be along.” Will headed for a meeting with the relief committee in the poker room of the Knights of Columbus hall. Then his mother, Camille, and the cook went out to gather what final groceries they could find.
LeRoy was finally alone. He had spent his life building the Delta. His two greatest adversaries had always been the river and the shortage of labor. The river was invading his home now, snaking down his street, Percy Street, flooding his garden, overflowing his tennis court—the only one in the city—climbing the steps of his porch. And he knew the river would send blacks flooding north, stripping the Delta of labor.
The life he had known was dying. It had been so at least since Vardaman had so bitterly defeated him. He expected it to die. But if he was fatalistic, he had never simply yielded to fate. One did all that one could. He could do nothing about the river. But he could still control men. He picked up the telephone.
He first tracked down the governor and said he wanted the state to guarantee Delta banks that any funds expended for relief would be repaid. Murphree agreed. Then Percy got on the phone to New York bankers and began soliciting money, both as contributions and loans.
Meanwhile, Will and the relief committee were trying to establish order. They needed to take charge of boats, food supply, drinking water, kitchens, lights, transportation, sanitation, police. But there were crossed lines of authority, not enough resources, not enough food, no shelter for the refugees.
Rescuers were depositing thousands of refugees from all over the Delta on the levee, to join the city’s own thousands already there. Farmers moved cattle, mules, horses, and pigs to the levee as well. The Mississippi River lay on one side, the flood on the other. The levee crown was only 8 feet wide, its landside slope an additional 10 to 40 feet wide before touching water. A line of people already stretched north from downtown for more than a mile.
At midday LeRoy called his son, who dispatched a boat to take him to the relief headquarters. LeRoy’s presence mattered. People too busy to come to the phone for Will or Paxton came to the phone for him. Though Will nominally gave the orders, Hunter Kimbrough, who stayed in the Percy home for the first ten days of the flood, recalls, “Senator Percy was in charge.” Despite the shortage of boats, LeRoy had a 17-foot motorboat, a driver, and a mechanic assigned to him personally. That first day he, Will, Billy Wynn, and Paxton decided to declare “voluntary” martial law. They had no legal authority to do so. The mayor had no role in the decision, nor the city council, nor the county board of supervisors. But the next edition of the newspaper announced: “All citizens of Greenville, all refugees…and all property necessary in Relief work are subject to orders from this [National Guard] headquarters…. Disobedience will not be tolerated.” The authority came from the signatures: Will, as chairman of the Washington County Relief Committee, T. R. Buchanan, the Red Cross relief expert assigned to the county, and LeRoy for “the Citizens.”
Martial law solved little. Virtually the entire county was underwater, as much as 20 feet of water. The current everywhere was ferocious. People took shelter in railroad boxcars, in the upper stories of cotton gins, oil mills, houses, and barns. Thousands clung to roofs or trees, or sat on the levee awaiting pickup. The rain and cold continued. By the second day after the crevasse, despite the several thousand, nearly all whites, who fled the city, refugees pushed Greenville’s normal population of 15,000 to nearly 25,000. Every hour rescuers were bringing hundreds more in from around the county. Twenty-five thousand more people were scattered around the rest of the county. The city was cut off from supply. The National Guard had only 5,000 rations.
By now five miles of the narrow levee were crammed with refugees, almost all of them there black, and refugees were still pouring in. Thousands of head of livestock extended farther. The number of refugees and livestock would keep growing. Without shelter or dry clothes in the continuing rain, with temperatures dropping into the forties at night, with only the sparest of rations, the refugees stood in mud, sat in mud, slept in mud. The Greenville Democrat-Times reported: “Flood conditions continue to grow worse in Greenville as refugees continue to be brought in from outlying sections and are huddled in every available space…. Cold weather added to the suffering as food and water supply here becomes lower.”
The situation was becoming life-threatening. Rumors began to spread of sickness, of a possible epidemic. An urgent call for typhoid serum went out. Dogs swarmed over the levee; without food or their owners, they were barking endlessly and rapidly turning wild, making rabies a real threat. The levee was a madhouse. General Malin Craig, commander of the Army’s IV Corps in Atlanta, was unsympathetic to the refugees in general and shipped out tents and field kitchens only reluctantly, at a niggardly pace. But even he warned the War Department: “Conditions Greenville area critical.”
Rescue barges already full began squeezing white women and children aboard in Greenville to take them to Vicksburg, where they could make rail connections elsewhere or remain in well-organized camps. The barges also removed some of the blacks to Vicksburg. Yet Greenville’s population continued to grow as even more refugees arrived.
Then the city water supply became contaminated and useless. An Associated Press dispatch reported, “The situation here, with the water supply gone, most of the food destroyed, and…ten thousand…camping on the levee, was desperate.” Will, as chairman of the relief committee, had tried to respond. He had just sent out an urgent plea for 20,000 loaves of bread. But even if bread came, the logistic problems were long-term, not short-term. The flood had cut off the city for weeks, possibly months. Without rail connections, supplying Greenville would be nearly impossible.
The most obvious solution was to evacuate the refugees. But evacuation would denude Washington County of its labor supply, particularly sharecroppers. They would have nothing to return to. Most of them had with them on the levee the little they had been able to salvage before the flood washed their homes away. All that remained were their debts to the planters. It could take years to replace the croppers. They might never be replaced.
The question of evacuation went to the essence of Will’s concept of a worthy aristocracy, of noblesse oblige, even of honor. Keeping the refugees on the levee risked their lives. There was no question of what was right, and therefore no choice.
Yet a decision of such import had to have at least the appearance of broad support. Will did not consult Paxton, a cotton broker, or Wynn. He consulted only his Red Cross committee, Percy loyalists. Its vice chairman was Judge Emmet Harty, another bachelor who had gone to war with Will and was his closest friend in Greenville, and its members included Charlie Williams, who ran the Percy cotton compress, and Will Hardie, the manager of Percy’s Trail Lake Plantation. “Whatever Senator Percy wanted, that’s what white folks in this county did,” says the son of another committee member, B. B. Payne.
Will told them the refugees had to be evacuated. They believed he spoke for his father. Still, several committee members objected. Will insisted. They faced a great human disaster. One could not risk hundreds of lives simply over an economic question. Grudgingly but unanimously, they approved Will’s plan.
On April 23, the Greenville paper, whose owner served on Will’s committee and was another longtime supporter, said, “The city will almost be evacuated within a few days.” Will informed Governor Murphree, who declared, “It is the plan of state authorities to remove from Greenville all the refugees and all other persons who desire to leave the city.”
But Will had not discussed the plan with his father.
Senator Percy had been focused on problems only he could resolve, most recently convincing banks in New York, New Orleans, and St. Louis to honor checks drawn on Delta banks. Will had simply assumed his father’s support and made the decision himself. Evacuation was after all the right thing to do, and the only honorable option.
What they did would define their society.
ON MONDAY, April 25, the government steamer Control left Greenville with 500 white women and children. The Minnesota loaded more than 1,000 refugees, mostly black, at the wharf. Two other steamers, the Wabash and the Kappa, were standing by. The Sprague, Tollinger, and Cincinnatiwere en route, each towing barges capable of carrying several thousand each. The city would be virtually emptied in a day.
Blacks who lived in Greenville protested to Will that they did not want to leave their homes. Will simply had troops round them up, later explaining, “[N]one of us was influenced by what the Negroes themselves wanted: they had no capacity to plan for their own welfare; planning for them was another of our burdens.”
But he could not ignore angry planters who went to LeRoy and denounced any evacuation. LeRoy told them Will was in charge. They then stormed into Red Cross headquarters to demand that he rescind his order. Will responded bitingly, accusing them of thinking of their pocketbooks while he was thinking of the Negro’s welfare. Furious now, the planters went back to LeRoy. He gave them no satisfaction. But when they left, LeRoy went to find his son.
LeRoy Percy had spent his life trying to help Delta blacks. He had opposed stripping them of the right to vote, had insisted upon educating them decently, had confronted the race-baiting politicians like Vardaman and Bilbo, had even confronted and defeated the Klan in Washington County. For all this he had earned praise from around the nation. Yet all this he had done not simply because it was right and good; self-interest had operated too. He had needed their strong backs.
Now he found Will bursting with fury on the levee. It resembled a war zone, all confusion and noise, choked with smoke from kitchens, people on litters, squalling children, and a few men with purpose struggling to establish order. White women and children massed around gangplanks waiting to board the steamboats; the barges would carry Negroes and terrified livestock. Several white men, claiming illness or urgent business, also demanded space on a steamer; the crowd hissed at them for being cowards and the National Guard turned them back. Gangs of black men under white foremen were unloading supplies. Several more gangs of men were banging hammers, building a scaffold above the floodwater to connect the Red Cross headquarters, the second floor of the American Legion Building, the Opera House, the Cowan Hotel, and the levee.
Through the chaos, through the thickets of people, LeRoy and Will began to walk. Along the levee they walked as if alone, a study in generations. The elder could easily have been a character out of Henry James, immaculately dressed, formal, pacing through the muddy quagmire in a suit and hunting boots, a man of substance and influence and no illusions. Will, smaller physically, less of a man in every way by the standards of the Delta, had illusions of a once-great and noble South, of a brilliant and shimmering aristocracy, and of the perfection of the man beside him.
LeRoy raised the issue of the evacuation gently, asking Will if he had listened carefully to the complaints of the planters. Yes, Will replied sharply, he had heard from louts who cared more about money than about what was right. He would not be cowed by them. LeRoy agreed. One did not yield to pressure. Yet was it really necessary to send the blacks away? Could steamboats not supply the refugees on the levee? Had Will really considered the harm to the Delta of removing its labor force?
Their conversation was intense but private. Will would not be shaken, not even by his father. Despite the stream of decisions others needed from them, no one interrupted. They paced, their boots mud-caked, up the levee, turned, headed back. Neither yielded to the other.
Finally, LeRoy said that the decision was too important for Will to make alone. He had to consult the other members of his committee. Will replied that he had done so. There was no reason to speak to them again. Consult them again, LeRoy insisted. Do it for him.
Will finally agreed. They stood outside the Red Cross headquarters. Will went in and abruptly ordered the loading of the refugees to stop. The steamboat captains angrily protested that their boats and barges represented a tremendously valuable resource in the disaster. Far more than Greenville was involved. They could not simply wait; time was too valuable. Will would not budge for them either. The captains had to wait.
Instead, he summoned his committee members to an emergency meeting. But before it convened, LeRoy informed each member that Will had spoken only for himself in proposing evacuation. He asked them to oppose the evacuation now and, to prevent embarrassment to Will, not to reveal the fact that he had talked with them. With relief the members agreed. When Will convened the committee a few hours later, one after another the members said the Negroes should stay on the levee. Will was astounded. How could they reverse themselves? Why? He argued with them for two hours, but the committee members were as unyielding as he. Finally, Will capitulated, then went to tell furious ship captains that the blacks would remain on the levee.
The steamers did not leave quite empty. The Wabash, capable of carrying several thousand, departed with thirty-three white women and children.
ALTHOUGH WILL CLAIMED that only years later did he learn what his father had done, he had to have known what had happened. He knew these men. He understood they would have abandoned him only for his father. His father had betrayed honor and his own son, for money. There is a saying that if a man has to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth. Will chose not to be a fool. He wrote a poet friend how much he appreciated his father’s support, that without it he would have had a “breakdown.” He was forty-two years old and had been treated as less than a child. In his humiliation, he began to humiliate the black men and women at his mercy on the levee. There would be national repercussions.
THE NEXT MORNING Hoover and his traveling party arrived in Greenville on their first trip downriver. Hoover was cordial. He was pleased to meet LeRoy, of whom he had heard so much good. He spoke with Will of Belgium. Then he listened.
Hoover had already approved the evacuation plan. Now Will presented a new plan as if it were his own. Rather than evacuate the city, it would become a point of concentration. All supplies—food, clothing, tents, construction material—for the roughly 50,000 people stranded in the county would be shipped to Greenville, unloaded, and transshipped elsewhere. A refugee camp would be established on the levee; blacks from the camp would provide the workforce to move these goods.
Hoover approved, then headed south, to be met that evening by Jim Thomson in Vicksburg. Meanwhile, Will issued a public statement that, to ease the burden, “We are urging all white women and children to leave the city. White men may also go although there is a need for them to stay…. There is need for negro men to stay and establish the camp.”
The same day Hoover visited, the first refugee death occurred in Greenville. A black man who had not eaten for days gorged himself on bananas and suddenly collapsed, dead. His body was put in a boat and rowed out into the middle of the river. Several thousand people, white and black, silently lined the levee. Stones were tied around the dead man’s feet and arms. A minister said a few words. A boatman lifted the body over the gunnel. It splashed into the river and sank. But rumors spread that the National Guard had thrown him into the river alive as punishment for stealing the bananas.
There were other rumors. The police chief was a man named Red Taggart. He could be rough. On Saturday nights he would find blacks rolling dice, walk in, and nobody would move. He’d pick up all the money on the table and smile. But he treated people fair in the jail. He didn’t beat people. Now, in the flood, he regularly towed black bodies found floating in the streets to the levee. Untrue rumors spread that Taggart had caught the men looting and shot them, then towed the body through the streets as a warning. Looting had become a problem, and this rumor was useful to whites; instead of correcting it, they decreed an 8 P.M. curfew enforced only on blacks.
The truth was harsh enough. Although the Red Cross would ultimately operate 154 “concentration camps” in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, only one camp would generate enough criticism to bring intense political pressure on Hoover—the camp on the levee in Greenville. And his approval of Percy’s course would haunt him.
IN GREENVILLE, a week after the flooding, a very different routine for black and white had developed. Approximately 4,000 whites remained on second floors and in offices or hotels. A few hundred whites, like the Percys, continued to occupy their own homes. For whites daily life came to resemble a dreary holiday. Paperboys delivered the newspaper, which was down to four pages, by boat. The scaffolding became a boardwalk extending throughout the business section; peddlers set up stands on it and sold soda, peanuts, and popcorn. Frank’s Café was accessible from the boardwalk and stayed open twenty-four hours. Rowboats were ordered to the middle of streets so motorboats could use the deeper water near the curb. City court opened. One mechanic used blocks of wood to elevate the frame of his truck five feet and drove down the shallower streets; others imitated him. Boys invented new games: they punctured the carcasses of floating cows and mules and ignited the escaping gas. The 125-room Cowan Hotel on Main Street, the Delta’s finest, kept open its Blue Bird Café, poolroom, cigar stand in the lobby, and fine dining room. On its mezzanine, people constantly played the piano, sang, and danced. It had no trouble getting meat and supplies from Armour, Swift, or Goyer. The general public could find, for the right price, most things—except sugar, which did run out—either from bootleggers or at the Roslyn Hotel, where a thriving black market operated.
But elsewhere in Greenville the situation was desperate. Two black children had been bitten by rabid dogs, and orders had gone out to shoot all dogs on the levee. Percy Bell, a prominent attorney involved in relief work (and not related to the Percys), had sent his family out of the city. Ten days after the crevasse he wrote them: “The town is a pitiful and horrifying sight. The yards with the trees and abundance of roses everywhere are really beautiful, and yet when one gets near and sees the water in the houses and furniture floating around on the inside, sees a dead mule clinging to the veranda, the horror of it strikes in. Hundreds of mules have been dragged to the levee and dumped in.” In the black neighborhoods, where the water had come hard, many houses were only splinters. On Nelson Street “water [is] up to the top of all roofs, tops of porches and second stories are covered with darkeys and cats in one terrific welter.”
Roughly 5,000 blacks crowded into warehouses, oil mills, and stores. Up to 13,000 more blacks lived on the levee in an elongated city that ultimately snaked more than eight miles, complete with electric lights, pipes for water, barges for latrines. Tents had finally arrived for shelter and the weather had turned warm, but the tents were not floored and cots had not arrived, so refugees still slept on the wet ground. There were no eating utensils or mess hall. Blacks had to eat with their fingers, standing or squatting on their haunches like animals. Beyond the line of tents, for more miles farther up the levee, were thousands of livestock. The stench was unbearable.
In the first hours of the flood, black and white had risked their lives to save each other. There had been a feeling of humanity, not race. Now the disparity between life for black and white seemed greater than in normal life. Blacks, who had believed Greenville to be a special place, felt betrayed.
Petty insults stirred more resentment. Whenever the steamer Capitol pulled away from the dock, its calliope routinely played “Bye Bye Blackbird.” It was like a slap in the face to the blacks; even many whites were bothered. The blacks also resented Will’s orders, which were printed every day on the newspaper’s front page. First he required “groups of negroes outside of Greenville…[to] get to the levee and be rationed there.” Leaders of the black community complained. So did whites. Bell told LeRoy that moving “all the negroes from the country to the levee…was utterly impossible…. There are not tents to shield them and nothing to feed them.” And if they stayed where they were, “as soon as the water was down to a foot or two they could work through the water” and accomplish something. Within hours after the paper published his order, Will countermanded it, reversing himself again, this time publicly, further undermining his own authority.
There were more substantive problems. The food blacks received was vastly inferior to that given whites, and not much more than what was needed to stay alive. Canned peaches were sent in; none went to blacks for fear it would “spoil” them. Charlie Loeb, who ran a first-rate restaurant, slaughtered six to eight cattle a day at the main levee kitchen. Few blacks got the meat.
But the most serious grievance penetrated to the soul. The blacks were no longer free. The National Guard patrolled the perimeter of the levee camp with rifles and fixed bayonets. To enter or leave, one needed a pass. They were imprisoned.
This was true in every camp in the state. Mississippi was determined to keep its workers if it required force to do so. The governor declared, “It is our duty to return these people to their homes and every camp under our control will handle the situation in this manner.” Green, the Guard commander, ordered, “[I]n no case will the camp commander release refugees without…an American Red Cross request in writing…or upon direct orders from this office.” The Red Cross cooperated. A memo on “return of refugees” stated, “Plantation owners desiring their labor to be returned from Refugee Camps will make application to the nearest Red Cross representative,” whereupon they “will issue passes to refugees.” In Greenville, Will told planters to “furnish a list of their negro tenants” and to advise him “when they wanted the tenants returned to their homes.”
Oscar Johnston did more than supply a list. He ran the Delta & Pine Land Company, the largest cotton plantation in the world, and counted among his intimates not only LeRoy and such bankers as Jim Butler and Rudolph Hecht in New Orleans, but also executives at the Chemical and Chase Banks in New York and stockholders in London. Like LeRoy, he had charm and joked, “I have seen nothing but water for the last three weeks, and what I have seen has been too muddy for bathing and too filthy to serve as a chaser.” Also, like LeRoy, he had no humor when it came to labor. In an effort to hold tenants from his plantation, he established his own refugee camp, supplied by the Red Cross, patrolled by the National Guard, and managed by his foremen. But 450 of his tenants had been rescued from rooftops or the levee and taken to Vicksburg; he had the Illinois Central make up a special train, without charge, to carry them 260 miles to his camp at Deeson.
In Greenville control was tighter still. While whites in the city could stay in their homes, Will ordered all Greenville blacks to the levee. He intended to use them. Salvador Signa, a white man, was one of those sent to round up Negroes. He wore a gun. “‘Don’t give ’em anything to eat,’ they told me. ‘Get them to go to levee…’ ‘Hey white folks,’ this nigger said. ‘I’s hungry.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you don’t have to be hungry long. You can just put your feet right in the boat and we’ll take you right on up to the levee, up to the kitchen, and we’ll give you all the food you want.’”
Once on the levee, blacks were worked. LeRoy, seeking more aid from the Red Cross, described the need to the press: “Here 440,000 acres of land in one county, totally submerged, touch no dry land except the remnant of the levee on the western border. Every ounce of food for man or beast has to be transported first by large boats and then distributed by all sorts of small boats over miles of yellow, ofttimes stormy water, to a hundred almost inaccessible spots, each holding from 25 to 3,000 people and their surviving livestock.”
Unloading barges to feed and supply nearly 50,000 people, and thousands of animals—horses, mules, cattle, pigs, oxen, poultry—required constant labor. Reloading onto smaller boats for distribution required labor. To supply drinking water alone meant unloading thousands of 5-gallon containers, each weighing more than 40 pounds. Preparing the food, feeding livestock, sorting and distributing supplies, all required labor. Extending the boardwalk, cleaning buildings, repairing the water supply system, putting flooring under tents, all required labor. Will Percy had to get labor. Humiliated twice by being forced to reverse himself, sensitive to criticism, he had turned cold. He was not in the mood to ask black men for help. He had the National Guard.
Paxton, the Guard commander, wired the state adjutant general, “Imperative to increase guard force here…. Urge you order 200 additional guardsmen here at once.” The additional troops came. Will used them against the blacks. And word of the treatment of black refugees began to leak out of Greenville, despite its isolation, into the North.
IN GREENVILLE blacks had believed they had a special relationship with whites, especially the Percys. LeRoy had allowed them pride. Now Will was emasculating them, turning them into cattle, with each new order stripping more pride away. Will declared, “No able-bodied negro is entitled to be fed at all unless he is tagged as a laborer.”
The tags were given out with a job assignment and also used to keep track of those who had received typhoid shots; they were large, like laundry tags, worn on shirts. To wear one was humiliating. Without one, a man could get no food for himself or his family.
And in other refugee camps, even where work was forced, laborers earned wages. Will ordered that all Red Cross work be done for free. Food was the only compensation. The levee camp became a slave camp.
Salvador Signa delivered the mail and recalled: “Me and Horace both had great big guns strapped on, heavier than the [mail] bags…. We’d just knock on those tents and those darkeys…we’d tell ’em, ‘All right. We got some [mail sacks] to go.’ Well, they’d always want to haul mail so they wouldn’t have to unload that alfalfa hay on them barges in the hot sun…. If the sack was heavy, I’d let one darkey carry in the front and one in the back.”
The Guard was far more brutal. The Guard had power of the most elemental kind. They had guns and controlled men in a camp. Even without the complication of race, such power intoxicates, creates arrogance. And there was race.
John Johnson, a black refugee, recalled: “They wasn’t given too good a food from that Red Cross up there…. Some of the people got beat bad up there. Everybody had a gun—white kids and men, and of course you had the National Guard.”
Mrs. Henry Ransom, a white, remembered: “The Guard would come along and say, ‘There’s a boat coming up. Go unload.’ If they didn’t hurry up, they’d kick them. They didn’t mind taking their guns, pistols out, and knocking them over the head.”
Percy McRaney, a black, said: “The colored people caught tough times around Greenville…. Whites were kicking coloreds and beating them and knocking them around like dogs. Hungry people, they wouldn’t feed them sometimes.”
Joe Reilly, a white man, remembers: “On the levee during the day you only saw women and kids…. The mood was sad, pitiful looking. There wasn’t any singing. The men were all out working somewhere.”
Mrs. Addie Oliver, a black, complained blacks were treated “just like dogs, I’ll tell you. They were treated like dogs.”
John Butler, a black, went from Greenville to Vicksburg and complained he had worked all night, been relieved, then was “caught” in the morning by soldiers who “carried us up there and whipped us with a gun strap.” An official investigation conceded that numerous “negroes…were caught slipping out of camp and were…whipped, the men using a strap taken off of one of their rifles.”
Two particular companies of the Guard, from Corinth and Lambert, Mississippi, neither of which were in the Delta, beat black refugees, beat them for back talk, beat them for trying to leave the camp. Men from these two companies were accused of theft—entering tents at will, interrupting card games, taking all the money—rape, and at least one murder. Will sent home the troops from the two companies, later conceding the Guard was “guilty of acts which profoundly and justly made the negroes fear them.” But the departure of the two detachments did not soothe black feelings. Will’s orders had set the tone. He could not or would not reset it. And he still needed workers.
Weeks after the levee broke, water was still pouring through both the Mounds Landing break and the city’s protection levee. Will notified the Red Cross in Memphis and Vicksburg of continued food shortages, then wrote a friend that the situation resembled “the Argonne in its strain and confusion and distress.” On May 12, without a satisfactory reply from Red Cross managers, LeRoy complained to the press, “To falter or fail…now would mean the sacrifice of human lives, the starvation of livestock, the devastation and abandonment of a once-proud county. The stake is human lives and an empire.”
And it was his empire.
AT LAST sufficient supplies began to arrive. The Warrior barge line began making regular stops at Greenville; the line had been created by the federal government during World War I to move bulk cargo, and since then had become a competitor of railroads. Enormously powerful tugs pushed huge barges cabled together, and each barge carried 300 to 400 tons of food to unload and distribute.
Will needed labor more than ever. Finally, he tried a method other than force, meeting with twenty-five carefully chosen black ministers. Most Greenville blacks dismissed them as tools of the whites. He lectured them, called the cooperation of the Negroes “rotten,” and warned that Negroes who did not work would be treated as “vagrants” in court. Rev. J. B. Stanton replied for the group, “We will stand by you and make conditions so that we can do our duty as men, for this is our home.”
But Will’s “appeal” further angered the black community. Soon he issued a new order: “The negroes in town outside of camp have done nothing toward unloading and transporting the very food they ask for and receive. This will not be tolerated…. 1. No rations will be issued to Greenville negro women and children unless there is no man in the family, which fact must be certified by a white person. 2. No negro man in Greenville nor their families will be rationed unless the men join the labor gang or are employed. 3. Negro men…drawing a higher wage [than $1 a day] are not entitled to be rationed.”
Private employers had been hiring labor to repair buildings, salvage merchandise. In effect, Will was now setting the wages these private employers paid at $1 a day. Even the black workers would not want more if it meant their family would have to pay for food and clothing they would otherwise receive free.
In other camps, while much of the labor was forced, much was also performed by choice. In other camps, employers were paying blacks from $1.25 to $2 a day and the Red Cross still fed them. In other camps, blacks working for the Red Cross were also paid at this rate. In Greenville, Will was still paying nothing for Red Cross work, which included the handling of all supplies, and the work was performed by men working under guns.
IN EARLY MAY, Negro newspapers around the country began to publish stories about abuses of black refugees in Greenville. “Refugees Herded Like Cattle to Stop Escape from Peonage,” blared the Chicago Defender. “Conscript Labor Gangs Keep Flood Refugees in Legal Bondage,” the Pittsburgh Courier charged. “Deny Food to Flood Sufferers; Relief Bodies Issue Work or Starve Rule,” the Defender hissed again, blaming “W. A. Percy…whose prejudice against members of our Race is as bitter as gall.”
Word of conditions in Greenville was also spreading into the white Progressive community, the single constituency most supportive of Hoover’s presidential ambitions and most concerned about the treatment of the Negro. Word had not yet gotten into the white press, which was churning about him.