IN THE 1920s, Negroes had a voice in national Republican politics. Their power was not enormous, but it was real. Part of that power came indirectly, through some of the party’s whites, especially the Progressives and intellectuals, who clung to the tradition of Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt’s 1904 platform had called for reducing congressional representation for states that did not allow blacks to vote, and as late as January 1927, Senate Republicans threatened to investigate the disenfranchisement of southern blacks. In March 1927, the Supreme Court, mostly Republican appointees, had outlawed a whites-only primary. Hoover, who was opposed by virtually all the political professionals, needed Progressive support more than any other presidential candidate. It was the closest thing he had to a natural constituency.
Blacks also had power because of their votes. In the North black voters had made their presence felt in several cities, especially Chicago. Though only about 8 percent of the population, since 77 percent of blacks were registered compared to 68 percent of whites, they made up close to 10 percent of voters. Voting as a solid bloc, they were key, for example, to the election of three-term Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, especially in the 1927 election. Thompson had Al Capone’s support, his City Hall was derided as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and he courted Irish votes by demanding the burning of the public library’s “pro-English” books, but Thomson’s victory that year over an incumbent Irish mayor came from his 94 percent support among black voters. Similarly, in the 1924 presidential election, well over 90 percent of northern blacks voted Republican, with most of the remaining vote going to LaFollete’s Progressives, not to Democrats, whose convention that year had refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.
In addition, the Republican presidential nominating process gave blacks power. The base of this power was, ironically, the South. Although no southern state had voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reconstruction, few blacks voted in general elections,* and a “Lily White” Republican movement had already emerged, blacks still controlled the GOP in several states. This control meant little in the South itself. Even Republican presidents gave few federal patronage jobs to blacks, who could only direct patronage to friendly whites; in Mississippi, for example, black Republicans routinely consulted LeRoy Percy on federal appointments.
But southern states also comprised 30 percent of the delegates needed for the presidential nomination. A significant, if variable, percentage of these delegates were black. To a presidential candidate, support from such a solid bloc of delegates made a powerful base from which to climb to the nomination.
For Hoover black support or opposition was particularly important. Publicity over his handling of the flood had virtually created his candidacy, but it could evaporate in a moment if the seeming triumph exploded in scandal. A scandal over race in particular would make both the party’s Progressives and its black politicians desert. Hoover had no geographic base to compensate, and party professionals still considered him a pariah. At stake was power. The flood could mean power.
CLAUDE BARNETT ran the Associated Negro Press, which syndicated stories to 135 African-American newspapers. A hustler, a man who was committed both to his own advancement and that of his race, Barnett had played an active role in past GOP presidential nominating campaigns. In early May, after spending time in the flooded areas, he warned Hoover of rumors of “injustice” and much “scandal.”
From Greenville a black minister anonymously—he feared the National Guard—protested to Coolidge. Most likely the writer was Rev. E. M. Weddington, who had signed the letter praising LeRoy after his anti-Klan speech. The minister complained that whites got good clothing while half-naked and shoeless blacks got nothing, and that blacks were “being made to work under the gun, [whites] just bossing the colored men with big guns buckled to them…. All of this mean and brutish treatment of the colored people is nothing but downright slavery.”
Soon warnings were pouring in to Hoover of problems. Kansas Republican Senator Arthur Capper, a director of the NAACP, wrote him to “voice the protest of the colored citizens of Topeka against alleged mistreatment of Negro refugees…. Colored people are being isolated in refugee camps where they are being held virtually prisoners under the supervision of national guardsmen….[and] discriminated against in the matter of food.” He enclosed a copy of the Chicago Defender that detailed abuses in Greenville by W. A. Percy, and called the report “reliable.”
Jane Addams, the nationally prominent social worker who would soon win the Nobel Peace Prize, had supported Hoover for president in 1920. She relayed “charges of race discrimination which are being rumored” and urged him to appoint a “colored committee” to investigate.
A letter from a black Republican activist read: “It is said that many relief boats have hauled whites only, have gone to imperilled [sic] districts and taken all whites out and left the Negroes; it is also said that planters in some instances hold their labor at the point of a gun for fear they would get away and not return. In other instances, it is said that mules have been given preference on boats to Negroes.”
Even professional Red Cross staff outside the flooded area were asking colleagues in Memphis and Vicksburg for the truth about Greenville, Mississippi.
Inevitably, ten days after Barnett’s first warning to Hoover, white reporters began asking questions. Fieser, the Red Cross vice chairman who was traveling with Hoover, wired an underling, “Chicago Defender leading colored paper carries article concerning…Greenville…. Chicago Tribune is interesting itself in article and asks for statement. Rush wire reply.”
HOOVER NEEDED NO ONE to explain the importance of the press. It was he who had said “the world lives by phrases” and had talked of “the club of public opinion.” He also had little use for bigots and exploiters. He wired Henry Baker, head of the relief effort, and ordered him to contact every Red Cross representative in the field and find out if “colored people are being restrained in the camps against their will, second that they are being tagged for return to specific plantations, third that they are being charged by Red Cross for food. Any such action would be a negation of the spirit of the Red Cross and I do not believe it exists…see that no such activity exists…send me a report at once.”
Baker had already told Barnett’s Associated Negro Press, “The American Red Cross makes no distinction as to race, creed, politics or anything else in its relief work…. The way the Red Cross was treating the Negro in the disaster was much better than the treatment received by the Negro in normal conditions.”
Then the answers to Hoover’s questions began coming back from the field. In some areas, blacks were well treated. A black leader and NAACP activist in Pine Bluff replied: “Never before have I seen the colored line obliterated to the same extent. The dominant thought appeared to be to relieve suffering, save humanity, care for the needy regardless of color…after the Red Cross assumed charge.” But several Red Cross chapters wired back not with an answer but with a “request [for] source of information.” Others described a situation less than ideal: “Charges that colored refugees have been restrained in camps are true to extent that we have tried to keep them here until…conditions were satisfactory for return,” or, “We are endeavoring to restrain the refugees from going anywhere at the present time, but this is being done because of a written order from Mississippi State Board of Health.” Still others were blunt. Said one camp commander: “It is the desire of all concerned that labor be returned to places from which they were forced to leave…for the general good of the entire state.”
Baker immediately forwarded the information to Washington. It was kept secret. But the NAACP began publicly demanding explanations, particularly about Mississippi, and particularly about Greenville.
Hoover’s friend Will Irwin, a celebrated liberal journalist, had visited the flood area and defended Hoover in the black community. He reported, “I have managed to call off most of the dogs I know.” But he could not call off the NAACP’s Walter White, whom Irwin called “a fanatic…. I argued with him at length…but you can’t make a dent on him…. White is literally the nigger in the woodpile and if anything can be done to placate or squelch him I think there will be no more trouble…. Perhaps if some of the big negroes would communicate with him they might tone him down.” Using “big negroes” was precisely what Hoover had in mind. He would need them.
White, a friend of Sinclair Lewis, Clarence Darrow, and H. L. Mencken, had been scheduled to leave for Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship but delayed his departure to investigate flood conditions. Blue-eyed, blond, and light-skinned, he went to Mississippi passing for white and began asking questions. On May 27 in New York he held a potentially devastating press conference. While praising the Red Cross, he condemned abuses he had witnessed in Vicksburg and complained he had been unable to visit Greenville. The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and other northern papers ran articles repeating his charges, while The Nation ran an article by him. His revelations, if unanswered, could echo, spark a press frenzy, and ultimately poison the intellectual community against Hoover.
Just prior to White’s press conference Hoover met with five black leaders in his suite at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Immediately afterward, at their suggestion, Hoover telegraphed Robert Russa Moton, who had succeeded Booker T. Washington as principal of Tuskegee Institute. The wire misspelled Moton’s name “Moulton,” an indignity Moton could ignore considering its contents. “With view to making certain as to the proper treatment of the colored folks in the concentration camps and with view to inquire into any complaints,” Hoover said, “I would like you to advise me as to the appointment of a commission of representative colored citizens who can visit these camps and who can make investigation of any complaint or criticisms. I would be glad if you would appoint such a commission or designate to us the names of those you think should be appointed.”
On May 28, the same day that newspapers carried stories about Walter White’s charges, Hoover named a Colored Advisory Commission. It was comprised of sixteen prominent Negro men and two women, all suggested by Moton. Moton chaired it.
MOTON WAS the white man’s biggest Negro. If he lacked the stature of Booker T. Washington, in the white world then no black man had that stature. And Moton had inherited Washington’s mantle along with his title, and more than any other Negro he represented his race in the councils of the powerful. Although criticized by more aggressive and radical blacks, he felt that weight and responsibility. On his own authority, before reports of abuses had reached even the black press, he had dispatched an assistant to investigate conditions. Now he had Hoover’s authority.
Those he selected for the Colored Advisory Commission resembled himself, blacks who knew how to attract white patronage. Three commission members worked directly for him at Tuskegee. The others included Barnett, who had graduated from Tuskegee and was about to become a trustee there, J. S. Clark, president of Southern University in Baton Rouge, and L. M. McCoy, president of Rust College in Mississippi. He did not choose a single representative of the NAACP, which was so influenced by Washington’s rival W. E. B. DuBois and called for a more aggressive approach to race relations. Even one commission member noted privately that his colleagues were “some of the most conservative men of the country.”
The most radical member was Sidney Redmond, and Moton’s handling of his appointment indicated Moton’s operating style. Redmond, a Jackson, Mississippi, attorney, had two years earlier led a group of blacks who petitioned the Mississippi legislature for voting rights. Governor Murphree and L. O. Crosby, the Mississippi flood “czar,” objected to his appointment. Moton did not back down publicly; instead, he failed to inform Redmond when the commission was meeting, effectively eliminating him.
Hoover now told Will Irwin, who continued to warn him about the damage criticism over racial problems could cause: “[A]fter the first few days the guard had no function except to preserve order in camps. No restrictions exist on anyone coming or going from the camps. In order to make sure that nothing of the kind has or could occur I had colored committees set up at each camp and have [now] appointed a general investigating committee under Doctor Moton who are free to report what they like to any inquirer.”
Hoover was deceiving not only Irwin but himself. Meanwhile, with Moton, Hoover began playing a game far more important than improving conditions for refugees in the camps. Moton understood national politics. In his position he had to be sensitive to politics. By the time Moton’s commission was formed, five weeks after Mounds Landing, newspapers were filled with talk of Hoover’s qualifications for the presidency. Moton could sense the likelihood of Hoover’s achieving it. Hoover was offering Moton an opportunity to become important to him. Moton grabbed it. Now both men’s ambitions were in play.
Greenville had started all this, and, like a festering infection, Greenville was still leaking poison into the whole.