Modern history


EVEN BY LATE MAY, the Mississippi River had not fallen below flood stage, and water had not entirely stopped flowing through most levee breaks. Yet regions flooded in March and April had struggled back toward a semblance of normalcy. Even with the river still in flood, land in Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and even the very highest ground in Washington County had begun coming out of the water. People had begun planting cotton in the muddy alluvium deposited by the river; they just walked down rows, dropped seed, and stamped it down with their feet.

Greenville too had struggled back toward normalcy. By late May nearly half the city was free of water. The Wineman lumber mill reopened, the first large employer to do so. The Kiwanis held their first meeting since the crevasse. And the American Legion post voted overwhelmingly not to cancel its plans to host the state legion convention, which had earlier been scheduled for July 28. Indeed, city leaders planned to use the occasion to announce the city’s rebirth. LeRoy Percy was arranging to have Charles Dawes, vice president of the United States, attend, and the county health officer predicted, “By July 28 our town will be so clean it will look like a summer resort.”

Then the Mississippi began rising again. It rose six feet at Cairo, with more water in sight.

The news that another flood crest was threatening the Delta brought out an angry weariness, and grit. A social worker visiting Greenville said: “Worry is not often absent, but cheer and contentment and smiles and laughter are as rare as dry land on the flooded plantations. There is grim determination on nearly every face.”

The determination focused on sealing the several thousand feet of gaps in the protection levee to prevent the river from reentering the city. Closing the gaps would be a tremendous undertaking—an 8-mile-an-hour current was flowing through them—but success would spare the city a crushing physical blow, and an even more crushing spiritual one. The effort would require more than 1,000 men working twenty-four hours a day. The bulk of the workers would of course be black men.

Will tried to assemble the labor force needed, calling in the same Negro ministers he had earlier addressed. Several of them agreed to form a committee “for the purpose of working in cooperation with the Red Cross…under the direction of W. A. Percy…. We are here to work, that is to serve.” But the ministers, whom the Chicago Defender called “jacklegs” and “Uncle Toms,” produced no workers.

On May 31, LeRoy, Will, and the mayor 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.”

Other blacks murmured agreement. Levye Chapple, also black, stood. He ran a printing business and a newspaper (existing on white sufferance, it bore no resemblance to the Defender), and had worked on racial issues with LeRoy Percy. “We are citizens of Greenville, and we have leaders among our own people,” he said. “We feel that the system of conscription is bad and if you will let us work out a plan I think we will get better results.”

LeRoy and other city leaders agreed to let the Negroes organize themselves. It was another blow to Will’s leadership. Chapple, McMiller, and others called for the black community to meet at a church immediately. Several hundred people responded. McMiller spoke first. He said that they might not like the way things had gone, things had happened that shouldn’t have happened. But the Mississippi River didn’t care whether it drowned white or black. It was their neighborhoods that the water would rise highest in, their homes that water would cover. Folks had been repairing and cleaning out their homes. All that work would be washed away. They weren’t saving white folks if they volunteered. They would be saving themselves. A dozen people agreed. Others reminded everyone that whites would see to it that black men worked. The question was whether they would do so on their own terms or be forced to work like slaves by men with guns.

Ignoring the organization already formed by the ministers Will had named, this meeting created the “General Colored Committee” to handle all calls for labor and deal with Will Percy and the Red Cross. No one on this committee was a tool of whites, although some were familiar to whites. Rev. C. B. Young chaired it, and its secretary was Chapple. McMiller served on it. So did Dr. Q. Leon Toler, the son of a fiercely independent black landowner who had stirred up sharecroppers. (LeRoy had once instructed his foreman, “I don’t mind your being rough with Toler if you find him on the place.”) Others included another doctor, a dentist, two undertakers, and a car salesman named J. R. Wiley who once went up to the Delta & Pine Land Plantation on the annual settlement day and sold nineteen cars in a few hours.

There were also men whites did not know. Emanuel Smith ran crap games and brothels and wore striped pants, nob-toed shoes with brass tips, and white shoestrings; he made sure that on Sundays the decent folks going to church on Nelson Street, past the juke joints and drug dens and whorehouses, were not harassed. A shoe repairman named J. H. Bivins took nothing from whites. A carpenter named J. D. Fowler sometimes worked for whites, but he hated them, hated them enough and talked about it enough that he was always alone—other blacks feared being seen with him.

For this committee Chapple printed handbills to be distributed throughout the city. “500 Colored Men Wanted!” they read. “This number of men must be had at once to avoid compulsory action…. Make your selection—Volunteer at 6 o’clock Sunday morning or be forced to go 6 o’clock Sunday evening.”

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.”

After the celebration, Chapple, McMiller, and the other members of the General Colored Committee called a meeting of “all colored citizens” at the courthouse. “The meeting is not to discuss the dark past,” they declared. “We are only looking forward.”

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 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.”

And there was work to do, work that had become harder. Weeks after the protection levee was closed, the county was, Will wrote a friend, “still a wreck and a desolation…four feet deep under water, railroad connections cut off and 41,000 people fed by the Red Cross.” As the water fell both in the river and in the city, it became too shallow to ship supplies by boat; mules and wagons had to haul everything for miles through knee-deep water and waist-deep mud. Black men tugged and pulled and waded and sweated through the muck.

Tempers grew short among both white and black. The victory at the protection levee proved anticlimactic. “We were tired out,” Will confessed. “[People] grabbed. Everyone wanted what was coming to him and a little more. The deterioration of the populace affected even our…committeemen [who] sulked or fought among themselves or resigned; everybody criticized everybody else…. Here and there we discovered simple undiluted dishonesty. It was a wretched period.”

As people returned to their homes and businesses, the strain only intensified. The cleanup seemed endless and hopeless. Mud was caked everywhere, four to eight inches of the alluvial deposits that had created the Delta. It gave off a thick, fetid smell, a smell like dung mixed with swamp gas. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, frogs, insects, and spiders infested the buildings. The rot of death was everywhere. Dead fish and crawfish—tens of millions of crawfish—paved every gutter and street and decayed and stank. Percy Bell advised his family to stay away: “Every store in town, when opened to be cleaned, smells horribly, and the entrance to the Weinberg Building is like walking into a sewer…. Newspapers are very misleading in their reports of openings…. No fresh meat at all, and no telling when we will get any.”

Loading supplies was “nigger work.” Cleaning was “nigger work.” After the closure of the protection levee, the General Colored Committee had continued to supply workers to the Red Cross, but after police again started conscripting blacks for work gangs, the committee refused to help anymore.

On Hoover’s second visit to Greenville he had traveled with Crosby, LeRoy, Will, and a few others in two boats to Leland. The boat Crosby was in caught fire; its occupants had jumped into ten feet of water. Everyone in the remaining boat, including LeRoy and Hoover, had performed in a workmanlike manner pulling them aboard, but one man later died from his injuries. The incident had forged an even tighter bond between the Percys and Hoover, and Hoover would do whatever he could for them, including this. To calm racial tensions LeRoy arranged for Hoover, on his third visit, to address the black community.

The meeting was on Nelson Street at St. Matthew’s, the cultural center of the Negro community, where Langston Hughes, Leontyne Price, and other nationally prominent blacks performed or spoke when they came to town. For Hoover it was jammed with humanity. A Red Cross worker reported, “The meeting was most auspiciously opened by one of the darky brethren, who in offering prayer did nothing but rejoice for the blessing of those engaged in ‘rehabilitating’ his people…. Sitting to the left were 25 singers who moved the audience to tears [with] music that knew no notes, harmony that defied description and sincerity of spirit that dissolves any doubt.” Then Hoover spoke, so softly as to be almost inaudible. The contrast with the rich, deep black voices was tangible. Yet Hoover had the power.

Afterward, Hoover went to a Rotary luncheon and a mass meeting for whites. “Outside of the great war, there has been no such calamity as this flood,” he said. No one present would disagree. But again he could barely be heard, and his commendation of their heroism and leadership inspired no one.

Immediately after his visit, the same black Greenville minister who had earlier written Coolidge anonymously now wrote Hoover anonymously. He charged that only pet blacks had been allowed access to him, and recited a list of specific charges against the white community in Greenville. Hoover sent the letter to Moton. And there were still deeper currents, evil currents.

AS THE FLOOD RECEDED, a surge of violence erupted against blacks. In Little Rock a black man allegedly attacked two girls. He was tied to an automobile and dragged through downtown streets crowded at rush hour, trailed by a dozen cars blowing their horns like celebrants of a football victory. Then he was thrown onto a pyre and incinerated; photographs showed police officers watching.

The mayor of Lake Providence, Louisiana, forty miles below Greenville, ordered a Negro insurance agent to work on the levee. He refused. The mayor, a newcomer to the Delta region, shot and killed him.

In Louisville, Mississippi, two blacks were accused of killing a white farmer. The sheriff arrested them. A mob “took” them from the sheriff and burned them at the stake.

In Paris, Tennessee, a “crazed negro” killed a sheriff who pushed open the door of his cabin to arrest him. A mob formed quickly and, when the black man stepped onto his porch, killed him.

In Jackson the governor had to use troops to prevent another lynching, and even then only a quick trial of an accused murderer—from arrest to sentence took five days—calmed the crowds.

In Yazoo City a black man accused of attacking a white girl disappeared. A few day’s later his bullet-riddled body was found hanging from a tree limb.

The Percys had always prevented such happenings in Greenville. In the history of Washington County there had been only two lynchings, none in decades, and one of the two victims had been a white who had murdered a black. The Percys personified what the Louisiana Weekly, a black paper, called “a striking example of the protection which the Southern man of high standing and authority demands for the law abiding and self respecting Negro.” But times were changing.

On June 14, Moton’s Colored Advisory Commission wrote a draft of its preliminary report. Claude Barnett judged Greenville “the seat of what trouble there was.” The report confirmed that black refugees “could not secure supplies without an order from a white person,” that they found “oppression,” that black “men were beaten by the soldiers and made to work under guns. That more than one wanton murder was committed by these soldiers…. [T]hat women and girls were outraged”—raped—“by these soldiers.”

IN THE GREAT WAR, William Alexander Percy had remained cool, had performed admirably under fire. But the war had tested only his own ability to perform. The flood tested his ability to induce others to perform. He had failed in this. True, his task was difficult. Of all the counties in the entire flooded region, from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, Washington County was the single one that suffered the most devastating losses. Twenty-two hundred of its buildings had been completely washed away; thousands more had been damaged or destroyed. The Red Cross officially recorded 120 drownings; total deaths, including unrecorded drownings and deaths from exposure, probably were at least double that figure, possibly much higher. Officially, 11,255 mules, horses, cattle, and hogs had been lost. In total, Washington County received more than double the aid given any other county in Mississippi, triple that given any in Louisiana, quadruple that given any in Arkansas, and almost double the aid given all of Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky combined.

Still, even considering the challenge, Will’s leadership had fallen short. By mid-June every other Red Cross chapter in Arkansas and Mississippi, more than forty in all, had been granted increased authority and independence “as they demonstrate ability and their character is proved,” as judged by Red Cross professionals. Only the Washington County chapter, headed by Will Percy, did not demonstrate sufficient ability. In July every flooded county in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, except for one, got a public health program financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. Only Washington County, despite its desperation, was left out, omitted because Will had failed to control internal political bickering.

LeRoy Percy could not help his son. He was in Chicago serving on the executive committee of the largest river control convention ever. He was guiding Lewis Pierson, president of both the Irving Trust Company in New York and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, other financiers, and some of the nation’s leading manufacturers on a Chamber tour of the entire flooded area. He was in Arkansas meeting with a handful of peers to plan strategy on how to get the federal government to take charge of the levee system. He was trying to rebuild the Delta’s finances by convincing New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans creditors either to write off planters’ debts by 25 percent “or else take over the land…and pay off the back taxes owed on much of it, so that the rehabilitation process could start afresh.”

Meanwhile, Will’s orders had encouraged abuses of blacks, and now Will could not stop those abuses. Nor could he stop the fraud, stop the stockpiling of free Red Cross supplies by distributors who would later sell them, stop the charging of black refugees for what should have been free. The national Red Cross launched a secret investigation into profiteering and theft in the county. Will learned of it and, furious, clinging ferociously to his pride, threatened to resign, writing: “I bitterly resent this…. If you want me to go on with the work, I will do so under one condition: that I receive a statement that there will be no secret investigation in Washington County, that all investigators will report to me…. If I am in charge of this county, I am in charge of all the employees in this county.”

The Red Cross withdrew the investigators. But Will had lost control. He fled into poetry. Earlier he had told the head of the Yale University Press that he had no time for his duties as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets and suggested someone else do the job. Since then Greenville had finally begun emptying of water, but it remained devastated and isolated while the strains of cleanup had only added to those of supply. Yet now Will asked for and received thirty-five manuscript collections of poetry.

On July 7, trying to ease black hostility, the mayor stepped forward for the first time since the crevasse; he named a Colored Aid Committee to organize a benefit performance at the Saenger Theater, “giving the entire [proceeds of the] show to the colored people for their relief work.” The leaders of the General Colored Committee would run it.

The benefit would never be held. That same day two policemen, James Mosely and Pat Simmons, were assigned to collect a work crew while a truck waited to carry the crew to the levee. The policemen separated. Mosely had joined the force shortly before the flood; he knew little of Greenville’s traditions, but knew intimately the treatment of Negroes in the preceding few weeks. At the corner of Delesseps and, ironically, Percy Streets, Mosely called out to a black man named James Gooden sitting on his porch. Gooden was well respected in the black community, a man known personally to the Percys. He had worked all night. Mosely ordered him into the truck. Gooden shook his head no.

Nigger, you’re going to work.

No, Suh. No, Suh, I just been workin’.

Nigger, don’t give no backtalk.

No, Suh, I’m not backtalkin’ you.

Gooden got up from the porch, went inside his house, and closed the door. Mosely followed him into his home and pulled his gun. Gooden froze.

Nigger! Get your black ass in that truck.

White man. Don’t pull no gun on me!

According to Mosely, Gooden grabbed for the gun. Mosely shot him. But Gooden told a different version to blacks who carried him to the hospital. In an effort to save his life, two white doctors amputated his arm. James Gooden died anyway.

THE NEWS swept through the black community. Seething, blacks stopped work. The unloading of barges ceased. The loading of supplies headed inland ceased. Cleaning the muck out of white businesses ceased. The white community grew nervous. There were then more than 10,000 blacks in Greenville, fewer than 4,000 whites. Will heard from “my Negro informant” that there was a possibility of violent reprisal. Rhodes Wasson recalled, “We prepared for a race riot here…. We thought the blacks were going to uprise. Everyone was buying guns.”

To calm the Negro community, Mosely was arrested, supposedly to be held for trial. No one believed that would ever happen. The county prosecutor was still Ray Toombs, the Exalted Cyclops of the local Klan. (Mosely never was indicted.)

The city became an armed camp. Blacks and whites who lived in the city had firearms. On the levee blacks had shovels and hoes and knives within reach. In both races fear grew. It was a deep fear, not of something external that penetrated inward; this fear began at a person’s core and suffused the whole, a defining fear that made people aware of who they were. But Will relished the atmosphere of fear. He had failed at everything else that defined a Percy, but he had never showed cowardice. He later wrote: “I told my informant I would call a meeting of the Negroes for that night and speak to them in one of their churches. He vehemently opposed this course, saying the Negroes were all armed and all of them blamed me for the killing. Nevertheless I called the meeting.”

Chapple, McMiller, and other members of the General Colored Committee agreed to hear Percy at Mt. Horeb, a beautiful stone church with a history of intense emotions; Chapple’s father had once gotten into an argument there and had been knocked through the window into the street. E. M. Weddington, college-educated, large and powerful, the probable author of the anonymous letters to Coolidge and Hoover, was pastor.

When Will arrived, the church was almost empty. Silently, one at a time, blacks began to enter. The silence was ominous. Finally, with the church full, Weddington arose and, as Will reported, “said starkly, ‘I will read from the Scripture.’ Without comment, he read the chapter from Genesis on the flood. It was as impressive as ice-water. Then he said, ‘Join me in a hymn.’ It was a hymn I had never heard…a pounding barbaric chant of menace. I could feel their excitement and hate mount to frenzy…. The preacher turned to me.”

Usually, any white visitor, much less a Percy, received a fulsome introduction when addressing a colored audience. Weddington said simply, “I give you Mr. Percy, chairman of the Red Cross.” Unapplauded, he mounted the pulpit and stood there representing all the power of his class and race. Before him rippled a sea of black faces, black necks, black arms.

Suddenly, it was as if everything Will could not admit to himself transformed itself into anger. He had not come to explain. Percys did not explain. If he had fallen short of the standards of the Percys, that only made him colder, sterner, angrier. “When put upon,” he once observed, “I discovered that a truculent tongue did more to save than a battalion of virtues.”

He spoke slowly and bitterly: “A good Negro has been killed by a white policeman. Every white man in town regrets this from his heart and is ashamed. The policeman is in jail and will be tried. I look into your faces and see anger and hatred…. For four months I have struggled and worried and done without sleep in order to help you Negroes. Every white man in town has done the same thing…. We white people could have left you to shift for yourselves. Instead we stayed with you and worked for you, day and night. During all this time you Negroes did nothing, nothing for yourselves or for us…. Because of your sinful, shameful laziness, because you refused to work in your own behalf unless you were paid, one of your race has been killed. You sit before me sour and full of hatred as if you had the right to blame anybody or judge anybody…. You think I am the murderer. I will tell you who he is…. I am not the murderer. That foolish young policeman is not the murderer. The murderer is you! Your hands are dripping with blood. Look into each other’s face and see the shame and the fear God set on them. Down on your knees, murderers, and beg your God not to punish you as you deserve.”

The bond between the Percys and the blacks was broken. The Delta, the land that had once promised so much to blacks, had become, entirely and finally, the land where the blues began.

The black audience did get down on its knees. But what they prayed for Will did not know.

AMONG THE 154 refugee camps, there were many abuses. In violation of Red Cross rules, county relief committees routinely gave planters goods; they distributed them to tenants and too often charged for them. Routinely, black refugees were not fed as well as whites. Routinely, especially in Mississippi, sharecroppers were not free to leave. There were instances of brutality. But only in Greenville were so many extreme charges made; only in Greenville did the abuses appear to be so systematic.

“My dear Percy,” Hoover wrote Will two days before Gooden was killed. “You have, I think, had the largest single burden in the flood territory. We are all proud of the way which you have carried through, and I take special satisfaction in it because of its flattery to my original judgment of long ago.”

The reality was different. Will Percy had failed. Red Cross professionals judged neighboring Delta counties as having “a strong relief committee which functioned in a very business-like manner,” or as having done “decidedly good work,” or at the least as being “decidedly satisfactory.” For Will they made excuses: “No one can ever tell the story of those first days. Whatever may have been the mistakes made, much can be excused because of the horror and the panic…. Into the work Mr. Percy brought a rich experience in human understanding. Not always practical in his planning and somewhat at the mercy of cross-currents of local opinion, nonetheless he was deep rooted in his desire to render genuine service.”

He could face the fact that he would never be his father. He could even face the fact that he had failed his father, but he could not accept that his father had failed him, not because his father had patronized him or even betrayed him, but because his father had done what Will could not admire. He could not face his father’s ruthlessness, and the abnegation of everything in which Will had believed. Unless one embraces the truth, one can only be comic or tragic; one cannot be heroic. His father had often been heroic. In the war Will had been heroic. Neither his father nor he were heroic now.

Earlier Will had derided as “rabbits” those men who had fled the city. But he could not tolerate criticism; he could not tolerate public failure; he could not tolerate being treated as irrelevant; he could not tolerate the truth.

Earlier Will had withdrawn into poetry, calling for those manuscripts to review. But now, his editing responsibility unfinished, on August 31 he returned the manuscripts to New Haven, explaining he was “passing the buck” because “frankly, nervously and mentally I am so fatigued and so harassed.”

Effective that same day, he resigned as head of the relief committee. Hoover returned to Greenville on September 1. Will did not see him. On September 1, Will fled Greenville. He fled at a time when Washington County most needed help, when his father was writing a friend: “Our people here have a most trying road to travel. Some will be able to make the journey and get back to some kind of prosperity, I trust, but many of them, broken and discouraged, will fail to make the journey.”

By the time Hoover arrived to be briefed by LeRoy, Will was on his way to Japan. He would remain away for months, escaping Greenville, escaping the criticism, escaping the struggle, escaping.

Hoover, in his ambition, would deal with the repercussions of what the Percys had done.

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