Modern history


THE RED CROSS treaded ever so lightly when it came to race. After a 1921 race riot in Tulsa left 9,000 blacks homeless, for example, James Fieser ordered a Red Cross professional assigned to help them “to pull out as quickly as possible.” The man refused, instead took a leave of absence, and continued to help the blacks without salary “at great uneasiness” to Fieser and the national organization.

In the first days of the flood, Red Cross headquarters similarly ordered Henry Baker, the on-scene disaster chief, to avoid Red Cross involvement in the issue of using the National Guard to keep black refugees in the camps. Hoover, despite his attention to other camp details, also initially avoided entanglement in race. When a Red Cross aide suggested telling planters that if they waived all 1927 tenant debts, the Red Cross would feed their tenants through the crop year, Fieser instantly rejected the proposal, replying it was “unwise to become too involved in local conditions.”

But as word of abuses of blacks in the camps had spread through the North, Hoover had created the Colored Advisory Commission and named Robert Moton chairman. Fieser had not objected. Moton, Fieser felt sure, would embarrass no one and would prove useful. Yet in return Moton had something large in mind.

ROBERT RUSSA MOTON stood well over six feet tall and towered over most men, but his slumped shoulders, rumpled appearance, and pudgy physique conveyed little force. He looked like a man who belonged in a study, smoking a pipe and pondering a problem, yet he was arguably the single most powerful black man in the United States, and what he pondered was the future of his race in American society. A man whom the Percys and their class would have commended, he personified the mythos of race relations that they expounded. During the Civil War, his father, a slave, had found himself behind Union lines but rather than claiming his freedom, he had returned to slavery because, his son explained approvingly, “he had given his definite promise he would stand with [his master] Colonel Womack until the war was over.”

Whether his father really had kept his word at the cost of freedom or Moton told the story simply to please southern whites, Moton did believe that the moral force of honorable behavior would ultimately compel white men to behave honorably as well. He was no Gandhi, who used moral force like an anvil breaking the hammer; he confronted no one, trusted powerful white men, made himself useful to them, and patiently awaited them. Yet in his own way he did everything possible to advance his race, and in a most difficult time he danced a most delicate dance. For this, radicals in his race called him naive and even dangerous.

Moton rose in the world through ability, hard work, and the influence of his powerful mentors. He had a sense of dignity, but also of caste. He did not have pride. Fellow students at Hampton Institute were Native Americans and he could not understand their pride. Once a visiting Army general wanted to shake hands with the son of an Indian chief whom he had killed in battle. Moton brought the student forward and introduced him “with all the deference due to the General’s position…. The general greeted this boy of seventeen years of age very cordially, unusually so for the ranking general of the United States Army…. Paul looked him straight in the eye, did not salute, and refused to shake hands with him. I thought he had not observed the general’s outstretched hand and in a whisper I said, ‘The general wants to shake hands with you,’ but in typical Indian fashion he said, ‘Know it.’” Moton confessed he was “very much humiliated” by the incident.

He considered pride a luxury too expensive to indulge. Wasn’t the experience of the Indians proof? Whites were wiping them out. Wasn’t it better to bend to the white wind, to make progress and survive even if that meant keeping one’s thoughts to one’s self? So he held his thoughts back. He did so even in his book titled What the Negro Thinks, telling whites, “Negroes have always met the familiar declaration, ‘I know the Negro’ with a certain faint, knowing smile….[T]here are vast reaches of Negro life and thought of which white people know nothing whatever, even after long contact with them, sometimes on the most intimate terms…which reflects the persistent effort of the Negro on the concealment of his thoughts and feelings…. The Negro has always been quite chary of disclosing all his thoughts to the white man. He seldom tells all the truth about such matters; a great deal of it may not find its way into this volume.”

A protégé of Booker T. Washington, Moton was a conciliator, and not only with whites. He once tried to bring the two great rivals Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois together, and with them the race. When Washington died, Moton succeeded him as principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and also took command of what was called “the Tuskegee machine,” a machine built upon cooperating with, and not confronting, the white power structure. Teddy Roosevelt had helped create this machine by giving Washington nearly total control over relevant federal patronage jobs. Although Moton never attained Washington’s stature or influence, he still proved useful to whites. During World War I even Woodrow Wilson, who had imposed segregation on the federal bureaucracy and endorsed the film Birth of a Nation, had relied on Moton when black troops in France grew angry over the difference between how the French and their own countrymen treated them. At Wilson’s request Moton had gone to France and oiled the waters, and Wilson had thanked him for “the wholesome advice” he gave black soldiers “regarding their conduct during the time they will remain in France…[and] as to how they should conduct themselves when they return to our own shores.”

Back in Alabama, Moton carefully did not offend. Unlike at some black colleges, whites visiting Tuskegee were completely segregated, even entering chapel through a private door and sitting separately. Other black leaders, including some moderates, condemned Moton for this. When whites asked Moton to broadcast a radio appeal urging blacks to remain in the South, he did so, saying: “Whatever might be said to the contrary, the white man of the South loves the Negro. Many who have gone North have not found conditions as they had expected…. There is less reason now for Negroes to leave the South than ever before, because the basic sentiment in the South today, official and otherwise, is determined that the fundamental desires of the black man shall be assured him.”

He had confronted whites only once, over the issue of hiring Negro physicians for a new hospital for black veterans at Tuskegee. Many black leaders nationally, such as Du Bois, raised their voices loudly. Moton exerted all the influence he possessed, but only privately—albeit successfully. Few black leaders knew how hard he had worked, and few gave him any credit. To white leaders, however, he had proved his reliability and proved he would do nothing that would hurt them.

In return for all his efforts, Moton whispered in the ear of national politicians. In 1922, while LeRoy Percy was wrestling with the Klan, and tens of thousands of Klansmen were preparing to march down Washington streets, William Howard Taft chose Moton to give the chief address at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, symbolizing Moton’s status in white eyes. And the Tuskegee machine, if somewhat eroded after Washington’s death, still gave him power. Long before the flood, Hoover had informed Moton he would “be pleased to see you any time that you come to Washington.” Coolidge was also willing to meet with him or his representatives.

Equally important, Moton whispered in the ears of philanthropists. He served on boards with Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, gave $5 million to Tuskegee. An even larger giver was Julius Rosenwald of Sears, whose many philanthropic acts included, at least partly as a result of Moton’s influence, building more than 6,000 “Rosenwald schools” for rural southern blacks.

It was this access to money that gave Moton the most power. When the black Kittrell College desperately needed $15,000 “to save an embarrassing situation,” it called upon Moton to raise it. When the all-black Delta town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, was foundering, Moton promised its leader Eugene Booze to raise $100,000 for him. (Booze then asked Moton “the proper approach to Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.” for a $1 million contribution.)

Now Hoover was intimating that he had large plans to help Negroes. And if Hoover became president—what possibilities that could afford! Now Moton was playing at a level higher even than Washington had, with the highest potential stakes for the race. It was up to Moton to play the game well.

IN EARLY JUNE in Memphis the Colored Advisory Commission met for the first time. Moton divided the members into small groups and sent each into different areas of the flood zone. Their trips were strenuous. One investigator reported: “Our train took six hours to go eleven miles, the water up to the lower steps of the car; the train in utter darkness the lights having failed, the Jim Crow coach half occupied by whites, and the remainder packed with Negroes some sitting three in a seat, aisles filled with men standing and the noise of the water boiling over the track, terrifying one woman until she screamed and put down the window to shut out the sound, with the people refusing to sing because of what seemed to be a sullen resentment at their treatment. It was an experience which will long cling to me.”

Despite the difficulties, the several groups quickly visited dozens of camps. In some, when they presented papers signed by senior Red Cross officials, whites muttered, called them “nigger,” and made certain they talked to no refugees alone; at least once, commission members left a camp hurriedly for fear of being kept there and forced to work. In other camps, including Greenville, whites treated them with utmost courtesy.

After ten days commission members reunited, prepared a preliminary report, and on June 14 presented it to Hoover and Fieser. It confirmed charges that Negroes were systematically being held in camps against their will and forced to work. In isolated places, the National Guard had also stolen, raped, and probably committed murder. One investigator separately sent a summary to the Justice Department asking for a criminal investigation. Yet Moton released only a much-censored version to the press with the most minor recommendations, for example “that a screened structure with tables and seats be erected for the serving of food at Greenville.” He also wrote an inoffensive story for release to the Associated Press and told Hoover, “You may feel free to make any changes or additions that may seem desirable to you.”

Claude Barnett did syndicate a story through his Associated Negro Press to over one hundred black newspapers stating that “members of the commission were bitter in their comment on conditions in several camps, particularly at Greenville, Mississippi.” But he explained apologetically to Hoover that Greenville had received so much publicity that “the truth must be admitted” or their report would have no credibility, and pointed out that his story praised the national Red Cross as “eminently fair and just in its orders.” Hoover reassured him that the story was “constructive.”

The first phase had gone well for everyone. Hoover and Fieser, pleased, made good use of Moton’s press release to defuse criticism. For Moton the worst abuses of the Guard had been ended, and Hoover and Fieser had promised to implement the report’s recommendations. Barnett also assured Moton that they had trumped their rivals: “The [Chicago] Defender demands ‘a probe of flood conditions.’ It is a weak and hollow cry, used to bolster their attempt to take credit.”

But Moton had a larger goal in mind than maneuvering against more radical competitors in the black community. He had been willing to mute public criticism of the Red Cross, and indirectly of Hoover, to further another goal. Hoover had told Barnett that “something substantial can be accomplished.” Hoover had also hinted to J. S. Clark, president of Southern University, that he would do something, and Clark told Moton, “I am of the opinion that the work of our Committee is going to be far-reaching.” Moton himself had gotten a similar message from Hoover. Excited, he told a confidant, “It is my frank opinion that, as a result of the flood, the position of the Negro as an individual farm owner is going to be considerably strengthened.”

The essence of Moton’s hopes lay not in the implementation of any specific recommendation of the commission report but in a more general plea. “We were face to face with one of the greatest labor questions of America, the relation between the planters and these tenant farmers,” Moton wrote. “We were interested in a song that these people sang in the levee camps—that the flood had washed away the old account. They felt that the flood had emancipated them from a condition of peonage…. We are strongly convinced that something ought to be done permanently to relieve the hopeless condition under which these people have lived all these years. They ought not to be permitted to go back to this hopeless situation…if there is rehabilitation.”

HOOVER ENCOURAGED the commission to think he would help the Negro. He intended to, and also needed their help. So far, they had given it. The flood had brought new attention to the plight of the Negro in the South; the sudden explosion of lynchings in May and June in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana, compounded by the sympathy for flood refugees, was sparking new calls for federal antilynching legislation and new criticism of the Red Cross. Moton and his commission had defused some of those attacks with their first report. Still, Hoover noted, “We are having great difficulty through the North…in connection with the colored people.”

On July 8, the day after a policeman murdered a black in Greenville, Moton, Barnett, and several other members of the commission met again with Fieser and Hoover, this time in Fieser’s Washington office, to present a more complete, second report, far more damning than the earlier press release or even than the preliminary draft. Moton reviewed it with Hoover and Fieser, doing most of the talking, gently noting that perhaps too little had been done since the first report, elaborating where necessary, and answering their questions while Barnett and the others remained silent. Moton neither said nor implied that he might release this potentially explosive document to the press. On the contrary, in order to protect the Red Cross and Hoover, Moton had prepared only three copies and had even refused to give any to other commission members; two copies he kept, one he gave to Hoover. But he also asked about rehabilitation and made a veiled reference to Hoover’s hints of ambitious plans.

The next day Hoover received Moton privately in his office. By then they both knew he could very well be the next president of the United States. Indeed, his chances were increasing daily. Coolidge could legally run again, but tradition limited presidents to two terms. He had had them. And rumors were rife that Coolidge’s enemies were about to launch a campaign to force his retirement. Soon one GOP senator would publicly declare his opposition to a third term and a wire-service story would proclaim, “Underground Forces Working Against Calvin; Hoover Boom Is Growing…The widespread subterranean alienation from Mr. Coolidge which has long existed among professional Republican politicians will come to the surface in successive explosions…. As soon as the next Senate meets, it will consider an anti-third term resolution.”

Now Moton sat alone with Hoover; it was a heady feeling, and one filled with promise for the future. It became headier when Hoover reviewed an idea that he had not wanted to discuss before the others. He said that the flooded region suffered from a “background of bankrupt economics.” The plantation system and dependence on cotton had wasted the richest land in the world. Then he outlined a comprehensive, and revolutionary, plan, a plan that could remake the face of the Delta. A memorandum he wrote that day, July 9, proposed “a subdivision of the land into smaller holdings and the building up of small farm ownership.” (Almost certainly neither he nor Moton realized that less than thirty years earlier, blacks had owned two-thirds of the farms in the Delta.) Those large plantations experiencing difficulties would disappear, to be replaced by, ultimately, tens of thousands of small farms. The program would nominally serve “both white and colored farmers,” but in reality it was designed for blacks. A “land resettlement corporation” would be created to issue first mortgages for the purchase of twenty-acre farms, and second mortgages for purchasing animals and equipment and to provide working capital. Hoover estimated that an initial capital of $4.5 million, properly rediscounted, would allow nearly 7,000 families to buy and equip farms. Repayments and profits would be plowed into new loans, allowing rapid expansion. Theoretically, the program could increase exponentially and transform the entire region. Hoover reasoned that white plantation owners would support the plan because it would decrease the supply of available land and therefore raise all land values. “If it were possible to save from the Mississippi flood fund a sum of [several] millions of dollars,” he stated, “we would be justified in applying it to this purpose as a part of the whole rehabilitation of the flood territory.”

Moton left the office ecstatic. He believed that Hoover’s proposal could lift a large number of blacks out of poverty, and create both a black middle class and a promised land in the Mississippi Delta. He believed also that Hoover had the power to implement this plan—and would very likely soon have far more.

On August 2, Coolidge announced he would not seek reelection.

Before the flood, prominent southern Republicans, both black and white, had stated that their convention delegates would not support Hoover for the nomination under any conditions. Now many of the same men were promising Hoover their support regardless of his opponent.

Meanwhile, Moton began to hint at the resettlement plan in speeches. In late August black businessmen gathered in St. Louis at the annual meeting of the National Negro Business League, an association closely linked to the Tuskegee machine, founded by Booker T. Washington, and presided over by Moton. Many of the attendees had scratched out a tiny pile of money from black poverty and death, running penny savings banks, or funeral homes, or burial societies that became insurance companies. Few were radicals, even by the standards of the day. Many were Republican activists. They were, like Moton, hopeful. Now Moton gave them real hope. After this meeting they scattered across the country, committed to Hoover, because of what Moton told them.

“I am not at liberty to give you details but you will hear about it soon,” he said, his words stirring curiosity and interest. “But the Red Cross fund will doubtless be the instrument for doing something in behalf of the negro more significant than anything which has happened since Emancipation.”

YET HOOVER had only been holding out a tantalizing carrot. He already knew that the Red Cross fund would serve no such purpose. Only Moton did not know it. Assuming that the Red Cross did support the resettlement idea, Moton had invited Fieser to the meeting of black businessmen. Fieser had already explicitly told Hoover the Red Cross could not support it, but sat there, the only white man in a sea of black, smiled at a fulsome introduction, and accepted enthusiastic applause. Then he wrote an angry letter to Hoover.

In it he cited ten specific objections to the plan, beginning with the fact that “newspaper publicity [from] people like Senator Percy [has] created a state of mind that the fund is inadequate to meet even those items we have accepted as our responsibility.” The Red Cross had to husband its money because its original policy of giving refugees just two weeks’ supply of food upon leaving camp had to be abandoned; it was now “certain…that considerable numbers of people must be fed through the winter.” Finally, should they implement the resettlement plan, there was “the possibility of a gorilla [sic] warfare or financial persecution or ostracism which would drive the negro beneficiaries off the land.” He flatly declared it “impossible for the Red Cross to undertake such a program.”

MOTON NEVER LEARNED of Fieser’s position. Hoover continued to hold out the promise of the resettlement plan. Moton continued to respond to it.

Arthur Kellogg was managing editor of the Survey, a leading Progressive magazine, and a Hoover supporter. Sympathetic to blacks, Kellogg knew Moton and judged him harshly but perhaps accurately when he told Hoover, “A great many people had hoped that the introduction of northern workers, money and ideas would blast the crust of inertia in the Delta. I presume there wasn’t time…. Perhaps a committee [might have] with a more forceful man at its head than Dr. Moton who, poor soul, has to raise the money for his school both North and South and finds himself a plump, middle-aged gentleman, riding precariously on the narrow side of a 2×4.”

Moton felt differently. In Hoover he believed he had found the solidity of rock, of real power. I shall be the nominee, probably, Hoover had said. It is nearly inevitable. Trusting in Hoover, through the fall of 1927, Moton advanced Hoover’s presidential candidacy at every opportunity, and exerted all the influence at his command to suffocate all criticism of Hoover among blacks and insure black support for his nomination. He was intent on seeing that there would be no sudden explosion of scandal from the flood that could in any way harm Hoover’s chances. And Hoover continued to use him.

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