Modern history

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

WHILE HOOVER and Moton pursued their agendas, nature imposed its own upon them, through the refugees. They were beset upon by plagues.

The first plague fell upon their crops. When the refugees finally left the camps, they planted alfalfa, wheat, peas, and the largest crop, soybeans. Hoover had insisted on the soybeans even after agricultural scientists had strongly advised against it. Everything had grown well initially, and Red Cross officials had beamed with pride. But then came a drought, followed by an infestation of insects and worms punctuated by an early freeze. Only 20 to 25 percent of the limited crops planted were harvested; the soybeans were nearly all lost. God was mocking everything the Delta’s people had done that year.

The second plague fell upon the people. Tens of thousands developed pellagra. The disease, caused by poor diet, begins by draining energy from its victims (it accounted for at least some of the “laziness” ascribed to blacks by white southerners). But the disease can also become ugly and dangerous. Sores erupt on the skin and form a thick black crust. Victims become morose, hallucinate, feel as if a fire burns in their heads and spines. Untreated, pellagra kills. At the end of every winter, tenant farmers all over the South, white and black, were on the verge of developing the disease, but normally in the spring their diet improved enough to stave it off. In 1927 in the Red Cross camps the refugees’ diet did not improve and pellagra became rampant. Initially, Red Cross officials denied all responsibility, but as the number of the afflicted grew to 50,000 in the Delta alone, they brought in experts who distributed tons of yeast (Washington County received one-third of the total for Mississippi). The yeast helped immeasurably, but a U.S. Public Health Service report concluded, “[A]ny attempt to remove the conditions which are fundamentally responsible for the prevalence of pellagra would involve a revolution of dietary habits and of the entire economic and financial system as it exists.”

For the final plague was race. There had been discrimination in the camps, and there was discrimination in their closing. In Vicksburg, for example, the Red Cross had built different camps for different races; the black camp closed seven weeks earlier than the white camp. Blacks were sent home to work even while fields were still covered by a foot of water. Later, discrimination became even more blatant. By then the earlier sense of shared disaster and common humanity had dissipated; attitudes reverted to those common in the region.

Hoover and Fieser had specifically ordered that “all aid be given directly to sufferers.” Victims were supposed to get enough feed, seed, tools, clothes, basic furnishings to start again; some of the totally destitute who had lost farm animals were even to get a mule or hog or a few chickens. But Hoover’s policy was honored in the breach. Throughout the flooded territory, county Red Cross chairmen, sometimes with the explicit approval of a national Red Cross staff person, gave supplies to planters for distribution. Some planters did simply distribute the goods to their tenants for free. Some charged for the goods, or subtracted the value of the supplies from old debts, or shifted a mortgage from a drowned mule to a Red Cross-supplied mule. And some simply stole the supplies for their own use. Blacks who owned farms, their tenants, and tenants on plantations with absentee owners got almost nothing. Even official Red Cross policy discriminated against tenants of absentee owners, assuming that owners living outside the Delta were not destitute and could take care of those tenants.

From late summer through early fall, Moton focused on getting supplies to struggling tenant farmers, continually sending reports to Hoover with details of abuses. Hoover continually denied that there were any systemic problems, and told him to forward each report of abuse to the Red Cross for handling on a case-by-case basis.

In November, Du Bois wrote in the NAACP’s magazine Crisis: “We have grave suspicions that the [Moton] committee…will be sorely tempted to whitewash the whole situation, to pat Mr. Hoover loudly on the back, and to make no real effort to investigate the desperate and evil conditions of that section of our country…. The one fatal thing for them to do, and the thing for which the American negro will never forgive them, is spineless surrender to the Administration and flattery for the guilty Red Cross.” The words were harsh and biting. Du Bois concluded with the promise, “Next month we shall have more to say.”

Now Moton’s own credibility was at stake. Barnett warned him, “The Crisis had a white woman investigator covering the flood district recently…[who] was conversant with one particularly bad situation. I think we ought to beat them to any publicity on both bad and good.” So Moton prodded Hoover once more, asking for another investigation and wiring, “Suggest that Red Cross release news story about Commission…at once.”

Irritatedly, Hoover told Fieser “the colored complex has again arisen.” But he also recognized that Du Bois could conceivably stir up the white press and black Republicans and finally agreed to authorize a November inspection tour by the Colored Advisory Commission. On December 12 this final report was presented to Hoover, Fieser, and half a dozen Red Cross officials in Fieser’s Washington office. Moton did not make the presentation; an automobile accident prevented him from attending, so Claude Barnett and Albion Holsey, Moton’s deputy, discussed it instead. Moton was accustomed to meeting men with power. Barnett was not. Perhaps because of this, perhaps to show that he was not intimidated, or perhaps because he simply thought he was among friends, he spoke more candidly, even brashly, than he might otherwise have.

For three hours, beginning late in the afternoon and continuing into the evening, Barnett and Holsey reviewed the report. It stated that local officials had “frequently nullified” national Red Cross policies, that landlords were routinely stealing supplies designated for tenants, that black landowners were refused supplies, that thousands of colored victims had yet to receive clothing needed for the winter, that tenants who tried to leave plantations were being whipped. Blacks had refused to talk to commission members because “their lives would be in danger…[but] the facts are known and admitted by Red Cross officials in some of the communities…. We urgently recommend that the Red Cross on its own initiative investigate the conditions which are set forth in these reports…. Confidential investigators from Washington would be able to make some interesting discoveries.”

Hoover and Fieser had expected praise. They were startled at first, then grew increasingly angry. They were being rebuked, unusual enough for either of them. And they were being rebuked by Negroes, indeed, by the assistants of a Negro. Still, they revealed little of their anger.

Barnett left the meeting pleased, confiding to a colleague: “I think we beat [the NAACP] to it on the flood thing. They can now rave, but we have done our duty by everybody around Mr. Hoover.” A few days later Hoover promised Moton that the charges would be “vigorously investigated and remedies applied.” Naively, Barnett told Moton, “I felt Secretary Hoover would rise to the occasion but this is better than my most sanguine hopes.”

But Hoover was not a man who took criticism well. Though he promised action to Moton, he also conveyed extreme displeasure.

DESPITE THE PAIN from his automobile accident, Moton decided to come to Washington immediately. At stake was not only the fate of the flood victims and his personal relationship with Hoover, who seemed closer to the presidency every day, but the resettlement plan. Moton knew also that he had misjudged Hoover. The report had been written as if to one who saw things the same way. Hoover apparently did not see things the same way. It was a mistake no man in Moton’s position could make often and survive.

Moton arrived in Washington in the evening, and early the next morning, while most men were still eating breakfast, went to Hoover’s office. He was not kept waiting. Hoover did not manipulate people in that petty way. But now it was Hoover’s turn to hold little back. Coldly, he told Moton the report had “disappointed” him. It was a powerful word, disappoint, a word impossible to rebut. Then Hoover critiqued it in detail, complaining especially of its failure to credit the good the Red Cross had done.

Moton replied fulsomely, praising Hoover’s “consistently wise and patriotic service.” He apologized for not being in attendance when the report was first tendered, explaining, “The presence of some of us who were absent might perhaps have given a little different atmosphere to the meeting, but I want to assure you there was no intention on the part of those present to indict the National Red Cross in any way.” Then he made a literally unbelievable statement: “I had not seen the report as presented to you. I saw it afterwards.”

Even if somehow Moton had not read the report, he had to have read the summary. It was only seven pages long and included some of the bluntest criticism, and it was in the form of a letter from him to Hoover. He had signed it—before his accident. By disowning it, he could not have humbled himself more completely and abjectly.

Hoover listened to Moton’s explanations, told him to see that the report was rewritten and to write a press release, then dismissed him absently. After the meeting, Hoover called Fieser. With some smugness and a still smoldering anger, he said he “laid Dr. Moton out.” And although Moton had submitted meekly, Hoover still told an aide to bring “another element of the colored world into the picture.”

A few days later Moton, unaware that Hoover was looking elsewhere, sent him a letter of further apology and enclosed for his approval a press release fully endorsing the actions of the Red Cross. Hoover replied, “I have received your letter…and was much pleased to read the statement.”

Later Barnett pleaded with Fieser, “I feel very strongly that the changes suggested [in the report] should not be made…because of the state of mind of the colored people of the country as it regards the flood…. I beg leave to respectfully protest the change and to urge the use of the original.” Moton did not second this protest, and Fieser and Hoover ignored it.

Meanwhile, commission member J. S. Clark told Fieser: “Neither Dr. Moton nor I had seen the final report that was submitted…. The Red Cross deserves unlimited praise for the service it is rendering.” Then Clark reminded Fieser also of “the program that will not only feed, cloth [sic] and shelter the people, but will enable them to be established more firmly than before.” He was referring, of course, to Hoover’s resettlement plan.

THERE HAD BEEN no mention of the plan in months, except when Moton had reminded Hoover of it. Moton still did not know that Fieser had rejected it as “impossible.” But Moton did know that Fieser was now cool toward everyone associated with the Colored Advisory Commission. He did know that resettlement had been Hoover’s own idea. He did know that Hoover, despite reminders, had done nothing to pursue it. And he finally understood what had never been said: the Red Cross would do nothing to implement it. Concerned yet still hopeful, he told Hoover he planned to approach several philanthropists and asked permission to use Hoover’s name. Hoover agreed, and told him to ask William Schieffelin, a trustee of Tuskegee who owned a chemical company, to host a luncheon in New York where Hoover could present his plan to major donors to charity.

Moton did. Schieffelin invited a select gathering, including J. C. Penney, the banker Paul Warburg, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Schieffelin then told Hoover they were all looking forward to hearing him “outline the plan to make good lands in the South available to Negro tenants.”

Hoover knew all the invitees well—indeed, immediately after his election as president later that year, he would go deep-sea fishing at Penney’s Florida estate—yet on January 12, 1928, he replied, “I feel it would be undesirable to have a luncheon for the purpose of meeting me to discuss such a plan as you mention.”

Schieffelin sent Hoover’s note to Moton. He was stunned. Hoover was abandoning him. But he said nothing, and instead turned to Julius Rosenwald, another Tuskegee trustee. Rosenwald, a short, heavy-set man with iron gray hair, did not give money away for dreams and required enterprises he supported to meet high standards, but he had already given millions to help build rural black schools; he would ultimately contribute to building 6,000. Rosenwald also had a long relationship with Hoover, having worked with him to, among other things, make second mortgages a viable financial instrument; Hoover had done him such favors as get him good seats for Coolidge’s inauguration. More important, while Hoover was declining Schieffelin’s invitation, Rosenwald was giving $5 million to resettle European refugees on farms. For this act, Hoover congratulated him on “a great experiment in human engineering, and you and I have watched together the fruition of so many enterprises born of a realization that the welfare of other human beings is the concern of all of us.”

A similar amount would finance the entire project in the Delta. The prospect excited Moton with possibilities. Now Moton placed his fate in Hoover’s hands, hoping Hoover would personally ask Rosenwald to finance the project by himself. Though Hoover was not above personally asking for money for projects he cared about, though a direct personal request from him would be far more difficult to reject, Hoover did not ask Rosenwald himself. And, though Rosenwald was a Tuskegee trustee, Moton was never given an opportunity to present the plan—Hoover’s plan, exactly the way Hoover had written it—directly to Rosenwald. Instead, the plan was presented to Rosenwald’s assistant Edwin Embree, who replied: “Mr. Rosenwald’s reaction is, to say the least, not actively favorable. He has had somewhat unfortunate experiences in somewhat similar projects, notably one I believe called Baldwin Farms near Tuskegee.”

THOUGH MOTON had dignity, he had never been burdened by pride. His very first day at Hampton Institute had taught him to eschew pride, when an instructor had given him his admissions examination; it had been how well he swept a classroom, not how well he learned in it. After Rosenwald’s rejection, he reminded Hoover, gently, that both the resettlement plan and the Schieffelin luncheon were Hoover’s own ideas, and pleaded with him to bring the plan back to life. “A word from you with half a dozen gentlemen, in my opinion, would settle the matter in an hour so far as the financial end of it is concerned,” he wrote. “You will I know, forgive me for this seeming persistence in the matter, but if you could make the trip to New York as you had one time suggested it would assure success at the start.”

Hoover finally agreed to attend the Schieffelin’s luncheon, then postponed it. Now desperate, Moton began to thrash about, writing Hoover again that the luncheon would be with people who “could finance the scheme with ease…. I was not sure you wished me to push the thing further. I would be glad to have instructions as to your wishes in the matter.”

In reply, Hoover sent him a copy of the old letter from Rosenwald’s assistant rejecting the idea. He said nothing else, and made no mention of the luncheon. It was never held.

All his life Moton had been forced into a smiling, accepting patience. He still did not abandon hope and wrote Rockefeller, “You are the kind of American citizen that I think of whenever I take off my hat to the Stars and Stripes, and I can properly put Mrs. Rockefeller in the same category not because of any worldly possessions you possess but rather the spirit which you manifest toward every phase of human betterment.”

Rockefeller thanked him for the sentiments. But without Hoover’s imprimatur, there would be no money for the land resettlement. The proposal that was to be the greatest boon for the Negro race since Emancipation lay waiting, and perhaps dying. Perhaps it was already dead.

BY NOW it was March 1928. Moton likely rationalized that Hoover was so deeply enmeshed in his campaign for the presidential nomination that he could not spare the time for the resettlement question now. But if he became president of the United States…

Moton was determined to do all in his power to help Herbert Hoover achieve that ambition. His help could make a difference. Through the spring of 1928, despite primary victories and a commanding lead among Republican hopefuls, Hoover remained anathema to party professionals. If the Republican National Convention did not nominate him on the first ballot, it might not nominate him at all. Hoover’s opponents, led by former Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, the favorite for the nomination until the flood had elevated Hoover, struggled to form an alliance to block him. On March 31, 1928, the New York Times spoke of a “plan to deadlock the convention and select a compromise candidate against Mr. Hoover.” LeRoy Percy, who knew something of such a strategy from his victory in the Mississippi legislature over Vardaman, had been watching the maneuvering for months and observed that other candidates’ “popularity grows by contact; Hoover’s diminishes.” He judged: “All of the regular Republicans will oppose him. I don’t believe he can get the nomination. If so, of course he will be elected.” He also believed, “No man in public life has more enemies than Hoover.”

Hoover fought back with his usual style, pretending to be above politics (and fooling himself with the pretense), keeping his own hands clean. But his aides, particularly George Akerson, did what was required. Tough, even ruthless, they made deals, violated clear ethical standards, and looked the other way while people acting for Hoover broke the law. They used people. They used Moton.

In the black community Moton, Barnett, and the Tuskegee machine shielded Hoover, answered charges that Hoover had allowed the abuses of black refugees, did everything possible to advance him. Their impact was felt. “Would it be possible for us to have Neale [sic] in New York on March 30, for an address,” Akerson asked, referring to C. C. Neal, a small cog in the Tuskegee machine who had earlier helped move black Missouri Republicans into Hoover’s column. And no black man worked harder than Barnett, who had experience in both Chicago ward politics and presidential campaigns. He had become a campaign aide reporting to Akerson as early as January 1928; he traveled constantly, poured himself into the campaign, and simultaneously threw the influence of syndicated stories in his Associated Negro Press into the battle. Shortly before the convention, Akerson told Barnett: “Both Secretary Hoover and I have known of your devoted interest, and he appreciates as I do the fine continued work you are doing in his behalf. The battle is almost over…. Please be assured that you are counted one of the very closest friends of this organization, and we are very glad of your help.”

But Moton was the key. Moton mattered. A Negro political operative recruited by Hoover told Moton he did not want to work “against the RACE for the sake of the MAN,” asking “just what you think of him.” A black New Jersey politician asked for information “regarding Mr. Hoover in connection with the Mississippi flood, concerning good done the Colored people.” As the convention neared, Akerson’s requests of Moton became constant. Oscar DePriest, who was not in Hoover’s camp, dominated Chicago black wards and that year would become the first black congressman elected in this century. Akerson instructed Moton to handle him, as well as to contact “Mr. J. C. Mitchell…[who] has a tremendous influence with the three colored delegates from St. Louis”; to contact Scipio Jones, a black lawyer and key to the entire Arkansas delegation, “and find out exactly how he stands on Hoover”; to issue “a statement to the Colored Press in Chicago…call[ing] attention to the satisfaction which the colored leaders in the South had over the handling of Mississippi relief by Mr. Hoover.” At the convention itself Moton was given charge of black delegates.

Hoover won the nomination on the first ballot. The flood had swept him to it; the flood had returned him to his countrymen’s consciousness, made him once again a hero, once again the Great Humanitarian. With Moton’s help no scandal had erupted and black Republican delegates had fallen in line. The election would come in a few more months. Moton was willing to wait for the resettlement plan and other boons to the race, as well as to the Tuskegee machine, a little longer.

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