Modern history

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

ONE MONTH AFTER Calvin Coolidge signed into law the bill to contain the Mississippi River, the Republican National Convention chose Herbert Hoover as its nominee for president of the United States. His nomination was another legacy of the flood.

Moton continued to have high hopes that Hoover would help the race and dispatched his deputy Albion Holsey to work full-time for Hoover’s presidential campaign, informing Hoover that Tuskegee would continue to pay Holsey’s salary “as a form of contribution from Tuskegee to your campaign.” After the convention, Hoover met with Moton, who then told his secretary, “Hoover said that anything I said would be approved.” Hoover and he had discussed the creation of a new Colored Voters Division of the Republican National Committee. Moton had emphasized how important it was “that the right type of man be selected to head the colored division,” and recommended the president of the National Negro Bar Association to the job.

But once again Hoover was merely using him. Earlier, after receiving the Colored Advisory Commission’s final report, Hoover had told an aide to call in “another element of the colored world.” Now Hoover ignored Moton’s suggestion, installing a member of this other element as head of the new division, and making both Holsey and Claude Barnett report to this rival. Nor were Moton’s other suggestions often approved. Hoover had the nomination already, and Republicans believed the black vote belonged to them by default. In presidential politics it had always belonged to the Republican nominee. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Democrats had destroyed Reconstruction, enacted the Jim Crow laws, stripped the vote from blacks, opposed antilynching legislation. Only four years before, the Democratic National Convention had voted down a resolution condemning the Klan; in doing so it had reaffirmed the historic link between blacks and Republicans.

In addition, since the same southerners who supported the Klan would not vote for a Catholic, Al Smith’s nomination provided an opportunity for both a historic Republican landslide and to create a competitive Republican Party in the South—a “lily white” Republican Party. After securing the nomination with black support, Hoover now moved to build such a party. It was not the first such move by Republicans, but it was the first such move taken by a presidential candidate at the beginning of a campaign.

It began with a deal made with white Mississippi Republicans at the national convention, a deal known to Hoover when he talked with Moton. The white Mississippians had sought credentials. Instead, an assistant attorney general who chaired the credentials committee seated Perry Howard, a black Republican national committeeman from Mississippi who supported Hoover and was well known nationally. But the whites did not protest. A few weeks later the same assistant attorney general who had seated Howard indicted him for selling patronage jobs. (A white Mississippi jury later acquitted him.)

The incident, combined with continued attacks from the Chicago Defender on Hoover’s role in flood relief, aroused anger among blacks. Barnett and Holsey were traveling through states where the black vote was of consequence and took note of “uncertainty in many sections as to [Hoover’s] attitude toward the Negro in the Mississippi disaster.” They warned that a campaign aimed at shoring up support should begin immediately, or “there will be a heavy defection in the Negro vote.”

No such campaign was mounted. Instead, as Hoover’s aides pursued the new southern strategy—the precursor of a much later one—a wedge opened between blacks and the Republican Party. And if Hoover’s aides were duplicitous, blacks were far more expert than whites at playing a double game, at presenting a smiling face. As Barnett saw his own and Moton’s advice ignored, in July, a few days after Howard’s indictment, Barnett wrote George Brennan, a member of the Democratic National Committee: “You, more than any man I have met, white or black, have a comprehensive knowledge of the advantages which the Negro would gain by splitting his vote and becoming something of a factor in the Democratic Party…. A remarkable latent sentiment exists for ‘Al’ Smith which an educational campaign can develop into real support…. I can’t serve myself but I am sending you two of the best publicity men in the country. Percival L. Prattis and R. Irving Johnson who will present this letter…. They know the game.”

Only a week earlier Prattis, Barnett’s deputy at the Associated Negro Press, had told Barnett: “I am out-and-out for Hoover…. I can use my vacation and…Raise Hell for Hoover, believe me.” Barnett now ordered Prattis, for the good of the race, to take Johnson and together offer themselves to Brennan and work for Al Smith. They did.

In the 1920 campaign Harding received an estimated 95 percent of the black vote, even higher in Harlem. In 1924, Coolidge received marginally less, but more than three-quarters of the votes he lost went not to Democrats but to Robert LaFollette, who ran as a Progressive. In 1928, by contrast, Hoover lost an estimated 15 percent of the black vote. Such black papers as the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Boston Guardian, the Louisville News, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, all endorsed Smith. Noted one political scientist, “Democrats made deeper inroads on the Republicanism of Negro voters than in any previous national election.”

Hoover won the presidency in a historic landslide. He even carried Texas, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, the first time since Reconstruction that any southern state voted Republican.

Hoover’s election did give Moton one thing that he had worked for: access to the White House, more than any black man other than a servant had ever had. He even dined in the White House once, a politically significant event, and over the next several years he would be in constant communication with President Hoover, making many recommendations regarding southern whites and northern Negroes for posts ranging from federal judge to “a competent woman to work full-time in the Department of Child Welfare.” In one four-month period they would exchange twenty-one letters. But Hoover would follow few of his recommendations and do little for blacks in his administration. There would be no land resettlement scheme, nor anything like it. There would be only repeated promises. Hoover would even nominate a man to the Supreme Court so racist that a Senate controlled by his own party rose in protest. Moton declined Hoover’s request that he endorse the nominee, who was then rejected by the Senate. Even Moton had finally had enough; he rebuked Hoover, the president, informing him that blacks doubted “your personal concern for the welfare and progress of one tenth of the citizens of the United States.” Hoover replied with more promises, then approved severe cuts in the 10th Cavalry, a famous black combat unit, that would force black combat soldiers to become servants to white officers. Moton declared this “repugnant to all self-respecting Negroes.”

Moton had little use for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, observing that if Roosevelt “has done anything for the Negro as Governor of New York, I have not heard of it.” Barnett thought Roosevelt’s election would be “fatal” to the race.

Even so, in 1932, Moton refused to endorse Hoover for reelection. That year Hoover still received an overwhelming majority of the black vote, but he had driven a wedge between Republicans and even the most loyal black leaders that was splitting them asunder.

GREENVILLE CHANGED TOO. There, when the 1928 river legislation became law, LeRoy Percy gave no speeches. None were needed. Parties and celebrations went on for days. Business boomed at Muffuletto’s, the finest restaurant in the state. Drummers lucky enough to be in town laid their trunks open in the display rooms at the Cowan Hotel and made money. Bootleggers from the White River came down in the fast steel boats with which they had rescued thousands and made money too. And men and women paraded up and down the crown of the levee, looking down at the river, throwing empty bottles and cigarettes into the enemy they still feared, some even daring to think that man would finally vanquish it.

But the celebration had a hollowness. Greenville had changed. Earlier, two weeks before Christmas, 1927, Hoover had returned to the city, meeting with Red Cross county chairmen from the Delta in the Elysian Club, that stately and columned building with its long porch, yellow brick walls, and the hedge in front where people hid corn whiskey during dances. The club was part of the fabric of Greenville. In summer, fans had blown air over 300-pound blocks of ice for cooling, and its card room was filled with memories of planters gambling entire loans they had just taken out to cover a year’s crops. The club had smelled of fear then, the fear of wives clinging terrified to the wall. A few days after Hoover’s visit, the club hosted a Christmas dance. Then it closed forever.

The Delta was beaten down in a way it had never been. As late as March 1928, almost a year after the Mounds Landing crevasse, the Red Cross was still feeding 12,000 people in Washington County alone. There was no money. The Young Men’s Hebrew Association followed the Elysian Club into memory. The days when the biggest touring shows, big as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, came to Greenville, the days of Enrico Caruso playing in the Opera House, were over.

Greenville also took on a sullenness it had not had. Everything the blacks had endured changed things; the murder of James Gooden had changed things. Levye Chapple, who had organized the General Colored Committee and who had close connections to the Percys, left for Chicago. Though he later returned, most of the thousands of others who left did not. The Reverend E. M. Weddington had signed the letter of praise and thanks to LeRoy Percy during the Klan fight and pastored to Mt. Horeb, the church where Will Percy had castigated the black leadership; he left for Chicago and did not return. One man at a time, one family at a time, in an accelerating flood, blacks left Greenville and the Delta and did not return. They worked all week, took their pay, and left. Every Saturday night crowds of blacks gathered at the Y&MV railroad station to see who was leaving and say goodbye. It was cheaper than the movies, and far more intense. It was also exciting; even those who were remaining felt all the possibilities of the world.

White planters worried about the departures. In July 1927, Alex Scott, son of LeRoy Percy’s old ally Charles Scott, warned: “A great deal of labor from the flooded section after being returned to the plantations is going north. It is thus a serious menace and it is going to offer a tremendous problem to all of us.” He was correct. Three months later LeRoy Percy informed L. A. Downs, the president of the Illinois Central: “The most serious thing that confronts the planter in the overflowed territory is the loss of labor, which is great and is continuing. I would hesitate to give an accurate estimate of the loss of labor in Washington County but I am quite sure that thirty per cent is too small. If eventually we get by with a loss of fifty per cent I shall consider it fortunate.” Oscar Johnston’s 60,000-acre plantation produced only 44 bales of cotton in 1927 (only his aggressive trades in cotton futures early in the flood avoided losses in the millions). Nearly all bridges and buildings on the property had been washed away, and ditches and drainage canals had been filled with sand. Workers did not want to face the rebuilding task. Even though he canceled all old debts, even though he had established a refugee camp near the plantation to keep his workers close by, even though the Illinois Central had moved hundreds of his tenants from the Vicksburg refugee camp 260 miles to that camp, he had no workers with whom to rebuild. “Labor was completely demoralized and the plantation was left almost completely without labor,” he reported to his shareholders.

By early 1928 the exodus of blacks from Washington County, and likely the rest of the Delta, did reach 50 percent. Ever since the end of Reconstruction, blacks had been migrating north and west, out of the South. But it had been only a slow drain, with the South losing about 200,000 blacks between 1900 and 1910. During World War I “the Great Migration” began; the South lost 522,000 blacks between 1910 and 1920, mostly between 1916 and 1919. Now from the floodplain of the Mississippi River, from Arkansas, from Louisiana, from Mississippi, blacks were heading north in even larger numbers. In the 1920s, 872,000 more blacks left the South than returned to it. (In the 1930s the exodus fell off sharply; the number of blacks leaving Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi fell by nearly two-thirds, back to the levels of the early 1900s.)

The favorite destination for Delta blacks was Chicago. They brought the blues to that city, and there the black population exploded, from 44,103 in 1910 to 109,458 in 1920—and 233,903 in 1930. Certainly not all of this exodus came from the floodplain of the Mississippi River. And even within that alluvial empire, the great flood of 1927 was hardly the only reason for blacks to abandon their homes. But for tens of thousands of blacks in the Delta of the Mississippi River, the flood was the final reason.

THERE WERE other changes in Greenville. For the Percys Greenville became a dark place. In 1929, LeRoy’s wife, Camille, was dying. Even so, LeRoy left her sickroom to visit his deeply depressed nephew LeRoy Pratt Percy in Birmingham. The nephew was a few years younger than his cousin Will, about the age of LeRoy’s own long-dead son, and LeRoy and his nephew had hunted together, gambled together, joked together, even talked of the law together. LeRoy the elder had become closer to his nephew than to his own son. In July 1929, LeRoy Pratt Percy did what his own father had done twelve years before. He killed himself with a shotgun. The death stunned LeRoy, who felt not only the loss but his own failure to prevent it. His nephew left a widow and three boys.

Again, Will fled. While his parents grieved, he traveled to the Grand Canyon. He remained there for months. Shortly after he returned, in October 1929, his mother died. Three days later, Will and his father went to the resort of French Lick, Indiana; it was a family favorite, only this time it held no life. On their return LeRoy became ill. Will took him off the train and rushed him to Memphis Baptist Hospital. An old friend who visited him there laughed, “I never expected to find you among the Baptists,” and later recalled, “I think that was the last time he ever smiled.”

LeRoy improved enough to return to Greenville but remained morose. He hardly ate, hardly spoke. President Hoover sent condolences for his wife’s death and added, “I am happy to know that you are making so good a recovery.” But he was not recovering. His old colleague John Sharp Williams, the warrior who had vanquished Vardaman so many years before and who had finally retired from the Senate, spoke of his own determination to remain in this world “even if only on its outskirts” and pleaded with LeRoy to keep him company.

LeRoy would not. In his home full of echoes, he and his son waited for death. On Christmas Eve, 1929, LeRoy Percy, son of the Gray Eagle, died quietly. With his passing, a time in history also passed.

All of white Greenville fell into deep mourning. But blacks told each other that on his deathbed he had said, “No matter what you do, keep your foot on the black moccasin’s head. If you take it off he’s going to crawl away.”

AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH Will wrote: “One of the pleasantest places near the home town is its cemetery. I come here not infrequently because it is restful and comforting. I am with my own people.”

Will had always found comfort in the past, about which he could weave a personal mythology, rather than with the present or future, which required him to engage realities. His father’s death gave him both an object of devotion, and freedom. He escaped into himself less now; it had perhaps become less necessary. He had always been prolific, but since the flood he had written hardly any poems. Now he stopped altogether.

In the cemetery he built a shrine; in the midst of the Depression, at a cost of $25,000, he commissioned Malvina Hoffman to sculpt a statue of a knight standing in armor and mail weary and subdued, yet unvanquished, his hands resting upon a great broadsword. A tablet quotes a poem by Matthew Arnold: “They outtalked thee, hissed thee, tore thee…/ Charge once more then and be dumb! / Let the victors, when they come, / When the forts of folly fall, / Find thy body by the wall!”

It was now Will’s responsibility to live honorably. His cousin’s widow and her three children moved from Birmingham into the Percy home, now Will’s alone, and after her death—perhaps another suicide, perhaps an unpremeditated but opportunistic seizing of death, or perhaps simply an accident—Will adopted the three children, his cousins, Walker, LeRoy, and Phinizy. He was still nothing like his father. But his house was full. His father’s allies continued as his allies. He had the power of money; in one Depression year, a time when a family could live well on $1,500 a year, his personal checkbook balance ranged as high as $19,829 and never fell below $3,700. And he began to come into his own largeness.

For Will was a large man, only in different ways than his father had been large. His father had once said, “Hypocrisy is the pet vice of Americans, and bunk their favorite diet.” Will’s life became not hypocritical but paradoxical. As his adopted son Walker, the novelist, said, “Though he loved his home country, he had to leave often to keep loving it.” He traveled constantly to escape the Delta and also brought the outside world to the Delta. Unhappy with the pedestrian views of the existing newspaper—even though its owner had supported his father in the Klan fight and him during the flood—he recruited Hodding Carter and his wife, Betty Werlein Carter, to start a new newspaper that soon took over the older one, and later became a national symbol of heroic journalism. His house became a salon, choked with artifacts and objets d’art from Italy, Japan, Tahiti. An enormous Capehart record player sat in the living room; it was designed, although it rarely worked, to automatically lift records and turn them over. Dorothy Parker visited, William Faulkner visited, Stephen Vincent Benet visited, even Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, visited. (Will introduced him by saying Hughes had “risen above race,” but Hughes then proceeded to read, Walker Percy recalled, “the most ideologically aggressive poetry you can imagine.”)

Will lent his weight to other battles too. As the thirties moved into darkness, he opposed Oscar Johnston’s efforts to sell surplus cotton to the Japanese, protesting: “To furnish [Japan] with munitions of war is the rankest form of stupidity…[and] so completely indecent I don’t understand it…. The most dangerous doctrine that can be taught in our country is the doctrine now being taught by Oscar Johnston, that is America will carry on as usual after the Allies are defeated and will do business with Germany.”

Then there were the blacks. Everything in the Delta always came back to the blacks. Will patronized blacks in ways his father would not have considered, failed to understand them in ways his father could not have. Once several black ministers asked him for a contribution to build a Negro YMCA. Will offered to help build a beautiful facility on one condition: that Greenville Negroes combined their nearly fifty Baptist churches into one. He did not hear from them again. “Their virtues, to Mr. Will, had almost nothing to do with freedom,” Shelby Foote recalled. “It had to do with dignity, and suffering injustice in a better way than most people can.”

Yet in his own way, Will shielded blacks as his father would have. In 1937 the Mississippi River rose again and tested the new flood control plan. Ultimately, the river was contained, but while it was rising, whites wanted to call out the National Guard to protect the levees and keep blacks working on them. Will prevented it. He recalled the brutality of the Guard in 1927 and warned: “If the Negroes of this county knew the guards were coming, there would be a general exodus…. I have pledged them I would do all in my power to keep the National Guards out of the county now and during a flood as long as they behave like decent citizens.”

He protected black suspects from beatings by the police, even winning damages for at least one victim. He wrote contracts for his sharecroppers on Trail Lake, his plantation, ordered that they be treated decently (his foreman largely ignored his order), and even proposed that the federal government perform audits to see that sharecroppers were not cheated. He defended that proposal to another planter, arguing that “dishonesty practiced by landlords in this section in their settlements with their tenants…is widespread and disruptive of interracial relations…making the tenant distrust or even hate the white man.”

And when black men had sex with willing white women, Will protected those blacks too, seeing that they were only hustled out of Greenville and not whipped or lynched. The white men had their black whores on Blanton Street, but the entire white Delta shivered at the possibility of a white woman desiring, submitting to, a black man. For at issue was not only love and pleasure but power; in the sultriness of the Delta, sex represented everything.

Always Will had hated this part of himself, the part he had discovered in Europe and written about so long before: To think nobility like mine could be / Flawed—shattered utterly—and by… / A slim, brown shepherd boy with windy eyes / And spring upon his mouth! /…and I, who, most of all the world, / Loved purity and loathed lust, / Became the mark of my own scorning. He had always had desires. He had not indulged them in Greenville but his father was dead, and perhaps his father was appeased by the sculpture by his grave.

Rumors about Will spread through his town. He preferred the women and garden clubs to men and hunting, or poker, or golf. He took young men, both white and black, on trips to Europe and Tahiti, or bought them cars, paid for their flying lessons. “You know he never married,” people said of him, raising their eyebrows.

Some rumors were not acceptable. The rumors said that blacks had a power over Will. That his chauffeurs, young black men, showed their power to him. One, Ford Atkins, he had called my only tie with Pan and the Satyrs and all earth creatures who smile sunshine and ask no questions and understand. Atkins’ mother was Will’s cook; she became sullen and alcoholic, and he fired her. When Ford once addressed him in a way that was too familiar, Will instantly fired him too. Soon he hired a chauffeur named Senator Canada whose nickname “Honey” came from his charm, not his skin color. Honey had jet black skin, flashing teeth, and wore a mink tie. There were rumors about Will and Honey too. Honey spread them himself, going into the poolroom on Nelson Street, parking Percy’s enormous black car by the door, and shooting pool. Outside, it was said, Will lay on the floor in the backseat to avoid being seen. Then Honey said, “I got to take my who’ home,” laughed, dropped his pool cue, got into the car, and drove away.

THE FIRST SENTENCE of Will Percy’s autobiography Lanterns on the Levee reads, “My country is the Mississippi Delta, the river country.” The river had created the Delta, and the white man—the Percys and men like them—had brought the blacks to the Delta to clear it and tame it and transform it into an empire. Together they had done that. They had built that empire.

Will believed he was watching that empire disintegrate. Near the end of his autobiography, completed only months before his death in 1941, he wrote: “The old Southern way of life in which I had been reared existed no more and its values were ignored or derided. A tarnish has fallen over the bright world; dishonor and corruption triumph; my own strong people have become lotus-eaters; defeat is here again, the last, the most abhorrent.”

He seemed to accept that defeat, if only because he accepted the absurd and, finally, himself. The final chapter of his autobiography is titled “Home,” and it is about the cemetery. He wrote: “I wish a few others out there, under the cedars, could be in this plot of ours…. I should like to bring from that far corner where the poor sleep well one brown-eyed lad who sleeps alone there, for he had loved me.” Then he wrote, “I know that the wickedness and the failures of men are nothing and their valor and pathos and effort everything.”

A SOCIETY does not change in sudden jumps. Rather, it moves in multiple small steps along a broad front. Most of these steps are parallel if not quite simultaneous; some advance farther than others, and some even move in an opposite direction. The movement rather resembles that of an amoeba, with one part of the body extending itself outward, then another, even while the main body stays back, until enough of the mass has shifted to move the entire body.

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 forced many small steps. Even in the narrowest and most direct sense the flood’s legacy was felt in Washington, in New Orleans, in Greenville, in every community along the banks of the Mississippi River and its tributary rivers, and in the nation’s black community. Even in terms of just physical issues, the 1927 flood created a legacy of new problems that engineers must deal with today. But the flood also left a far larger, if more ambiguous and less tangible, legacy.

Like the blues music born in the Delta, languid and roiling at the same time, it penetrated to the core of the nation, washed away surface, and revealed the nation’s character. Then it tested that character and changed it. It marked the end of a way of seeing the world, and possibly the end of that world itself.

It shifted perceptions of the role and responsibility of the federal government—calling for a great expansion—and shattered the myth of a quasi-feudal bond between Delta blacks and the southern aristocracy, in which the former pledged fealty to the latter in return for protection. It accelerated the great migration of blacks north. And it altered both southern and national politics. The changes would not all come quickly. But they would come.

In 1927 the Mississippi River had gone coursing once again over the land it had created, reclaiming the empire the Percys had taken. Then the waters left. In their wake black Delta sharecroppers looked north to Chicago and west to Los Angeles, and out onto the freshly replenished fields. There, in the fields, the Mississippi had deposited one more layer of earth upon the land.

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