LEROY PERCY had a clear conception of the society he intended to build. It would be a great agricultural factory that chested its way into the forefront of the New South, more humane than, but every bit as efficient as, the textile mills in North Carolina or the coal mines in Alabama. It would have rich and poor and little middle, but it would provide opportunity. It would be a place in which a superior civilization might flourish. And, although Percy was not burdened by sentimentality, he expected this society to adhere to a code of honor. If ruled by an elite, that elite would take care of its less fortunate members.
Building this society seemed possible. Its center would be Greenville, a town that even took advantage of disaster when, in the late 1800s, the river swung sideways and block after block of downtown collapsed into the river. Lawyers and cotton brokers moved their offices back, while the levee board and the Mississippi River Commission built a new levee, then poured concrete over it to protect it from the currents. This created a huge sloping wharf hundreds of yards long that helped make the port the busiest between Memphis and New Orleans. By the turn of the century, demand for cotton was steadily increasing. Between 1900 and 1904 alone the number of world cotton spindles jumped by 12 percent. In 1904 a “bull clique” of New Orleans traders drove cotton to 17.5 cents a pound, its highest price in decades and four times the price of just six years earlier. Meanwhile, young Greenville gentlemen frolicked; mimicking Sir Walter Scott, until World War I they tied ladies’ scarves to their lances and galloped at full speed in jousting tournaments.
Yet before Percy’s ideal society could be realized, one problem remained. Capital and transportation needs were being met, making labor the key to everything. Too much of the wealth the river had created, the most fertile land in the world, remained jungle. Levees were rising higher and capital was pouring into the Delta, but there was no labor to clear it, nor enough to farm what was cleared. This was true despite the benefits blacks were gleaning from what Percy was trying to do. Probably a higher proportion of Delta farms were owned by blacks than was the case anywhere else in the country; large numbers of these black owners had sharecroppers themselves. But even this opportunity had not lured the workers needed to the Delta. Percy declared: “The South must not be dependent for its prosperity upon the negro. There is not enough of him, and what there is is not good enough.”
So he began looking for a source of white labor. In so doing he hoped not only to supply the region’s needs but also to somehow escape “the Negro question.” One breed of whites he would not recruit: the poor whites from small farms in Alabama or Georgia or the Mississippi hills who were being driven off the land by economics. Percy did not seek them for two reasons: he considered them inferior to blacks, and he believed their presence would exacerbate rather than ease any racial tension.
Instead, he and Charles Scott, possibly the Delta’s single largest planter, asked Illinois Central president Stuyvesant Fish for help: “We are without sufficient labor to work that which is already cleared. These conditions grow more and more acute each year…. [We] must turn elsewhere for a new supply of farm laborers.”
Fish had every reason to help. By then he and Percy had become friends. They also used each other. Bred to power and wealth, Fish was descended from the original Dutch founders of New York City; his father, Hamilton, had been governor of New York, a U.S. senator, and secretary of state (descendants would represent the same New York district in Congress from 1910 until 1994). Stuyvesant himself controlled banks and insurance companies as well as railroads, and ranked among the shrewdest and most influential players on Wall Street. His uses to Percy could be many. In turn, Percy helped the railroad legally and politically in Mississippi and Louisiana, where most of its profits lay. He also helped Fish personally when Fish and several partners created a giant plantation in the Delta; these partners included Speaker of the House “Uncle Joe” Cannon, the most dictatorial speaker in history, and Senator William Allison, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Personal relations aside, Fish recognized that, with less than one-third of the Delta developed, clearing more land could greatly enhance Illinois Central profits. The railroad itself still had hundreds of thousands of Delta acres for sale, and it also had a land settlement department that began operating in the 1850s when the railroad received a federal land grant, the first to any railroad, of 2.5 million acres.
Fish promised Scott and Percy the Illinois Central would “leave no stone unturned” in the search for labor. In addition, Fish instructed a deputy to accept any suggestions about stimulating immigration from “the Delta’s three leading planters, John M. Parker, Charles Scott, and LeRoy Percy.”
PERCY, PARKER, AND SCOTT all had plantations just outside Greenville, all traveled often to Europe, and all moved in the highest circles politically and socially in New York, Washington, and New Orleans. Scott would run for governor of Mississippi. Parker would become governor of Louisiana. Percy would become a U.S. senator. Their friendship, particularly that between Parker and Percy, would become an axis around which much that happened in the Delta would revolve.
The three men had ideas, and so did the Illinois Central’s land commissioner. They talked. The land commissioner changed the region’s name on railroad circulars from “the Yazoo Delta” to “the Yazoo Valley” to avoid connotations of floods. He urged Dutch, English, and German stockholders to tell their countrymen of the opportunity there. He sent an exhibition train loaded with products of Delta soil to the Midwest. He had the railroad give away thousands of free passes to midwestern farmers to examine the Delta. He went to Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere to extol Delta soil, and distributed tens of thousands of copies of a pamphlet, The Call of the Alluvial Empire, that cited head-high cotton and “an experimental demonstration yielding 220 bushels an acre” of corn. In the Midwest a yield of 40 bushels an acre was excellent.
But the wild had not changed. Making farms of it still required economies of scale, while the railroad was committed to selling its own land in lots the size of Midwest farms. And there was something dark about Mississippi, something dark and deep that men did not want to venture into. Despite a decade of effort, only a few hundred white farmers moved to the Delta.
Immigrants were then pouring into America by the millions, filling northern cities and factories, providing cheap, good, white labor. Percy decided to recruit Italians. In the 1870s, Delta planters had made a concerted effort to bring in Chinese from Hong Kong and from the labor gangs of the intercontinental railroads. The Chinese had left the fields, many opening tiny grocery stores, over fifty in Greenville alone. (Unable to speak English, they provided their almost exclusively black clientele with a pointer for picking out merchandise.) But Percy was not deterred by this failure. He decided to recruit large numbers of Italians to the Delta. If they succeeded as sharecroppers, tens of thousands might follow. Then the Delta would hum like the vast factory he envisaged, and the labor problem would disappear. So would the Negro problem. The Italian government agreed to cooperate, and John Parker urged President Teddy Roosevelt to listen to Percy’s “eloquence on the subject.”
PARKER AND ROOSEVELT had had similar childhood experiences and had become friends. Parker, an asthmatic and weak child, had learned judo, performed hard manual labor, bred fighting cocks, and avoided church. He grew tall, proud, determined, and successful, and became president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange and the New Orleans Board of Trade and a director of the Illinois Central; he went back and forth between Mississippi and his mansion in the New Orleans Garden District.
Through Parker, Percy also became a friend of Roosevelt. Roosevelt understood the South; his mother was a Georgia aristocrat and two of his uncles had fought for the Confederacy. Both he and Percy loved to hunt, with Percy traveling as far as Alaska to shoot and Roosevelt traveling even farther. They were both direct, humorous, charming, charismatic. No one could dominate a room like Roosevelt; his energy simply filled it. But Percy’s presence in a room was felt too. LeRoy’s son Will, while attending Harvard Law School, met Roosevelt and judged him “scarcely a genius…[but] the biggest man I have ever seen outside of private life.” In private life, Will considered his father bigger.
Percy met Roosevelt on a bear hunt Parker organized, a gathering of money and power in the Delta wilderness, including the president, two cabinet secretaries, Percy, Fish, and several others. (Governor Andrew Longino had been invited but, having just annoyed Percy over legislation involving the Hartford Insurance Company, was never informed of the time or place of the hunt, and so was left behind.) The guide was Holt Collier, born a slave of the Percy family.
The hunt itself was brutal and intimate. The dogs cornered the first bear in a lagoon surrounded by tall cane; there the bear stood at bay. Collier and Parker found it there and wanted Roosevelt to have the first kill. So Collier roped the bear to prevent its escape. Then Roosevelt arrived. He refused to shoot it. Parker also disdained a distant kill, instead circling behind the bear as dogs leaped at its front, then ramming his hunting knife under the bear’s ribs and into its heart. It was November and crisp. Parker stood there, his chest heaving, his hands dripping blood, his boots covered with mud, as the bear died.*
After this hunt, Percy routinely dined with Roosevelt whenever he visited Washington. There Percy and Parker could count among their friends an extraordinarily powerful grouping: both the Republican Speaker of the House and the House Democratic leader John Sharp Williams, a Delta planter from Yazoo City, along with the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the president. Parker confided that he never “made any direct request of President Roosevelt for that would embarrass him.” Instead, he and Percy would go through back channels to “Speaker Cannon and whatever was desired would be realized.”
Percy’s experiment with Italian labor would soon force him to call upon his powerful friends.
THE EXPERIMENT took place at the vast, 11,000-acre Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County, Arkansas, directly across the Mississippi River from Greenville. The plantation already had its own railroad and a telephone line to Greenville in 1898, when the O. B. Crittenden Company, Greenville cotton factors, took it over. The company’s partners were Crittenden, Percy, and Morris Rosenstock (whose grandson is Civil War historian Shelby Foote). Percy was not the first to bring Italians there. Sunnyside’s previous owner had started doing so in 1895, but after only a few months he had died in an accident in New York. Then malaria and yellow fever had struck the Delta. The tiny Italian colony had disintegrated.
Percy was intent on succeeding. He and Scott personally went to Italy to recruit workers and hire labor agents. In all, they brought several thousand Italians to the Delta, not all for Sunnyside. They performed well enough that in 1904 Percy boasted to the Manufacturer’s Recordthat Italians were “in every way superior to the negro…. If the immigration of these people is encouraged, they will gradually take the place of the negro without their being any such violent change as to paralyze for a generation the prosperity of the country.”
Soon 47 Delta plantations were working as many as 180 Italian families each. Alfred Stone, a Percy friend and neighbor who was both an agricultural and social scientist, had earlier written in Publications of the American Economic Association, “Every step taken in the development of this section has been dependent upon, and marked by, an increased negro population.” Now Stone seconded Percy’s opinion: “It is always difficult to get a negro to plant and properly cultivate the outer edges of his field—the extreme ends of his rows, his ditch banks, etc. The Italian is so jealous of the use of every foot for which he pays rent that he will cultivate with a hoe places too small to be worked with a plough.”
But the Italians did not consider the experiment so successful. The South did not welcome them. The most grievous incident occurred in 1891, when a corrupt New Orleans police chief involved himself in Mafia rivalries and was murdered; a jury was supposedly either bribed or frightened into acquitting the murderers. The next day many of the city’s young leaders—including John Parker—issued a “call for action”; in response a crowd stormed the jail and lynched eleven Italians, including those just acquitted. The incident was hardly isolated. A year later three Italians were lynched in Hahnville, Louisiana; in 1899 five were lynched in Tallulah, Louisiana; in 1901 two were murdered outside Percy’s own Greenville. In 1907, after another violent incident in Mississippi prompted the Italian government to demand an investigation, the governor informed the State Department that the victim deserved his fate because he was “a very dirty, low-caste Italian, of the ‘Dago’ type—very mouthy…causing [others] to be discontented with their work.”
Though some Italians at Sunnyside were making money—in six years a single family saved $15,000 in cash—most were sinking into debt and growing bitter. Percy squeezed his tenants hard, charging “flat” annual interest of 10 percent on all advances, whether borrowed for one month or twelve, a routine practice in Mississippi but one that violated Arkansas law. Yet Percy ended the practice only after his manager warned, “I think we are taking some risk…. [Tenants are] making very close investigations about this point.”
One Italian answered with a pamphlet titled Don’t Go to the Mississippi, warning that there Italians would find only “slavery and fever”; he distributed it in New Orleans and Italy. In December 1906 a barn at Sunnyside exploded into flame. It was arson; the Italians were learning the revenge of the poor white.
In response, men with guns began patrolling the plantation. Some Italians were beaten. Some ran off. Tensions escalated.
When a labor agent tried to help some unhappy Sunnyside tenants relocate, Percy warned him “an unfriendly attitude on my part would be an injury to you.” And when Percy learned some Sunnyside Italians were at the Greenville train depot, he told other planters not to take them on and sent a manager to intimidate them into returning.
Federal law prohibited “debt peonage,” forcing people to work to pay off debts. Percy was pushing against the edge of the law. Federal law also prohibited advancing travel expenses and bringing in foreign workers under contract. Percy believed he had found a loophole in this law; more likely he had violated it.
Then Percy’s partner Crittenden pushed beyond the edge of the law. Two Italian tenants walked into his office, announced they were leaving for jobs in Alabama coal mines, and promised to repay money owed. They walked out, but Crittenden followed with a Greenville policeman and forcibly pulled them off a train and returned them to Sunnyside.
In the spring of 1907, complaints from the Italians reached Italian Ambassador Baron Edmondo Des Planches. To co-opt him and regain their customary control of the situation, Percy, Charles Scott, Stuyvesant Fish, and others invited Des Planches to tour the plantation. Percy showed off the families whose acreage was highly profitable, pointed out the modern cotton gin, the railroad, the office for the doctor who was on call, the place reserved for Catholic services. Others tactfully let Des Planches know that Percy’s wife, Camille, was Catholic. Afterward in Greenville, already a city with a sophistication beyond its small size, Percy hosted a dinner for the group at the Mirror Restaurant, an opulent restaurant run by two Italians that resembled Antoine’s in New Orleans. Percy, an engaging and cultured host, entertained with grace and elegance and seemed to win Des Planches over. As Des Planches was leaving, he clasped Percy’s hand and said, “Mr. Percy, I assure you we will send you Italians, who not only will make good farmers but will make good first class American citizens.”
Des Planches had shown Percy his diplomatic face. There was another. He had a keen eye and saw deeply. He had seen the shacks in which many of the sharecroppers lived and the long rows of cotton assigned to each family, and he had stopped to try almost undrinkable water. He understood enough. Back in Washington he reported: “The Italian immigrant at Sunnyside is a human production machine. He is better off than the black man, more perfect than the black man, but like the black man still a machine.” He demanded a Justice Department investigation, and specifically asked that Mary Grace Quackenbos conduct it.
MARY QUACKENBOS was strong, tough even, yet oddly naive and vulnerable. Heiress to a modest fortune, she had founded the People’s Law Firm in New York to protect immigrants. As a private individual and at considerable personal risk, she had uncovered conditions of virtual slavery in turpentine and timber camps in Florida and handed over the evidence to the Justice Department, which prosecuted, then hired her as the first female U.S. attorney. Her contest with LeRoy would pit federal law against both Percy’s friendship with Roosevelt and, in effect, all southern society.
From the first their relationship was one of mutual charm, mutual deceit, mutual determination, and, perhaps, even mutual respect. Upon her arrival in Greenville in July 1907, Percy seemed to extend both personal and professional courtesy to her. He hosted a dinner in her honor and gave her warm letters of introduction to X. O. Pindall, governor of Arkansas, and Charles Scott. But Percy also wrote a private letter warning Scott that her queries would be “endless and tedious” and wondering how to prevent her from “convers[ing] freely with the Italians.”
She too operated with guile at dinner, playing the disarmed and disarming guest, saying she so enjoyed Mrs. Percy that she wondered if Mrs. Percy could accompany them on a tour of Sunnyside. Yet she had already dispatched an undercover agent to the plantation to seek evidence against her host. (The investigator was arrested for trespassing.) Soon she went to the plantation herself, slept in a sharecropper’s shack with no screens on windows or doors, was besieged by mosquitoes, and drank the red, iron-laden water.
She returned with accusations of wrongdoing, yet still told her superiors, “Mr. Percy appears to be a man of common sense.” She asked him to improve plantation conditions and rewrite tenant contracts, and he agreed to some changes. But when she pushed for more, he refused. Meanwhile, she had threatened one of Percy’s labor agents with a long jail sentence for violating contract labor laws unless he confessed and helped her. She broke him, and his confession implicated Percy himself.
Percy reacted immediately. Her notes, including those of interviews with potential witnesses, disappeared from her room at the Cowan Hotel in Greenville. They were then “recovered” (Percy’s mocking word) and returned to her by Thomas Catchings, a retired congressman and a close Percy associate. Percy seemed to be telling her she could not touch him, that she was powerless, not only in the Delta but in Washington.
At the time, Percy himself was with President Roosevelt in Memphis, at the largest river convention ever held. More than 10,000 attended. Boosters in every town along every river in the upper Mississippi valley, anticipating the opening of the Panama Canal, were dreaming of direct shipments to South America and the Orient. Roosevelt’s high-pitched voice had pierced the hall. He approved the building of empires and called for great massive dams to generate hydroelectric power, irrigation projects to reclaim the dry West, and flood control too. Roosevelt proclaimed, “The whole future of the nation is directly at stake.” The crowd cheered and cheered, although Roosevelt’s own Army Corps of Engineers was trying to—and would—kill the legislation to carry out his plan.
Roosevelt then spent a week on Parker’s plantation relaxing, hunting, fishing, and talking politics. Percy was with him for much of that time too.
Quackenbos knew of Percy’s friendship with Roosevelt. It put enormous pressure on her. It drove her forward. She would not be intimidated. Instead, she showed her own power. Earlier she had written Attorney General Charles Bonaparte that the situation “at Sunnyside is not exactly peonage as I understand it.” The settlers were making profits, often substantial profits. An assistant attorney general had also visited Sunnyside and found none of the systematic brutality and viciousness “we have seen in cases found in other states.”
Now she returned to Sunnyside to spend another night with a tenant family. A foreman ordered her off the property. She refused to obey unless Percy himself told her to leave in writing. Before sunrise the next day a young black man delivered her a note from Percy doing so.
She left but sent Percy a note accusing him of “untrustworthiness and ungentlemanly behavior.” They were two accusations that would have most enraged him, and also revealed the delicate balance between her feminine and professional roles. But she also declared, “I have a perfect right to go upon the Sunnyside property, at any time,” and warned him not to interfere “with my duty as a government official.”
Nine days later she sent an even stronger response, contained in a wire on October 25, 1907, to Attorney General Charles Bonaparte: “O. B. Crittenden arrested for peonage.”
EARLIER THAT YEAR the Delta had survived a major flood of the Mississippi River. Although tens of thousands of acres had gone under, by and large the levees had held. Percy had worked hard in confronting that enemy at his front. He understood now that Quackenbos was an enemy at his rear, capable of threatening not only him personally but the relationship of the entire Delta with the financial markets and Washington.
She was proving a powerful adversary. Not satisfied with the weight of the Justice Department, she also used the press. Northern and Washington newspapers were sensationalizing what were plainly leaks from her. It was the age of muckraking and, like all ages, of scandalmongering, of exposing evil, of bringing down the mighty. It worried him.
But Mary Quackenbos was attacking only a wrong, and a relatively small one at that. To block her attack, Percy would use something far larger as a shield. The shield was the lot of the Negro in Mississippi, an evil that was to the wrong she accused him of as a supernova is to a streetlight.
Percy was no crusader on race. The preceding Christmas, when sharecroppers were signing contracts for 1907, he had warned his foreman that blacks considered him “rough with labor…. A difficulty at this time would be fatal to filling the place up…. [T]ake now what you would not be willing to do after.” He had excepted “a negro named Toler [who] is doing the place a great deal of injury. I don’t mind your being rough with Toler if you find him on the place.” And Percy, like other planters, virtually bought and sold black sharecroppers, paying off their debts as the price of acquiring them as tenants. Typically, he wrote one fellow planter: “I would be willing to pay his account if you are willing for him to leave. I would not even write you about the matter, but he says it is your custom to let them leave whenever they are dissatisfied. If you care to turn him loose, call me over the phone.”
And like many men of his class and time, he fully embraced Social Darwinism and considered blacks unable to compete with whites. He noted, “Those negroes who do receive higher education…in course of time, under the inexorable working out of the ‘survival of the fittest’ they will have to go to the wall.”
This put him squarely in the mainstream of contemporary thought. Roosevelt tempered Social Darwinism with the Social Gospel—decrying “cutthroat competition” and embracing social work—but still used competition to define even friendship. Of a tennis partner Roosevelt said, “If conditions were such that only one could live he knows that I should possibly kill him as the weaker of the two and he, therefore, worships this in me.” Although he dined with Booker T. Washington in the White House, arousing a fury of outrage in the South, he also said he wanted to “see the South back in full communion” with the rest of the nation, adding that in keeping with Social Darwinism, “The Negro…must take his chances like the rest.”
Percy agreed with that sentiment. But if the idea of social equality with blacks was as abhorrent to him as it was to others of his class, and if he expected blacks to lose a competition, he also believed that each man had to join in that competition. And he viewed a black man as just that, a man.
This set him apart. When a dispute erupted on his Trail Lake Plantation between the white manager and black tenants, it was the black tenant Lewis Levi whom Percy addressed as a man of honor and trust: “I am counting on you to use your influence with the hands for the benefit of the place, as you said you would do. I hope that I will find things straightened out when I get back…. I believe I can rely upon you to do what is right.” And it was the white manager whom Percy patronized and instructed: “You want to get as many of the hands satisfied as you can…. Treat Levi and the other negroes you think are against you exactly like you do the others, give them an equal chance to do day work, etc.”
Such an insistence on fair play was rapidly losing favor. In 1903, Mississippi had elected James K. Vardaman, “the Great White Chief,” governor. He was the first man in Mississippi to realize, in the sense of “making real,” the politics of race hatred. Tall, with a massive head and long black hair draped like a cape over his shoulders, he always wore an immaculate white suit, mastered every stage, was charismatic and demagogic to all, and was demonic and frightening to his many rivals and enemies.
As governor, Vardaman raised expenditures on white education and regulated railroads and corporations, Percy’s clients, but Percy initially supported him because they agreed on levee board appointments. But he also patronized him. Percy told a friend: “The fundamental trouble with Vardaman is that he honestly believes money is an evil to be guarded against…that Spartan simplicity, virtue and poverty are the virtues which should be emulated. It all comes of an untrained mind grappling with economic questions and trying to be original…. Between barbarism and Wall Street I believe he rather leans toward barbarism.”
But then Vardaman began to exhibit a truly barbaric side. He denounced the education of blacks as “a positive unkindness because it renders him unfit for the work which the white man has prescribed and which he will be forced to perform.” Besides, it made no sense to have education “dissatisfy [the Negro] and then kill him if he undertakes to enjoy the prerogatives of citizenship.” He called blacks “lazy lying lustful animal[s] which no amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen.”
Appalled not only by Vardaman’s comments but by the support they engendered, Percy believed that the time had come to respond. At a meeting of the Mississippi Bar Association in Vicksburg he made a remarkable speech. In it, he was very consciously preparing the ground for what would become a long war over race, a war that would last until the end of his life and beyond. He believed that his position represented civilization and decency, that Vardaman’s represented evil. If his position also represented self-interest—even if the experiment with Italian sharecroppers proved successful, the Delta would still need black labor and Vardaman was threatening to drive blacks away—he considered that perfectly consistent with morality.
Ultimately, the Mississippi River would show that in race matters Percy’s self-interest was not consistent with morality, and the river would force him to choose. In the meantime, his views on race were as progressive as those of any mainstream figure in the nation.
Percy began his speech with the observation “[t]hat man is a lover of his country, and a true patriot, who humbly strives to do his duty and to discharge the obligations of citizenship in that locality to which Fate may have assigned him.” It therefore behooved him to act. He continued: “An erroneous statement, oft repeated by those high in place, if permitted for long to go uncontradicted, soon passes current as axiomatic truth…. Such an erroneous statement has come much into vogue in the South, and especially in Mississippi in regard to the negro and education…. The statement is daily heard that education ruins the negro…. I deny that any man is rendered worse by having his intelligence quickened, his mental horizon widened.” It was a long speech. It affirmed the moral reasons for educating blacks and treating them fairly and honestly, including the fact that abusing blacks corrupted whites. Another reason for education was money. “The negro must be educated,” he concluded. “But not as a matter of justice to him alone is his education necessary, but because the industrial development of the South demands it.”
His speech would have impact. Jacob Dickinson, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and general counsel of the Illinois Central, a man Percy described as “an intense southerner,” sent a copy of the speech to Roosevelt.
Roosevelt already trusted Percy and respected him. He also liked him. Only a few weeks earlier Percy had stopped at the White House to say hello. Roosevelt had greeted him cordially and urged him to return for lunch the next day, when he had talked of hunting and his fight with Edward Harriman, whom Percy knew well from Harriman’s days as vice president of the Illinois Central. Finally the president had laughed: “Percy, by George, I like the Kaiser, he is a fine fellow. If you would put him down in Chicago he would carry his ward but the Czar would not. He would be president of the Mugwump Society.” Now, Roosevelt, fully understanding the political forces at work in the South and understanding the storm Percy was calling down upon his own head, forwarded Percy’s speech to the Outlook, the country’s leading Progressive magazine, which published it. On August 11, 1907, he sent Percy a note saying, “I hailed that article of yours with genuine delight. I have long since become convinced that while in each section of the country there are wrongs to be remedied,…the only effective way to remedy them…[is] to back the man on the ground who is acting well and wisely. My dear sir, as an American I felt I owed you a debt of gratitude.”
It was into that relationship that the arrest of Percy’s partner intruded.
SOON AFTER his partner’s arrest Percy left for Washington. When he needed action there, he usually relied upon either his own congressional delegation, which included the House Democratic leader, or Speaker Cannon. But Congress could not help in this matter. Only two men, the attorney general or the president, could.
So Percy met first with Attorney General Charles Bonaparte. The meeting went badly. He wrote home, “I believe he will give what trouble he can in the premises.” Only Roosevelt remained.
Percy had never asked a favor of the president, refusing, as he told one man who sought his help, to make a “social acquaintance the basis of a request for political favors.” But he did not hesitate to discuss policy with Roosevelt. Only days earlier Percy had urged Parker to join him in asking Roosevelt to help southern banks through the Panic of 1907. Whether because of them or not, Roosevelt did move $50 million of federal deposits into those banks.
Now Percy called at the White House. Roosevelt knew the subject of the visit and saw him at once. Percy had prepared for this meeting as thoroughly as for any court appearance. He would not confuse business with friendship and refrained from any talk of hunting or mutual friends. Instead, he presented his brief, explaining, “You are fully aware of the absolute necessity for immigration to the Delta section of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, that the country is less than one-third developed and its development absolutely arrested for lack of labor.”
Mary Quackenbos was threatening this immigration despite, he charged, her “most profound and remarkable ignorance…. There was not a condition, a custom, a form of contract, or a crop raised about which she had the slightest information.” Percy cited specific errors she had made, including a grossly overestimated calculation of Sunnyside’s profits based on her stunningly mistaken belief that the plantation produced two cotton crops a year.
He did not ask the president to quash the grand jury that would consider indicting his partner. He did not fear the law, he said, nor did Quackenbos care about the law. Indeed, he argued, “Her manner was that of a ‘Lady Bountiful’ dispensing alms, a philanthropic humanitarian, a doctrinaire, seeking to remove poverty wherever she finds it…without discrimination as to whether that poverty is due to unjust treatment or oppression, or is the result of necessary conditions and environment.” It was simply the world, a hard world, which caused the immigrants’ pain, he argued. Not even the South. The world. The fitter survive.
But if the legal process did not worry him, he continued, the press did. Quackenbos was leaking her report in bits and pieces to the press. Washington papers were suggesting that charges of “sensational character” would be made, and the southern press was reprinting the stories.
He then made three requests. First, believing that “the publication at this time of an unfavorable Government report would be absolutely fatal to any chance of securing immigration,” he asked that “no publicity be given [her report] and no action be taken on it by the government until it be verified.” Second, he asked that an investigation by “men of practical understanding” be conducted, and, third, that she not be sent south again.
Roosevelt listened closely. He approved of Quackenbos. When Florida congressmen had earlier erupted in outrage over her investigation of turpentine camps, Roosevelt had backed her absolutely. Just recently, he had sent a newspaper clipping about her offending southern timber interests to Bonaparte with the notation “very amusing.” But Roosevelt trusted Percy. That was not something easily achieved or discounted.
After a moment he gave Percy the answers he wanted. Quackenbos would be removed from the investigation. There would be no publication of her report unless it was verified.
Then the president invited Percy to dinner. Percy declined. Few people would decline an invitation to dinner with the president, fewer still who had just won a favor from him. It was part of what Roosevelt liked about Percy.
IN A NARROW SENSE Percy had succeeded. A federal grand jury in Jackson, Mississippi, refused to indict Crittenden, despite a charge from the judge almost requiring them to do so. Quackenbos was reassigned, and all copies of her report were removed from Justice Department files.
A few weeks later Percy invited Stuyvesant Fish and Jacob Dickinson to join him at Sunnyside. “Fish are biting, Mint is growing, soft breezes blowing,” he beckoned.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt asked Harvard historian Albert Bush nell Hart to investigate Sunnyside. In a letter expressing simultaneously doubts about feminism, concerns about having removed Quackenbos, and the limits of his own power, he wrote, “I am very uneasy about…[her] unsoundness of judgment which is both hysterical and sentimental…. The fact is that on these southern plantations we are faced with a condition of things that is very puzzling. Infamous outrages are perpetrated—outrages that would warrant radical action if they took place in Oyster Bay or Cambridge; but where they actually do occur, the surroundings, the habits of life, the sentiments of the people, are so absolutely different that we are in reality living in a different age, and we simply have to take this into account in endeavoring to enforce laws which cannot be enforced save by juries.” Hart investigated and exonerated Percy.
Yet Percy actually had failed. The State Department forwarded Quackenbos’ report to the Italian government in confidence. Throughout Italy the government put up signs in railroad depots warning emigrants away from the Delta. The Austrian government simply forbade emigration there.
Of 8 million people entering the United States from foreign countries between 1892 and 1906, only 2,697 claimed Mississippi as their destination. Most were Italians brought over for Percy’s experiment. There would be few more.
There was something dark about Mississippi, darker even than the rest of the South. And it would grow darker still.
Percy concluded, “Italian immigration has not been a success…principally because the people of the Delta accustomed for a good many years to handling negro laborers are not fit to handle any other.”
But the Delta was still starved for labor. In 1907 the boll weevil crossed the Mississippi River. The Delta suffered, but not as much as elsewhere; its climate and soil gave its cotton some resistance to the weevil. Demand for Delta cotton only increased. Percy observed wryly: “There is no labor…with which to develop [the state]. Mississippians have no idea of doing any work themselves and nobody else on God’s green earth is thinking about coming here or can be made to contemplate such a dire possibility.”
To seize land from the river, to build his society, more than ever Percy needed labor. In the South labor had always, one way or another, come down to race. Percy had tried to escape that tar pit. He had failed, both in recruiting independent white farmers from the Midwest and white sharecroppers from Europe. The future of the Delta and of whites like Percy was wedded to the black race more than ever, however much men of either race resisted.