As the roaring Mississippi River inundated the South in April 1927, reporters followed the deluge down to the Mississippi Delta to report on the situation. Devastation was widespread: the flood caused 60 deaths, created over a quarter of a million homeless refugees and racked up nearly $17 million in total damages.
As the flood waters subsided, relief efforts disproportionately served the white citizens of the afflicted areas, who were the first to receive inoculations, food supplies, clothing, and shelter. Only the Chicago Defender, the influential weekly paper read by African Americans across the nation, reported on the inequities underlying flood relief efforts. Follow newspaper coverage of the flood and its aftermath, in these headlines and stories from 1927.
38 Perish in Rising Flood, 75,000 Flee
New York Tribune, April 23
7,500-Mile Area Swamped as Mississippi Rushes on Through Eight States, With Crisis Yet to Come -- Navy Speeds Planes to Save Marooned -- Suffering and Desolation Spreads as Army Fights to Keep Levees Intact
Suffering and Loss of Life Result of Stops Landing Break
Greenville [MS] Daily Democrat-Times, April 23
The Democrat-Times goes to press today in the poorest dress it has ever experienced. We are setting type by hand and printing it on a hand press. We are doing this in order to give the people as much information as possible. It isn't much but the best we can do for the present. We are in for a long siege. We cannot tell at this time when the regular publication will be resumed. We hope to keep the public informed each day regarding conditions each day if the water doesn't get too deep in our plant.
Flood Is Spreading; 200,000 Destitute
New York Times, April 26
The vast majority [of refugees] are tenant farmers and probably three-fourths of them are negroes, the best type of the old-time Southern "darky" such as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page immortalized. But whether white or black there is no distinction in the matter of succor and in this work the State of Mississippi is rendering , as is the Government, every aid within its power of authority.
New Floods Swell Army of Homeless to About 250,000
New York Times, May 5
Refugees in Northern Louisiana Trek to Safety Over Rain-Soaked Roads -- Boats Help in Exodus -- Town of Tallulah is Disappearing as Waters are Deepened From Crevasses -- Poydras Break Widened -- But Height of River at New Orleans Now is Stationary Near Levee Tops
Rescue Work is Speeded as Flood Engulfs New Area; Nation's Fund Now $7,443,267
New York Times, May 6
More Towns Submerged -- Red Cross Reports That 323,837 Refugees are Receiving Aid -- Peril Grows in Louisiana -- Thousands Toil to Reinforce Red River Levees as the Flood Crest Rolls Near -- Families Huddle on Rafts -- Many Refuse to Leave Improvised Floating Refuges in the Vicinity of Their Farms
Use Troops in Flood Area to Imprison Farm Hands
Chicago Defender, May 7
Refugees Herded Like Cattle to Stop Escape from Peonage -- Plantation Owners in Fear of Raids by Labor Agents
The ugly specter of Race hate has reared its head above the angry waters in the flood area... Men, women, and children of our group, who were conscripted, forced to leave their homes to top levees and prevent, if possible, a flood in their respective cities, are now refugees in "Jim Crow" relief camps. This vast army of destitute persons, nearly one hundred thousand, the majority of them farmers and laborers from 75 villages and towns of seven flood-torn states of the South, are experiencing worse treatment than our forefathers did before the signing of the emancipation proclamation.
...[Vicksburg, MS,] with a total population of some eighteen thousand persons, has 13,027 flood refugees to shelter, clothe, and feed. Half of this number are members of our Race, who have been placed in separate relief camps and are being guarded daily by national guardsmen who fear they will be kidnapped.
...This action was taken, it is said, following numerous requests from southern planters to Gov. Murphree... that members of our Race be guarded against a possible influx of labor agents who would seize this opportunity to take the refugees to the North and give them work. At present, the victims of the flood are given very little food and are barred from all visitors.
...Tags bearing the name of the refugee and the owner of the plantation from which he came are being placed on the men and women of our group. This is being done in order that the plantation owners can drive these workers back to the farms and charge these rations to them.
Greenville [MS] Daily Democrat-Times, May 14
All negroes in Greenville outside of the levee camp who are able to work should work. If work is offered them and they refuse to work they should be arrested as vagrants. Names and addresses of those refusing to work should be telephoned to police headquarters. I suggest one dollar a day as a fair wage at this time. -- W. A. Percy, Chairman of Relief
Flood Sweeping Valley on West of Atchafalaya Relief
Greenville [MS] Daily Democrat-Times, May 16
Boats and Supplies are Being Concentrated -- Fifty New Boats
Mr. Percy Talks to the Colored Ministers of City -- Points Out Duties in Relief and Rehabilitation Work and is Promised Cooperation
...Mr. Percy said that cooperation in the refugee camp on the levee has been excellent, but that cooperation from those living out in town had been "rotten." He explained that every person must work and that those who refused to work would be treated in the course as 'vagrants.' He said that it is a big job and will require a great deal of work before conditions can in any way be relieved.
Rev. J. B. Stanton was elected as spokesman for the colored ministers, and gives out the following statement: "In answer to the speech on Sunday by Mr. Will Percy to the colored preachers, we will stand by you all and make conditions so that we can do our duty as men, for this is our home. Our Delta people have done their duty as men and have worked their lands to make this a good place to live and we want to stay here if you will let us and we will work with you as we have done in the past. We want to see this country come back and prosper with the same fine cooperation between the races...
Plan Relief of Flood Water in North Part City
Greenville [MS] Daily Democrat-Times, May 31
Plan to Close Gaps in City's Protection Dyke -- Steps Are Taken
...The committee reported that in its opinion the fall of water has been such that the gaps in the protection levee can not be closed at a cost much less than to resulting benefits provided the work can be done by free labor and with material either furnished free or sold to the city at low cost.
Deny Food to Flood Sufferers in Mississippi
Chicago Defender, June 4
Relief Bodies Issue Work or Starve Rule
Another proof that Race hatred is continuing in the flood area was offered here last week when white relief organizations, headed by the Red Cross, southern division, issued a statement making each member of our Race responsible to some white man for the food and clothing he receives. In other words, if the "boss" says you can eat you can, and if he says "no" then you starve. This statement under the signature of W. A. Percy, son of former Senator Leroy Perry -- whose prejudice against members of our Race is as bitter as gall -- chairman of the relief organizations of this city, has made it clear that discrimination and segregation will be carried to the fullest extent despite the fact that agencies throughout the country are endeavoring to see that all refugees are given an equal chance.
Percy's first order specified that no members of our Race could receive food unless there was a man in the family and that this fact must be certified by some white person.
...These men who are not white must join the labor organizations and receive $1 a day if they want food for their families, he said. Those who draw a larger sum than $1 a day will not receive food.
...Refugees blame "Uncle Tom" ministers here for the suffering among our people. Ministers of all denominations have been called together and told by the whites to instruct members of our Race of the necessity of assisting their white brethren to recover from the flood. They have also been urged to advise our people that after the water has receded they were not to leave for the North since the South is the best place for "niggers." Rev. J. B. Stanton, styled a 'jackleg' preacher here, is the leader of the ministers. He has pledged his support to help keep our people here after the water recedes.
Colored Advisory Committee to Pay Greenville Visit
Greenville [MS] Daily Democrat-Times, June 24
R. R. Moton of Tuskegee Heads Colored Committee -- Date of Visit Here Not Yet Fully Decided Upon