The Colored Advisory Commission's second report revealed that the government relief effort had made little progress in helping African Americans in the flooded areas. Anxious to avoid negative publicity about the relief work he'd overseen, Herbert Hoover suppressed the details of the commission's report and ensured his 1928 election to the presidency.
Honorable Herbert Hoover, Chairman
The President's Mississippi Flood Committee
Washington, D. C.
ca. December 12, 1927
The members of the Colored Advisory Commission appointed by you to investigate the handling of Negro flood sufferers in the Mississippi Valley disaster and later to observe the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts being made among these inhabitants of the stricken districts beg leave to submit the following report:
Meeting at the call of Dr. Robert R. Moton, Principal of Tuskegee Institute and Chairman of the Commission upon which served Mr. Jesse O. Thomas, Mr. C. A. Barnett, Bishop R. E. Jones, Dr. L. M. McCoy, Mrs. John Hope, Mr. T. M. Campbell, Dr. J. S. Clark, Miss M. E. Williams, Dr. J. B. Martin, Mr. H. C. Ray, Mr. R. R. Taylor, Mr. A. L. Holsey, in its first session June 2, 1927, at Red Cross Headquarters, Memphis Tennessee, divided itself into small groups which inspected the various refugee camps than in existence, the rescue work still being done and the emergency measure taken to protect life, health and property. A detailed report of the findings and experiences of the Committee on that occasion which was rendered at the time is appended hereto.
The last week in November 1927 the members of the Commission again invaded the territory to observe what progress was being made in the work of rehabilitation or of getting Negro flood sufferers back to normalcy. It is the conditions found at this time with which this report is concerned.
In the outset your Commission wishes to make clear that it approached the problems presented with an open mind. We were appreciative of the fact that conditions existed in the strickened territory which might be expected to affect any effort comprehending so large a portion of its population, but the opportunity provided to learn facts surrounding the economic conditions of these people and being of whatever service we might in alleviating their misery and improving their chances in life was one which appealed to us.
We found some conditions which were highly gratifying and many which were totally unsatisfactory. The Mississippi flood in its relationship to human life affected the Negro chiefly. A number of the counties along the Mississippi River and in the Delta district of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas had more than 75% of Negro population. The problem faced was that of dealing with Negro life as we found it there. Not only was there congestion, but we found a class of people who were lacking in schools, who were living in homes scarcely worthy of the name, who existed in unhealthy conditions under an economic status unsound and unfair. It was impossible for such a people to develop a reserve sufficient to deal with an emergency so great as the flood because they were practically helpless, without initiative and with little self-control and self-reliance.
The national Red Cross laid down a program for the application of relief and the distribution of supplies which was totally just and fair. In all the states, however, we found that supplies were being given out irregularly through landlords and plantation commissaries. The common practices which had grown up in the communities and the local Red Cross officials, adjusted as they were to the plantation system, frequently nullified the intentions and program of the National Red Cross.
Conditions as We Observed Them
1. Notwithstanding the fact that the Red Cross memoranda of May 12th, 19th and 25th state specifically that flood relief is to go directly to tenants and share croppers and not to landlords, this condition does not always obtain. Negro tenants must secure their rations either on the recommendation of the landlord or the landlord secures the rations himself and distributes them to his tenants either direct or through his own commissary. Persistent reports have come to us that the land owners, who themselves distribute rations to the returned refugees are charging for these rations.
2. It came to our notice from sources that we do not question that in numerous instances in the second period relief there appeared to be an understanding between the landowners and the Red Cross officials. Reports to our commission from colored people themselves indicated that in numerous instances they were forced to go back from the camps to the plantations. Some of the colored people who had been on the plantations attempted to leave. Those who were caught, were whipped and at times threatened with death if they left the plantation again.
3. The most distressing condition which we observed was the fear on the part of the colored people themselves to talk. They tell you frankly that they are afraid that if they tell the truth, and somehow it is discovered that they have "talked too much," that they would be killed.
4. We found numerous instances where the colored people, as a result of years of living under a semi-peonage system, in many communities were afraid to ask for the things to which they were entitled under the Red Cross. In every community we visited we found some colored people of this type and many times their fear caused them a great deal of suffering. We found a number of instances where colored people were in need of medical attention. These cases were reported to local Red Cross officials, and we hope that some steps were taken to assist them.
5. The plantation system in the Mississippi Valley led to many peculiar complications in the rehabilitation program. Reference has been made above to the fact that the Negro tenants and share croppers are forced to get their supplies ion the recommendation of landlords. This only applies to white landlords. The small Negro land owner with tenants are usually not able to secure supplies or rations or repairs for their tenants, while white landlords in the same community secure without difficulty, things that they need for their tenants. The net result being that the Negro land owners suffer the loss of some of their tenants and at the same time are greatly delayed in rehabilitating themselves.
6. We wish to reiterate what we said in our report made to you on June 11th and that is the policy of the national Red Cross is still subject of the interpretation of local white people and the treatment of Negroes is reflected very largely in the personal attitude of local men and women in charge of the Red Cross affairs.
In our report made to you on June 11th at Baton Rouge, the following recommendation was made:
"That at least two colored men in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi or Louisiana with sufficient authority from the Flood Relief Committee to do their work unhampered be delegated to visit the camps for the purpose of giving detailed information and answering questions concerning the reconstruction work. It would greatly expedite the work of such representatives if they could be supplied with placards and circulars containing brief and simple statements of the details of reconstruction of the Red Cross program."
1. We believe that if this recommendation had been carried out that much of the suffering of the colored people would have been prevented. Unless a Negro representative of the Flood Commission has sufficient authority to inspect the records in local Red Cross offices, it is impossible to get sufficient fact to substantiate the conditions reported by the Negroes themselves. In Louisiana, for example, where our recommendation had a partial trial it furnished the best example of rehabilitation we found.
2. We recommend that at least one tactful colored man with full authority to inspect the records of local Red Cross officials be appointed in the three states of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, and that he be given a corps of Negro workers of experience to assist him in surveying the conditions in the respective states.
3. We have found upon investigation that a number of Negroes have not received clothing, shoes, bedding and necessary quarters for the winter. We recommend that they receive immediate attention.
4. We recommend that an executive order from the National Red Cross be sent to local communities restating the procedure for distributing rations and supplies as printed in the memoranda of May 12, 19 and 25, 1927.
5. We recommend that the national officers of the Red Cross investigate conditions where the Negroes have made short fall crops and that some provision be made to ration these people through the interim between the short crop of 1927 and the early crops of 1928.
6. We recommend that Agricultural and Home Demonstration Agents; social workers and health nurses be employed at once to go into the three states affected to survey the condition of colored people, and that immediate steps be taken to make these colored people comfortable for the winter.
7. We strongly urge that within the next thirty days that the homes of Negroes be repaired. This phase of the work has been neglected in every section visited.
8. We recommend that a special fund for emergencies be made available for the Negro advisor in every state; such funds to be handled by the chairman of our committee through the Colored State A& M colleges or some other accredited agency for the purpose of giving colored people some means to meet extreme cases of suffering when there is indifference to the colored people's needs on the part of the Red Cross officials.
9. We understand that it is Secretary Hoover's plan to give brood sows to the farmers in the flooded area. We hope that this will be handled in such a way that colored people will be sure to receive their gifts direct; otherwise these hogs in many cases will be given to colored people and charged against them.
10. We recommend that the number of colored workers not only be increased but that they be continued until June 30th 1928 with the understanding that if the emergency continues that some of them may be continued even beyond that date.
11. One of our sub-committees reported to a local Red Cross official that in numerous instances where colored people receive ration orders on some local merchants, that these merchants in turn would cut the order and either keep the difference themselves or charge it against some old account. The local Red Cross official said that she knew this condition was going on but that she could not get any of the colored people themselves to testify. Obviously, the colored people who have for so many years lived in fear of ill treatment as a result of the plantation system will not tell except where they think a friend will help. They are unwilling to give their names in making such reports, for as they say, their lives would be in danger. It seems, therefore, that the responsibility for checking on situations like this should not be left to Negroes when the facts are known and are admitted by Red Cross officials in some of the communities. Confidential investigators from Washington would be able to make some interesting discoveries.
12. At our meeting in Tuskegee we telegraphed asking the immediate removal of Miss Cordelia Townsend, Red Cross official at Melville. Our investigators were discourteously treated by Miss Townsend and told in a most abrupt manner that they were not needed and were given no consideration. We know of instances where Miss Townsend ordered colored people to give up tents and find some place to live where there was absolutely no place for them to go. We also know that hundreds of homes for white people have been repaired and rebuilt in Melville and these homes furnished with rugs, sewing machines, refrigerators, etc., while only seven Negro homes in Melville have been repaired. Many of the colored people are sleeping on pallets or use mattresses spread upon planks.
13. In justice to the Red Cross and this commission that is cooperating with it, we urgently recommend that the Red Cross on its own initiative investigate the conditions which are set forth in these reports, with the definite aim of determining whether or not the colored people have received their proportionate share of Red Cross aid.
Robert R. Moton
Source: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Service