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Fatal Flood

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1726 - 1926 | 1927 - 1929


Residents of New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, build artificial levees ranging in height from 4 to 6 feet to protect their young city from the ravages of floods.


Levee building remains in vogue along the Louisiana shores of the Mississippi. As settlers move into the territory north of New Orleans, levees are constructed. By 1812 levees have been built to safeguard 155 miles of land north of New Orleans on the east bank of the river and 180 miles north of the city on the west bank.


As early as 1814 the debate over levee building begins, and proposals are made advocating alternatives to levees such as the creation of artificial outlets, called spillways, to drain floodwaters from the river.


Close up of a sharecroppers hands picking cottonThe first of the Percy clan makes his way to the Mississippi Delta. At the age of 20, Charles Percy leaves behind a comfortable life on his Alabama plantation and heads to the Delta to try his luck at reclaiming farmland from the wild river. He puts his roots down in Greenville, Mississippi, establishes a cotton plantation, and begins to build what will become the Percy empire. Much of his success stems from the building of levees to contain the river.


Charles Percy dies and his younger brother, William Alexander Percy, assumes control of the family plantation and business interests.


Levee building remains the dominant form of flood control along the river. By 1858 over 1,000 miles of levee stretch along the banks of both sides of the Mississippi River. Levees cause the river to rise and must be augmented frequently. In some places, levees now stand as tall as 38 feet, the equivalent of a four-story building.


William Alexander Percy's wife, Nannie, gives birth to their first son, LeRoy Percy.


December: Colonel W. A. Percy, nicknamed "the Gray Eagle" during his service in the Confederate Army, returns home to Greenville after the Civil War to revive the family business. He uses his influence in the state government to establish a new levee board to rebuild levees destroyed during the battles of the Civil War and in recent floods. Flood control and African American sharecropper labor are the cornerstones of his plans for developing the Delta region and building the Percy fortune.


African Americans begin leaving the South in the first great migration, heading for Kansas and other points north. All over Mississippi, whites cheer their departure, except in the Delta, where plantation owners are desperate to hold onto their labor force. Some planters resort to intimidation and threats to keep their tenants from leaving.

June, 28: Congress establishes the Mississippi River Commission to set policy regarding the river. Although staffed with both military and civilian engineers, the Commission is dominated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Amid debate over the proper course of action for flood control, the Army Corps of Engineers favors a "levees-only policy." Instead of using natural outlets and creating cutoffs, spillways and other means to drain the high water, this policy relies on levees alone to contain the river and prevent flooding.


Leroy, Camille & Will PercyMay 15: Just over seven months after their marriage, LeRoy and Camille Percy give birth to their first son, William Alexander Percy, known as Will.


At the age of 53, Colonel W. A. Percy dies. His son LeRoy Percy, just 28 years old and already a formidable figure in his own right, takes control of the family enterprises.


The state of Mississippi ratifies a new constitution, which institutionalizes discriminatory Jim Crow measures such as a poll tax, literacy tests and secret ballots and disenfranchises African American voters in the state.

Early 1900s

LeRoy Percy, fearing a shortage of laborers, recruits Italian citizens to come to the Delta and farm the land. While conditions for the Italian tenants are better than those for African Americans, the immigrants don't stay in the Delta. Once again, planters must rely on African American tenants to work the land.


James VardamanMississippi elects James K. Vardaman governor. Nicknamed "the Great White Chief," Vardaman achieves political success promoting racism. Vardaman's message plays well in the Mississippi hill country. His declaration that African Americans are "lazy, lying lustful animal[s] which no amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen" is well received in most circles, but not in Percy's Washington County, where African American labor is vital to the economy. Percy makes it his personal crusade to prevent Vardaman's forces from running African American sharecroppers out of the Delta.


Senator Leroy PercyFebruary 23: LeRoy Percy is appointed to the vacant Mississippi seat in the United States Senate, the highest political office achieved in his family's history. His desire to serve is motivated in large part by his opposition to James K. Vardaman and his racial politics.


August 1: Election Day. LeRoy Percy loses his bid for re-election to the Senate to James K. Vardaman. Out of 79 counties in Mississippi, Percy wins only 5 counties in the Delta and places third in a field of 3 candidates. Suffering a humiliating defeat for an incumbent, Percy retreats from politics to private life.


Delta residents get a small taste of what can happen with a "levees-only" policy. The river runs so high that its tributaries actually back up and cover large expanses of 6 Delta counties in flood waters. What would have been a minor flood a century ago, before levees were constructed, now leaves 20,000 residents homeless.

3 KKK members stood by burning crossMarch 1: At a Ku Klux Klan rally in the Greenville courthouse, LeRoy Percy stands before the crowd and urges them not to let the Klan into their town. His speech touches a chord in the community, and the town of Greenville passes a resolution condemning the Klan. Percy is hailed as a hero in newspapers around the country.


April: The Army Corps of Engineers, having constructed levees stretching from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, publicly declares that the levee system along the Mississippi will prevent future floods.

Fall: Violent storms in the northern United States dump tons of water into tributaries throughout the continent that feed into the Mississippi.

1726 - 1926 | 1927 - 1929

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