I made a conscious decision not to write about the quagmire developing in Ferguson, Missouri. If doubting my capacity to add fresh insight wasn’t enough, fearing a distinct possibility of outrage becoming rant sealed the deal. At that moment a ponder formed.
Abolition of slavery was an inconvenience to Southern plantation owners, share cropping was the answer. Slice plantations into tiny pieces, assign plots with wooden shacks, provide each “farmer” with seed and tools, have them work your land, take half the profits, then deduct the cost of housing, seed and tools. Pass laws requiring poll taxes and literacy tests to qualify as voters – voila, it was all a bad dream – business as usual. The south depended on two things – labor and levees.
April of 1926, the Army Corps of Engineers announced levees from Illinois to New Orleans were unbreachable. – that fall it started to rain. By January of 1927 water has topped “flood stage” at Cairo, Illinois – undaunted the Mississippi River Commission sides with the Corps. In March relentless storm water arrives at the Mississippi Delta , a delta inundated and overwhelmed by unimaginable rainstorms. Fearing a breach, residents of Greenville South Carolina start to evacuate. Skittish land owners , terrified share crop labor forces might follow – round up African Americans at gunpoint, forcing them into work camps along the levee. On April 15 Greenville receives over 8 inches of rain.
The next day, south of Cairo Illinois a section of levee fails – 175,000 acres are flooded. At Greenville 30,000 African American “prisoners’ fill sand bags around the clock – guards have orders to shoot anyone attempting escape. April 21 the levee breaks. Within hours the river is almost 100 miles wide, those not swept away cling to rooftops. Greenville is under 10 feet of water. Prominent land owner LeRoy Percy appoints his son Will to head the Flood Relief Committee.
Will orchestrates a relief effort – plucking thousands from trees and roof-tops, taking them to a “crown” of levee still intact. April 25 finds 13,000 blacks stranded on a strip of land – no food, water or shelter. Will organizes another rescue – boats charged with taking survivors to safety arrive at Greenville. He didn’t realize plantation owners – including his father – couldn’t risk losing their labor. Only 33 white women and children were allowed to leave.
Will convinces the Red Cross to set up a relief center in Greenville. When provisions arrive they go to white residents first, anything left went to blacks provided they had a tag around their neck marked “laborer”. Stories of horrific abuse by National Guard troops – theft, rape, beating and murders of African Americans start finding their way to northern news desks. Enter Herbert Hoover.
President Calvin Coolidge appoints presidential wannabe Hoover to investigate allegations of abuse. Hoover forms the Colored Advisory Committee, comprised of African Americans, led by Robert Moton. Seizing an opportunity, Hoover convinces Moton to silence Committee findings verifying atrocities against blacks on the levees. In exchange Hoover assures Moton that if he is elected his priority will be advancement of African Americans and agricultural land reform. African American votes help elect Hoover – Hoover had no intention of helping African Americans.
I wonder how many Americans learned this history at school, my guess is very few. Click on the link for a detailed timeline from American Experience. Finally, ponder why this is my response to Ferguson Missouri.