Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mississippi's "Concentration Camps" on the Levees

Great Flood

Expedition Journal
Stephen Ambrose May 1, 2001
"Concentration Camps"

To save the land, frantic efforts to raise the levee by stacking sand bags on the top were begun. Charles Williams was an employee of former Mississippi Senator Le Roy Percy's on one of the largest cotton plantations in the Delta. He set up "concentration camps" on the levee protecting Greenville, complete with field kitchens and tents, for thousands of plantation workers--all African Americans--to live as the men handled sand bags.

Original caption: Sweeping all before them and spreading destruction in their wake, the overflowing waters of the Mississippi River continued "on to New Orleans", which city has taken great measures to prepare for the worst flood in the history of the United States. Photo shows a street fronting the levee at Greenville, Mississippi, showing the refugees tents pitched on the levee. Almost the entire town has been submerged by the Mississippi waters.
The river, not the men, won the battles. On April 21 it broke through the levees. Major John C. H. Lee, the Army district engineer at Vicksburg (and in World War II in command of the Services of Supply in the European Theater of Operations--there the chief quartermaster and called by the enlisted men, who halted hated him, "Jesus Christ Himself Lee" wired the chief of the Corps of Engineers, General Edwin Jadwin, "Levee broke...crevasse will overflow entire Mississippi Delta."

The crevasse, just upriver from Greenville was huge, a 100-foot channel half a mile in width. Water poured through, more than double the amount of Niagara Falls, more than the entire upper river ever. In 10 days it covered one million acres with water 10 feet deep--and the crevasse continued to pour water for months.

Evacuation barge on river

Panic. Hundreds of workers on the levee climbed into a barge below the break to escape. A tugboat tried to push the vessel downstream, but the flow through the crevasse pulled it upstream. One white man called out "Let's put all the niggers on the barge and cut it loose." Another man, Charlie Gibson, interceded. "We ain't goin' to cut the barge loose. I'll shoot you if you try that. If we go, we go together."

Senator Percy's son Will, a World War I hero and a noted poet, took charge of the Red Cross relief efforts for the blacks stuck on the levee. His first impulse was to evacuate them on steamers.

Feeding Negro flood refugees on levee, Greenville, Mississippi 1927

The planters protested. They persuaded Le Roy Percy to instruct his son to leave those blacks on the levee. Cotton was the principal, indeed almost the only crop grown in the Delta. Cotton was labor intensive--it was planted, cultivated, and picked by hand. The planters grew rich because of it. The workers got $1 a day for their sunrise to sunset labor.

The planters knew that if the blacks got out of the Delta, they would never return. They had nothing to come back to and anyplace was better than the Delta. Keep them here, the planters declared. Le Roy Percy backed them. Will Percy, after some feeble protests about putting their own economic welfare ahead of people's lives, gave in.

In 1942, those same planters, or their sons, paid the local police to patrol the Illionois Central railroad depots to prevent the blacks from getting on the train to go to Chicago, where they could get work at, for them, big wages, in the war industries. In 1944 the first cotton picking machine came to the Delta. By 1945, the planters were buying one-way tickets to Chicago for the blacks.

On the levee the blacks filled and stacked sandbags, for which Percy set a pay scale of 75 cents per day. Those who were put to unloading and distributing Red Cross food parcels, which were starting to come to Greenville by barge to feed 180,000 people and thousands of animals.

Percy ordered all Greenville blacks to the levee. The camp stretched seven miles. Percy ordered that all the Red Cross work be done for free. There were too few tents, not enough food, no eating utensils or mess hall. Black men were not allowed to leave--those who tried were driven back at gunpoint by the National Guard.

The food they received was inferior to what the whites got. Canned peaches came in, but were not distributed to blacks for fear it would "spoil them. Whites kept the good Red Cross food for themselves. Giving it to the blacks, one white man explained, "would simply teach them a lot of expensive habits."

In John Barry's judgement, the levee was not a labor camp, it was a slave camp.

The River Wins

Mississippi River Watershed Map

President Coolidge did nothing. Despite pleas from governors and mayors and other officials in the flooded states, he refused to visit the area. The radio network NBC asked him to broadcast an appeal for relief funds on an historic nationwide hookup. He declined.

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover chaired a special committee that handled the emergency. He used the position not to alleviate the suffering bit to get publicity for himself. He became a hero--just about the only hero to come out of the crisis--and thus won the 1928 Republican nomination for presidential candidate.

The flood dominated the front pages of the nations newspapers for weeks. Editors later overwhelmingly named the flood the greatest story of 1927. Thus did nature triumph over man's attempt to conquer it--on May 22, Charles Lindbergh flew over the Atlantic Ocean to Paris in a plane named, ironically, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Nature always wins. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but always the river will make its own route to the Gulf of Mexico.



  1. I'm from Greenville, born and raised. Never have I been insighted on exactly how the Great Flood ifof 1927 in this aspect. This dialogue has opened my eyes. Now I'm curious to find other things about my hometowns history.

  2. More information about the horror treatmennts during the 1927 flood
    is documented in the books "Laterns on the Levee" and I believe "The Rising Tides". Also there is a documentry on PBS that tells a part of the story.



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