Despite chattel slavery being outlawed, Black freedmen were still politically disenfranchised, and a social order based on debt servitude – sharecropping – was established.
The black people who built the hundreds of miles of levees were at first slaves, then mainly sharecroppers and convicts. The levee work camps were isolated, barbaric places where the pay was even less than for picking cotton and where white foremen could literally get away with murder. During a flood in 1912, a Mississippi engineer who ran out of sandbags ordered several hundred black convicts to lie down on top of a levee while the water splashed over them. The local press suppressed the story, but the New York Times reported this horror as “brilliant.””
In 1927 as the rivers spilled over, black work gangs were rounded up to toil in dangerous and ultimately pointless attempts to stay the water. In Mounds Landing, Mississippi, north of the main Delta town of Greenville, over 2,000 black men were forced at gunpoint to fill and throw sandbags onto the levee. On April 21, the levee was breached, releasing water with a force greater than Niagara Falls. Many in the work gangs who were reinforcing the levee were swept into the torrent.
In New Orleans, with its crucial banks and port facilities, newspapers refused to print flood warnings. In the end some 10,000 impoverished people—mainly trappers, fishermen and bootleggers—were displaced, and few ever got more than a few dollars of compensation.
To make matters worse, “the federal government didn’t contribute a dime of direct aid to the thousands of flood victims, despite a record budget surplus. The Red Cross established racially segregated camps in the flood zones. Black families lived in floorless tents in the mud without cots, chairs or utensils, eating inferior rationed food. Sometimes forced to work on the levees without pay, black men had to wear tags identifying that they were laborers in order to receive rations, and to show which plantation they “belonged to.” Women with no working husband did not get supplies unless they had a letter from a white man.
Policing the camps, the National Guard supervised the workers, whipping and beating the men. At least one black woman was gang-raped and killed by Guardsmen. Typhoid, measles, mumps, malaria and venereal diseases ran rampant among destitute tenant farmers and mill workers already weakened from illnesses endemic to poverty, such as tuberculosis and pellagra. The Chicago Defender (4 June 1927) even reported that “those who die are cut open, filled with sand then tossed into the Mississippi River.” Such horrors were stark proof that the poisonous legacy of chattel slavery still infected the land some 60 years after the Civil War.
The 1927 Mississippi River Flood became not only one of America’s greatest natural disasters, but also one of its greatest cover-ups.
Most hit was Greenville, Mississippi, in which 90 percent of refugees were black. Greenville’s relief camp spawned both the worst of the Red Cross’ abuses along with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s media tactics.
In the end, Hoover’s media campaign preserved his humanitarian legacy by hiding Red Cross racism from the nation at large. Despite the Chicago Defender’s relentless efforts to bring attention to the Red Cross abuses, the paper ultimately did little to tarnish Hoover’s reputation.
However, the Great Flood was a turning point in race relations as by revealing that in 1927 slavery remained a threat in Greenville, black residents left the South for northern cities such as Chicago. Northern Blacks also partnered their southern brethren in mass protest resulting in the 1931 Scottsboro Boys trial.