April 22, 1927 (a Friday): The Political Flood

Flood refugees on the levee in Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accession no.: PI/CI/G74.4, no. 46).

Flood refugees on the levee in Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accession no.: PI/CI/G74.4, no. 46).

And the rains came. They came in amounts never seen by any white man, before or since. They fell throughout the entire Mississippi River Valley, from the Appalachians to the Rockies. They caused widespread flooding that made 1927 the worst year ever in the valley. The Great Flood of 1927 at one point covered 26,000 square miles in water ten feet deep. More water, more damage, more fear, more panic, more misery, more death by drowning than any American had seen before, or would again.

On this date, President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation to the nation. He declared, “The Government is giving such aid as lies within its powers …. But the burden of caring for the homeless rests upon the agency designated by Government charter to provide relief in disaster — the American National Red Cross.” He made no mention of emergency appropriations. Rather, Coolidge, as President of the United States and the Red Cross, asked for the public to donate $5 million [$55.9 million in 2005 dollars] to the Red Cross. Additionally, the President created a quasi governmental commission to assist the Red Cross in the relief effort. Coolidge appointed Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, as chairman.

The flood propelled Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was in charge of flood relief operations, into the national spotlight and set the stage for his election to the Presidency.

The flood had the unlikely effect of contributing to both the election of Herbert Hoover as President, and his defeat four years later. He was much lauded for his masterful handling of the refugee camps, but later concerns over the treatment of blacks in those camps caused him to make promises to the African-American community which he later broke, losing the black vote in his re-election campaign.

Flood refugees near Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District)

Flood refugees near Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District)

Several reports on the terrible situation in the refugee camps, including one by the Colored Advisory Commission led by Robert Russa Moton, were kept out of the media at the request of Herbert Hoover, with the promise of further reforms for blacks after the presidential election.

However, once elected President in 1928, Hoover ignored Robert Moton and the promises he had made to his black constituency. In the following election of 1932, Moton withdrew his support for Hoover and switched to the Democratic Party. In an historic shift, African Americans began to abandon the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party instead.

The flood of 1927 changed America. It put Herbert Hoover in the White House, even while his duplicity in dealing with blacks helped begin the shift of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It inspired Congress to pass a law putting responsibility for the Mississippi in Federal hands, making it easier for both Congress and the public to accept an even larger Federal presence during the New Deal years. And the pressures the flood brought to bear on the delicate racial fabric of the Deep South caused ruptures that could never be mended.

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