Born to an aristocratic white Mississippi family, Will Percy witnessed a seismic shift in his community following the 1927 flood. Percy's young cousin, the writer Walker Percy, remembered his relative, who adopted him and his brothers when they were orphaned in 1932:
"...his eyes were most memorable, a piercing gray-blue and strangely light in my memory, as changeable as shadows over water, capable of passing in an instant, we were soon to learn, from merriment -- he told the funniest stories we'd ever heard -- to a level gray gaze cold with reproof. They were beautiful and terrible eyes, eyes to be careful around. Yet now, when I try to remember them, I cannot see them other wise than as shadowed by sadness."
That sadness might have been inevitable given the circumstances of Percy's life. A misfit from the start, he struggled to adapt himself to the community leadership role he felt was his familial duty. Percy put himself in the crossfire of racial conflict after the 1927 flood, though he was ill-equipped to manage the crisis. Blind to shockingly bad conditions in the refugee camps he managed, Percy destroyed the fragile bond between blacks and whites in Greenville. Ultimately, he was unable to accept African Americans as his equals.
Read excerpts from Will Percy's 1941 memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son, to learn more about his life in the Mississippi Delta.
I was born and in May and on Ascension Day, and I have picked up the information that the incident overjoyed no one, because Father and Mother were young and good-looking, poor and well-born, in love with each other and with life, and they would have considered the blessed event more blessed had it been postponed a year or two. No matter how unfavorably I impressed them at the time, they impressed me not at all, and for a much longer period afterwards. I have no single memory of them dating from the first four years of my life.
As a youngster I had not loved Father deeply, though I had admired him boundlessly. He was stern, though he never corrected me, and shy and high-spirited at all the points where I was flat. During my religious period I resented his unchurchliness. I must have been a hard child to get close to. But now that I had learned a little sense, though not much, he was my chief delight.
Returning to Greenville After College and the War
My case was no different from most, I suppose, and I hated it: eight years of training for life, and here I was in the midst of it -- and my very soul whimpered. I had been pushed into the arena and didn't even know the animals' names. Besides, I labored under individual disabilities: I had been to Europe; I had been to Harvard; my accent, though not Northern, was -- well, tainted; I had had it easy; I probably considered myself it. For crowning handicap, I was blessed with no endearing vices: drunkenness made me sick, gambling bored me, rutting per se, unadorned, I considered overrated and degrading. In charitable mood, one might call me an idealist, but more normally, a sissy.
It must have been difficult for Father too. Enjoying good liquor, loving to gamble, his hardy vices merely under control, he sympathized quizzically and said nothing. But his heart must often have called piteously for the little brother I had lost, all boy, all sturdy obstreperous charm... Yet these handicaps on my debut were a minor worry. My real concern was what the show was all about and what role I should or could play in it, queries which, since the curtain was up and I on the stage, seemed fairly belated.
The Flood's Arrival
No one knew how high the flood would rise. By breakfast time it had still not entered our neighborhood. We stood on the gallery and watched and waited. Then up the gutter of Percy Street we saw it gliding, like a wavering brown snake. It was swift and it made toward the river.
Father looked somberly over the drowning town. I think he was realizing it was the last fight he would make for his people. He was sixty-seven and though unravaged by age he was tired. But he only said: "Guess you'd better go while you can. I'll be along." I waded to relief headquarters.
Our kindly old Mayor had appointed me chairman of the Flood Relief Committee and the local Red Cross. I found myself charged with the rescuing, housing, and feeding of sixty thousand human beings and thirty thousand head of stock. To assist me in the task I had a fine committee and Father's blessing, but no money, no boats, no tents, no food. That first morning when the water reached Greenville we of the committee traipsed through the mounting flood to the poker-rooms of the Knights of Columbus, hung out a sign labeled "Relief Headquarters," installed a telephone, and called on the Lord.
The Relief Committee
Our first acts, though in defiance of all law, were effective: we seized and manned all privately owned motor boats, skiffs, pleasure craft, wagons, and trucks... we confiscated all stocks of food and feed stuff in the local stores... However, for the indefinite future our need of money, tents, and motor boats was desperate. We sent out a nation-wide appeal. The response was immediate and on a grand scale...
Perhaps these early accomplishments of ours sound routine and inevitable, but in fact they taxed our ingenuity, our strength, and our judgment. At headquarters we slept three or four hours a night and, when not sleeping, lived in bedlam. It fell to my lot as chairman to make hundreds of decisions each day and the impossibility of investigation or second thought made every decision a snap judgment. Of necessity I became a dictator, and because the Red Cross controlled the food supplies and transportation I could enforce my orders. The responsibility didn't daunt me, but the consciousness that my judgments were often wrong was a continuing nightmare. If I had to be a despot I was very anxious to be a beneficent one.
Our problem was essentially a choice between mass feeding and evacuation. For the whites we chose evacuation. I issued an appeal very much in the nature of a command, I am afraid, for the old, the women, and the children to leave town and proceed by boat to Vicksburg.
What should we do with the Negroes: evacuate them in the same manner or feed them from centralized kitchens as the Belgians had been fed [in World War I]? There were seventy-five hundred of them. It was raining and unseasonably cold. They were clammy and hungry, finding shelter anywhere, sleeping on any floor, piled pell-mell in oil mills or squatting miserably on the windy levee. The levee itself was the only dry spot where they could be assembled or where tents by way of shelter could be set up for them. In spite of our repeated and frantic efforts we had been unable to procure a single tent. We feared disease and epidemics. Obviously for them, too, evacuation was the only solution. Therefore the Red Cross prepared them a camp in Vicksburg and procured two large steamers with barges. At last the innumerable details for their exodus were arranged and the steamers, belching black smoke, waited for them restlessly at the concrete wharf.
It was at this juncture that the Negroes announced they did not wish to leave and a group of planters, angry and mouthing, said they should not and could not leave. I was bursting with fury when Father overtook me on the levee. I explained the situation and he agreed I should not, of course, be intimidated by what the planters had said, but he suggested that if we depopulated the Delta of its labor, we should be doing it a grave disservice. I insisted that I would not be bullied by a few blockhead planters into doing something I knew to be wrong -- they were thinking of their pocketbooks; I of the Negroes' welfare. Father intimated it was a heavy decision, one I should not make alone. He suggested that I call into consultation the heads of all of my committees. I said they had been consulted and were of one mind: as we couldn't provide an adequate camp for the Negroes, we must evacuate them. Father urged that in fairness to everyone I should recanvass the situation and abide by the decision of my committee... At the meeting of the committeemen I was astounded and horrified when each and every one of them gave it as his considered judgment that the Negroes should remain and that we could provide for their needs where they were. I argued for two hours but could not budge them. At the end of the conference, weak, voiceless and on the verge of collapse, I told the outraged captains that their steamers must return empty.
After Father's death I discovered that between the time of our conversation and the committee meeting he had seen each committeeman separately and had persuaded him that it was best not to send the Negroes to Vicksburg. He knew that the dispersal of our labor was a longer evil to the Delta than a flood.
Deterioriating Relations Between the Races
... The Negro press of the North, led by the Chicago Defender, started an eight weeks' campaign of vilification directed at me... I had to take lightly their accusations that I had dumped the town's sewage into the Negro residential section while the white folks were playing golf at the Country Club, and they were easy to take lightly because the golf-links at the moment were still four feet under water and the town sewerage system never ceased to function. I was even rather thrilled when the Chicago Defenderclimaxed an eloquent editorial by observing that until the South rid itself of its William Alexander Percys it would be no fit place for a Negro to live. But I ought to have been... pained... by these libels, because the Negroes at home read their Northern newspapers trustingly and believed them far more piously than the evidence before their own eyes.
I feel sure that the most painful incident of the flood would not have occurred had it not been for the embittering influence of the Chicago Defender. It was a general rule of the Red Cross that recipients of its bounty should unload it gratis. This meant in our instance that meal, flour, meat, sugar, and tobacco, ninety-five percent of which went to the Negroes, must be unloaded by them without pay. When the water began to fall, the Negroes in the levee camp, where they were housed and fed under sanitary conditions, began to steal back to their soggy, muck-filled homes in the town. They always chose the hour of a boat's arrival for their sentimental journey rather than meal time. It became increasingly difficult to collect an unloading crew. If there was no such crew waiting, the steamer would immediately proceed with its sacred cargo to some more interested port. For that reason, we had already lost one boat-load of provisions and our stocks were running low. Mr. Davis, in charge of the wharf, grew daily more frantic. At last he asked my permission to get the police to round up a gang of laborers to unload the next boat. I refused, because that meant forcing labor to work and the Northern press would surely accuse the Red Cross of peonage. [Ultimately] I gave up. The police were sent into the Negro section to comb from the idlers the required number of workers. Within two hours, the worst had happened: a Negro refused to come with the officer, the officer killed him.
The next day my trusted Negro informant told me the Negroes had worked themselves into a state of wild excitement and resentment. He feared an uprising.
Keeping the Peace
Keeping the peace under these circumstances was my responsibility. I told my informant I would call a meeting of the Negroes for that night and speak to them in one of their churches. He vehemently opposed this course, saying the Negroes were all armed and all of them blamed me for the killing. Nevertheless I called the meeting...
I knew there was no chance here to appeal to reason. Retreat was out of the question. Attack was imperative. Unapplauded I mounted the pulpit and spoke slowly and bitterly:
A good Negro has been killed by a white policeman. Every white man in town regrets this from his heart and is ashamed. The policeman is in jail and will be tried. I look into your faces and see anger and hatred. You think I am the murderer. The murderer should be punished. I will tell you who he is... For months we Delta people have been suffering together, black and white alike. God did not distinguish between us. He struck us all to our knees. He spared no one... For four months I have struggled and worried and done without sleep in order to help you Negroes. Every white man in this town has done the same thing. We served you with our money and our brains and our strength and, for all that we did, no one of us received one penny. We white people could have left you to shift for yourselves. Instead we stayed with you and worked for you, day and night. During all this time you Negroes did nothing, nothing for yourselves or for us. You were asked to do only on thing, a little thing. The Red Cross asked you to unload the food it was giving you, the food without which you would have starved. And you refused. Because of your sinful, shameful laziness, because you refused to work in your own behalf unless you were paid, one of your race has been killed. You sit before me sour and full of hatred as if you had a right to blame anybody or to judge anybody. You think you want avenging justice, but you don't; that is the last thing in the world you want. I am not the murderer. Mr. Davis is not the murderer. That foolish young policeman is not the murderer. The murderer is you!
Percy's View of Race Relations
To live habitually as a superior among inferiors, be the superiority intellectual or economic, is a temptation to dishonesty and hubris, inevitably deteriorating. To live among a people whom, because of their needs, one must in common decency protect and defend is a sore burden in a world where one's own troubles are about all any life can shoulder... Yet such living is the fate of the white man in the South. He deserves all the sympathy and patience he doesn't get. Poor as his result have been they are better than any wise realist could have anticipated.
It is said that race relations in the South are improving because lynching has declined to the vanishing-point and outbursts of violence against the Negro are almost unknown. It should be noted, however, that the improvement, if improvement there is, is due solely to the white man.
The Delta problem is how all these folks -- aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good, aliens of all sorts that blend or curdle -- can dwell together in peace if not in brotherhood and live where, first and last, the soil is the only means of livelihood. Most of our American towns, all of our cities, have their unsolved problem of assimilation. But the South's is infinitely more difficult of solution. The attempt to work out any sort of one, much less a just one, as a daily living problem, diverts the energies and abilities of our best citizenship from more productive fields. A certain patience might well be extended to the South, if not in justice, in courtesy.
Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. 1941. Reprint. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
The story of the farmers who dreamed of prosperity and lived through ten years of drought, dust, disease and death.
Native Alaskans, oil company representatives, environmentalists, politicians, and others tell the story of the 800-mile pipeline.
The epic battle waged over dinosaur fossils by rival paleontologists in the American West.
Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser dedicated their lives to protect the shrinking American wilderness.
A daunting story of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny and cannibalism amongst a group left abandoned in the high Arctic.
Before radar had been invented a devastating hurricane hit America, surprising residents of the East Coast and killing more than 600 people.
Today one of the most-recognized figures in American literary history, poet Walt Whitman was denounced by critics in his own time.
Her 1963 warnings about the effects of pesticides and herbicides sparked a revolution in environmental policy.