Named after his grandfather, the Civil War hero William Alexander "Gray Eagle" Percy, Will Percy also served in the Army with honor and valor during World War I. But in his heart he was a poet and a writer.
Born on May 15, 1885, only seven months after his parents' marriage, Will was a small and frail child. Although he idolized his father, LeRoy Percy, Will possessed a romantic spirit his father could not understand or appreciate. Will grew up lonely and at a distance from his father, always searching for ways to win his approval.
A gifted student, Will attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, just as three generations of Percys had done before him. Although the law did not interest him, Will later attended Harvard Law School and returned home to practice law in the family's Greenville, Mississippi, firm, as was expected of him.
In his years at the family firm, Will accomplished little of note, but he avidly continued to write and edit poetry. To the indifference of Greenville society, Will was in fact a distinguished young poet. Greenville residents, however, preferred to speculate on why he remained unmarried and resided in his parents' home. Although his father had made quite a name for himself in business at a young age, Will remained in his father's shadow, dominated by his father's dazzling presence and the weight of the family name. It was not until Will returned from the Great War with the rank of Captain, the Croix de Guerre, and gold and silver stars that he earned his father's respect.
While his relationship with his father improved after World War I, Will remained known only for being his father's son. It was not until Will was 42 years old that he finally made his mark on Greenville. When the Great Flood devastated the Delta in 1927 and the Mounds Landing levee broke, LeRoy Percy took the unexpected step of putting Will in charge of the Washington County Relief Committee. The emergency placed the massive responsibility of caring for the flood's refugees on his shoulders.
With the Mississippi flood waters covering the entire Delta, the Greenville levee was the only high, safe place for thousands of refugees. The vast majority of the people stranded on the levee were African Americans, and they were desperate for food, potable drinking water and shelter. Will, raised by his father to care for African Americans and the less fortunate out of a sense of noblesse oblige and family honor, believed the only decent course of action was to evacuate the refugees.
His decision could not have been more at odds with the views of Greenville's planters. Petrified that once the refugees left, they'd never return, angry planters went straight to Will's father and denounced the decision to evacuate. Will's father sided with the planters over his son and put a stop to the evacuation.
From that day forth, Will Percy's leadership of the flood relief committee faltered. African Americans were virtually imprisoned on the levee and forced to work at gunpoint. Many refugees believed their treatment was comparable to slavery. Investigations would later show that the conditions in the Greenville camp were far and away the worst of any refugee site. On August 31, four months after the flood overran Greenville, Will resigned from his post. He sailed for Japan the very next day.
With LeRoy Percy's death in 1929, Will slowly emerged from his father's shadow, took charge of the family and became a patron of the arts. Over the course of his life he did much to improve conditions for African Americans in Washington County: he paid for the college education of young African Americans; allowed his tenants to buy their own land; protected them from police brutality; and ran his commissaries at cost. But he was never able to treat African Americans as his equals or restore the trust the African American community once had in the Percy family.
In the 1930s, Will adopted three orphaned cousins and brought them to Greenville to live with him in the Percy home, among them the future novelist Walker Percy.
Although he abandoned his poetry, he continued to write, and Will Percy's most enduring legacy remains his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee, which has been in print for more than half a century since its publication.