Fatal Flood: Timeline
Residents of New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, build artificial levees ranging in height from four to six feet to protect their young city from the ravages of floods.
Levee building remains in vogue along the Louisiana shores of the Mississippi. As settlers move into the territory north of New Orleans, levees are constructed. By 1812 levees have been built to safeguard 155 miles of land north of New Orleans on the east bank of the river and 180 miles north of the city on the west bank.
As early as 1814 the debate over levee building begins, and proposals are made advocating alternatives to levees such as the creation of artificial outlets, called spillways, to drain floodwaters from the river.
The first of the Percy clan makes his way to the Mississippi Delta. At the age of 20, Charles Percy leaves behind a comfortable life on his Alabama plantation and heads to the Delta to try his luck at reclaiming farmland from the wild river. He puts his roots down in Greenville, Mississippi, establishes a cotton plantation, and begins to build what will become the Percy empire. Much of his success stems from the building of levees to contain the river.
Charles Percy dies and his younger brother, William Alexander Percy, assumes control of the family plantation and business interests.
Levee building remains the dominant form of flood control along the river. By 1858 over 1,000 miles of levee stretch along the banks of both sides of the Mississippi River. Levees cause the river to rise and must be augmented frequently. In some places, levees now stand as tall as 38 feet, the equivalent of a four-story building.
William Alexander Percy's wife, Nannie, gives birth to their first son, LeRoy Percy.
Colonel W. A. Percy, nicknamed "the Gray Eagle" during his service in the Confederate Army, returns home to Greenville after the Civil War to revive the family business. He uses his influence in the state government to establish a new levee board to rebuild levees destroyed during the battles of the Civil War and in recent floods. Flood control and African American sharecropper labor are the cornerstones of his plans for developing the Delta region and building the Percy fortune.
African Americans begin leaving the South in the first great migration, heading for Kansas and other points north. All over Mississippi, whites cheer their departure, except in the Delta, where plantation owners are desperate to hold onto their labor force. Some planters resort to intimidation and threats to keep their tenants from leaving.
June 28, 1879
Congress establishes the Missisippi River Commission to set policy regarding the river. Although staffed with both military and civilian engineers, the Commission is dominated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Amid debate over the proper course of action for flood control, the Army Corps of Engineers favors a "levees-only policy." Instead of using natural outlets and creating cutoffs, spillways and other means to drain the high water, this policy relies on levees alone to contain the river and prevent flooding.
May 15, 1885
Just over seven months after their marriage, LeRoy and Camille Percy give birth to their first son, William Alexander Percy, known as Will.
At the age of 53, Colonel W. A. Percy dies. His son LeRoy Percy, just 28 years old and already a formidable figure in his own right, takes control of the family enterprises.
The state of Mississippi ratifies a new constitution, which institutionalizes discriminatory Jim Crow measures such as a poll tax, literacy tests and secret ballots and disenfranchises African American voters in the state.
LeRoy Percy, fearing a shortage of laborers, recruits Italian citizens to come to the Delta and farm the land. While conditions for the Italian tenants are better than those for African Americans, the immigrants don't stay in the Delta. Once again, planters must rely on African American tenants to work the land.
Mississippi elects James K. Vardaman governor. Nicknamed "the Great White Chief," Vardaman achieves political success promoting racism. Vardaman's message plays well in the Mississippi hill country. His declaration that African Americans are "lazy, lying lustful animal[s] which no amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen" is well received in most circles, but not in Percy's Washington County, where African American labor is vital to the economy. Percy makes it his personal crusade to prevent Vardaman's forces from running African American sharecroppers out of the Delta.
February 23, 1910
LeRoy Percy is appointed to the vacant Mississippi seat in the United States Senate, the highest political office achieved in his family's history. His desire to serve is motivated in large part by his opposition to James K. Vardaman and his racial politics.
August 1, 1911
Election Day. LeRoy Percy loses his bid for re-election to the Senate to James K. Vardaman. Out of 79 counties in Mississippi, Percy wins only five counties in the Delta and places third in a field of three candidates. Suffering a humiliating defeat for an incumbent, Percy retreats from politics to private life.
Delta residents get a small taste of what can happen with a "levees-only" policy. The river runs so high that its tributaries actually back up and cover large expanses of six Delta counties in flood waters. What would have been a minor flood a century ago, before levees were constructed, now leaves 20,000 residents homeless.
March 1, 1922
At a Ku Klux Klan rally in the Greenville courthouse, LeRoy Percy stands before the crowd and urges them not to let the Klan into their town. His speech touches a chord in the community, and the town of Greenville passes a resolution condemning the Klan. Percy is hailed as a hero in newspapers around the country.
The Army Corps of Engineers, having constructed levees stretching from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, publicly declares that the levee system along the Mississippi will prevent future floods.
Violent storms in the northern United States dump tons of water into tributaries throughout the continent that feed into the Mississippi.
January 1, 1927
In Cairo, Illinois, the first of multiple crests breach flood stage on the Mississippi River. The river appears to be on the verge of flooding, but the Mississippi River Commission still insists the levees will hold.
Huge swells on the Mississippi River move downstream and reach the Delta. Heavy rains fall on the Delta throughout March and continue into April. Some white residents of Greenville, especially women and children, flee the area and head north.
March — April 1927
LeRoy Percy and other plantation owners send their farm hands to raise the height of Washington County levees. Other African Americans in the area are pressed into work gangs to heighten and fortify the levees. Police round up African Americans in town at gun point and send them to the levee. Convicts are also pressed into action, and altogether a gang of 30,000 men work to save the levee.
April 15, 1927
Rains pelt Washington County, and Greenville receives 8.12 inches. The storm covers several hundred square miles, and counties along the Mississippi receive anywhere from six to fifteen inches of rainfall.
LeRoy Percy and other town leaders gather at the home of Seguine Allen, chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, to discuss whether the levee will hold.
April 16, 1927
The Great Flood of 1927 begins. Just 30 miles south of Cairo, Illinois, a 1,200-foot length of government levee collapses and 175,000 acres are flooded. In some places the river is carrying three million cubic feet of water a second -- an unprecedented volume.
Communities on both sides of the river know that if the levee breaks on one side, the other side will be spared. Each side of the river fears sabotage, and sets up levee patrols to prevent intruders from dynamiting their levee. The patrols are prepared to shoot to kill.
April 21, 1927
At 8:00 am, twelve miles up river from Greenville at Mounds Landing, despite the efforts of African American work crews who have been laboring day and night, the levee bursts. With a force greater than Niagara Falls, water gushes through a crevasse three quarters of a mile wide. When the levee collapses, many of the African Americans working at the Mounds Landing site are swept away with the river.
April 22, 1927
The Great Flood overruns Greenville, Mississippi. Downtown Greenville is covered in ten feet of water. For 60 miles to the east and 90 miles to the south of the Mounds Landing break, the Delta becomes a turbulent, churning inland sea, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded on rooftops and clinging to trees. LeRoy Percy appoints his son, Will Percy, to head the Flood Relief Committee. Will is 42 years old.
April 23, 1927
Searching for marooned people in Washington County, rescue boats follow power lines to farms and houses in the countryside, bringing back whomever they find to the high ground on the crown of the Greenville levee. Over 10,000 refugees, mostly African Americans, crowd onto the narrow eight-foot-wide crown with their salvaged possessions and livestock. With the arrival of the refugees, Greenville's population almost doubles.
April 25, 1927
The situation in Greenville is dire. Thirteen thousand African Americans are stranded on the levee with nothing but blankets and makeshift tents for shelter. There is no food for them. The city's water supply is contaminated. The railway has been washed away, and sanitation is non-existent. An outbreak of cholera or typhoid is imminent.
Will Percy decides that the only honorable and decent course of action is to evacuate the refugees to safer ground down river and arranges for barges to pick up and transport the refugees. Many people are reluctant to abandon Greenville, despite the fact that their homes have been submerged. The planters, in particular, oppose Will's plan, fearing that if the African American refugees leave, they will never return, and there will be no labor to work the crops. LeRoy, placing his business interests above his family's tradition of aiding those less fortunate, betrays his son and secretly sides with the planters. Boats with room for all the refugees arrive, but only 33 white women and children are allowed to board. The African American refugees are left behind, trapped on the levee. Later, Will Percy will write that he was "astounded and horrified" by this turn of events.
Late April, 1927
To justify his relief committee's failure to evacuate the refugees, Will Percy convinces the Red Cross to make Greenville a distribution center, with the African Americans providing the labor. Red Cross relief provisions arrive in Greenville, but the best provisions go to the whites in town. Only African Americans wearing tags around their necks marked "laborer" receive rations. National Guard is called in to patrol the refugee camps in Greenville. Word filters out of the camps that guardsmen are robbing, assaulting, raping and even murdering African Americans held on the levee.
April 26, 1927
Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, placed in charge of flood relief by President Calvin Coolidge, visits Greenville and approves the flood relief committee's plans.
April 29, 1927
The torrent has moved south. With the river almost at the levee tops, New Orleans dynamites the Poydras levee, creating a 1500-foot break at an estimated cost of $2 million, to direct the flood waters away from the city and its half million inhabitants. Movie cameras are on hand to record the momentous scene. The New York Times reports that many people refuse to quit the area to be flooded by the levee break. One woman living in a lighthouse "says she won't quit her post unless Uncle Sam comes to take her away."
Slowly word of the abuses in the refugee camps reaches the Northern press. Once the situation in the refugee camps hits the national press, Herbert Hoover initiates an investigation of the reports. His investigators confirm numerous instances of abuse, but Hoover chooses to suppress the report. Hoover, known as "the Great Humanitarian," has his eyes set on the presidency. He has ridden a wave of good publicity from his flood relief efforts, and is determined to maintain his positive image. Hoover forms a Colored Advisory Commission of influential African American conservatives, led by Robert Russa Moton, to further investigate the camps. The commission confirms the initial findings. In exchange for keeping the report quiet, Hoover promises that if he wins the election, he will support the advancement of African Americans, including possible agrarian land reform. Moton agrees, and Hoover is never called to account for the treatment of African Americans in Washington County.
June — July 1927
As the flood waters recede, Greenville faces the task of digging the town out the mud. Again, the white leadership of the town resorts to conscripting African Americans at gun point. African American community leaders are outraged and refuse to recruit more workers. The Percys convince Hoover to visit Greenville and appeal to the workers, but his speech is a failure and the shortage of workers persists.
July 7, 1927
James Gooden, a well respected African American in the Greenville community, is shot in the back by a white policeman for refusing to return for a day shift after working all night on the clean-up. Word of his death spreads quickly and work stops. Tensions rise, and both blacks and whites arm themselves with guns and other weapons. Greenville is at a standoff. Will Percy calls a reconciliation meeting of the African American community at a local church, but places the blame on them for the death of their neighbor.
Late Summer 1927
Thousands of African Americans pack up their belongings and leave Washington County. Most head north and within a year, fifty percent of the Delta's African American population will have migrated from the region. Once "the Queen of the South," Greenville will never recover the prosperity it once enjoyed before the flood.
August 31, 1927
Will Percy resigns from the Greenville Flood Relief Committee and leaves for a trip to Japan the very next day.
After Hoover is elected president, he turns his back on Robert Moton, the Colored Advisory Commission, and his earlier promises. Burned badly by Hoover, in the next election Moton and the African American community shift their support from the Republicans to the Democratic party and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
LeRoy Percy, his wife dead and his empire in ruins, dies in Greenville. Will Percy takes over as head of the Percy clan in Greenville, works to rebuild his father's empire, and continues to live in his father's home until his death in 1942.