The Diaspora, Blowing Down the Road

Katrina and the lessons of the 1927 flood

After Katrina, the chattering classes were quick to agree that the scale of this disaster had no precedent in American history. In making the case they alluded frequently to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But mainly they talked about money. And in that respect, they were right. No other U.S. natural disaster has ever chewed up so much expensive real estate and capital equipment. Damage estimates of $100 billion, then $200 billion, have given way to $200 billion estimates for federal spending alone.

Hardly anyone thought to compare Katrina to the Mississippi River flood of 1927, though the parallels were more striking. Strictly in terms of property damage, the flood was admittedly a poor cousin to last month's hurricane. The damage was mainly to farmlands, and the land itself was reclaimable. The combined value of the shacks and sheds swept away that year probably came to less, counting inflation, than it will now cost to gut and rebuild a few blocks of downtown New Orleans. But the toll in lives uprooted was remarkably similar. In its time, the great flood seemed fully as biblical in wrath as Katrina. For a period of months that spring and summer, water covered the whole vast flood plain of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries. It swallowed up nearly all of cotton country, making a lake of the tens of thousands of square miles of the Mississippi Delta. Some 700,000 people were driven from the land, the great majority of them black sharecroppers and tenant farmers--perhaps fewer than now displaced by Katrina, whose numbers are said to be around 1 million, but in any case a greater share of the U.S. population of its day.

What became of the 1927 refugees during and after the flood constitutes one of the more sordid and little-known episodes in the history of post-slavery America. It's recounted in John M. Barry's riveting book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, and everyone who is even remotely interested in the fate of the present-day diaspora should read it.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The Delta cotton bosses of 1927, notes Barry, had been watching the ranks of sharecroppers and tenant farmers shrink for nearly two decades as the Great Migration of southern blacks to the industrial cities of the North proceeded. The labor shortage had grown critical before the flood, and as the river rose that spring, the main preoccupation of plantation owners was keeping their serfs from fleeing the premises for good. To minimize that risk, many planters during and after the flood employed armed thugs to keep blacks herded up in the makeshift levee encampments where they'd fled to escape the water. So great were the fears of cotton growers that on one occasion, federal flood czar Herbert Hoover got a consortium of them to pony up $200,000 in just three hours by telling them that if he didn't receive their guarantees by 5:00 that day, "I'll start sending your niggers north, starting tonight." Hoover got his money. He also caught political heat from their strong-arm tactics. Writes Barry,


Kansas Republican Senator Arthur Capper, a director of the NAACP, wrote [Hoover] to "voice the protest of the colored citizens of Topeka against alleged mistreatment of Negro refugees.... Colored people are being isolated in refugee camps where they are being held virtually prisoners under the supervision of National Guardsmen...[and] discriminated against in matters of food." ...A letter from a black Republican activist read: "It is said that many relief boats have hauled whites only, have gone to imperiled districts and taken all whites out and left the Negroes; it is also said that planters in some instances hold their labor at the point of a gun for fear they would get away and not return. In other instances, it is said that mules have been given preference on boats to Negroes."


The black vote in those days represented a small but meaningful Republican Party bloc, and Hoover already knew he was likely to be the Republican candidate for president in 1928. A flood camp scandal in the Negro press would scuttle much of Hoover's black support. He responded by enlisting the political help of the era's most prominent conservative black leader, Robert Russa Moton, who had succeeded Booker T. Washington as director of the Tuskegee Institute. In exchange for a pledge of free parcels of land to blacks who persevered in the Delta, a promise Hoover had no intention of pursuing, Moton assembled an all-black commission that quashed the most dire reports from the refugee camps. In the end, Hoover became president and some 350,000 or so of the 1927 refugees--about half--never returned to the cotton patch, or returned under duress only to flee at the next opportune moment.

In history books the dislocation spawned by the 1927 flood is usually a footnote to the broader Great Migration of 1910-1930, but prior to Katrina it represented the largest disaster-bred diaspora in American history. In some respects the flood refugees of 1927 had it better than the storm refugees of 2005. They got none of the stop-gap government aid that a frantically backpedaling Bush administration is now passing out to Katrina survivors, but they escaped the hated plantation for jobs and lives that were at least marginally better, in cities where the growth of industry would produce an expanding number of decent-paying blue-collar jobs for a couple of generations to come once the Depression had passed. Katrina's survivors should be so lucky. A vast number of them will just blow down the road until they land somewhere, trading poverty in a place they called home for worse straits in strange surroundings. Countless thousands more will join the ranks of the economically ruined, thanks to the burden of losses that were not insured and debts that can no longer be discharged through bankruptcy under the new rules passed this year. According to wire reports, only about half the home mortgages in New Orleans carried flood insurance because of its high cost.

Next Page »