The Diaspora, Blowing Down the Road

AP Photo/Eric Gay

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.

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.

The beleaguered of New Orleans will be hit as disproportionately hard by the reconstruction as they were by the storm. New Orleans ranked 64th among the 70 biggest U.S. cities in median income before Katrina, and for many of its citizens the situation now is the mirror image of the one that faced sharecroppers in 1927. This time the city's elites are making it clear they don't want the poor back. Topography is demography in New Orleans--the poor are concentrated in the lowest-lying areas, the rich in the highest--and there is talk of letting the Ninth Ward revert to the marsh it once was, to serve as a flood containment pool in storms. Needless to say, there's no talk of compensating the former citizens of the Ninth for their displacement.

The Wall Street Journal, as usual, has been more candid in its coverage than the rest of big media. On September 8, in a page one feature titled "Old-line Families Escape Worst of Flood and Plot the Future," it quotes James Reiss, spawn of a prominent Uptown brood, thus: "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically. I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out." Lest he be thought insensitive, Reiss adds, "We understand that African Americans have had a great deal of influence on the history of New Orleans." The key word there is history. Louisiana Republican Congressman Richard Baker told a group of lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

The displaced will land in places like Baton Rouge, where unemployment ran high before Katrina, and major cities on or near the Gulf Coast such as Houston, Memphis, and Biloxi, where the local median income is already below the national average. They will find the going hard, and make the going harder yet for all the locals working in subsistence-level service sector jobs.

And later they will be caught, like the rest of the country, in the post-Katrina government spending squeeze. George W. Bush reaffirmed over the weekend that he will entertain no tax increases to pay the estimated $200 billion federal tab on Katrina. That means he'll come out of his reconstruction spending spree (about $23 billion of which is now targeted at direct housing aid to the displaced) with a fresh fiscal excuse for permanent cuts to discretionary or not so discretionary domestic spending that he could not touch for political reasons before.

He'll have little trouble with the Democrats. They are once again lying back and hoping to be the beneficiaries of Bush's blunders, the same strategy that worked so spectacularly for John Kerry last fall. Democrats are always whining that somehow they can't manage to get their "message" across. Here is the perfect opening to talk about the specific failings of the Bush government, its sheer cronyism and incompetence, and more generally to question the drift of government since Reagan, away from providing for the common welfare and toward clearing a path for the further conquests of capital. Here is the chance to tout a public works program designed to ensure that some of the people who want to stay in the area can do so by taking part in government-sponsored cleanup and rehab efforts. Forget it. The only difference between the Democrats and the dead of St. Louis #2 Cemetery is that Katrina did not cause the Democrats to float up out of their tombs.  

The president, meanwhile, shows signs of regaining his equilibrium. Certainly he is proceeding in his usual manner. A couple of weeks ago, to little fanfare, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that construction contractors working for the federal government pay their employees the prevailing wage in the area. He has no statutory power to suspend the Service Contract Act, which makes similar provision for service workers, but he's looking for a way around that. And the Wall Street Journal reports that contractors in Louisiana are already complaining about the surfeit of initial cleanup and recovery contracts going to firms from out of state, notably Texas.

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