History Timeline 1920's

Photo above: Prohibition Era Brewery. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Photo montage, images courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1920s

Prosperity and Its Demise

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  • Timeline

  • 1927 Detail

    April 22 to May 5, 1927 - The Great Mississippi Flood occurs, affecting over 700,000.

    Mississippi River Flood 1927

    It was a devastating flood, as most along the Mississippi River were during the initial period of the levee system. It raced through farmland, destroyed entire towns, and caused havoc for livestock and residents who sought shelter on Indian Mounds in the center of the water before fortunate rescue. But this flood was specifically ravaging, and thus its name, the Great Mississippi Flood was deserved, as its impact on seven hundred thousand people, many poor African American farmers, was massive.

    It began raining hard in the the summer of 1926 with a stalled front in the upper midwest dumping untold amounts of water into the Upper Mississippi River. The rains continued through April 1927 all the way to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. The water did not begin to recede until August of that year. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river reached eighty miles wide. Refugee camps were set under the shadows of Civil War monuments. There was sixteen million five hundred acres of land impacted in eleven states from Illinois to Louisiana. The number of people impacted fluctuates, according to source, from six hundred and forty thousand to seven hundred thousand, but that specific point is moot. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes.

    "Yesterday and last night were somewhat memorable. It rained in torrents and almost without intermission for nearly 48 hours. More than 10 inches fell. A 12-inch fall is reported for Cairo," April 16, 1927, Henry Waring Ball, Greenville, Mississippi.

    The lost homes disproportionately hit the black community; over half the destroyed homes were in the minority population. This was not a totally unexpected number. Seventy-five percent of the population in the Mississippi watershed lowlands were black; they made up the same percentage of workers. The railroads and plantations of the area were concerned about losing their workers, who had nowhere to go in the area for shelter. They partnered with the Red Cross to house two hundred thousand black residents in tent camps just outside the waters or atop a higher levee. The camps ranged from good to aweful.

    "The camps in which we found the most satisfactory conditions were those where the local colored people have had an opportunity to assist in the administration of affairs. The camps which were found to be especially good were: Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Natchez ... In the camps at Greenville, Sicily Island and Opelousas, the colored people had practically no part in the activities of the colored refugees," the Final Report of the Colored Advisory Committee.

    At Greenville, the residents were treated more like prisoners than refugees, kept from leaving the camp because their awaiting employers wanted them back. Not surprisingly, after the flood receded and the black community had the opportunity, many headed for northern cities, accelerating the great migration north.

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    The Levees Break

    Levee guards watched atop the man-made earthen dams meant to hold the Mississippi River back from engulfing valuable farmland on its sides. They would fill breaches with sand bags, often raising the height of the levee to match the river. North of Greenville, Mississippi, there were two spots of concern, Miller Bend and Mound Landing. If the levee broke there, the fifteen thousand people in Greenville would be in immediate danger. On April 21, 1927, the levee at Mound Landing gave way.

    This was a common occurrence up and down the Mississippi River from the last week of April to the first week of May. Even as far north as Nashville, Tennessee, the Cumberland River had exceeded 56.2 feet, its second highest level ever. In Little Rock, Arkansas, it rained seven inches in several hours. The White River, with nowhere to go, ran backwards. Every levee between Fort Smith and Little Rock failed. The Mississippi River, at some places in Arkansas, spread to sixty miles in width. In New Orleans, it rained fifteen inches in eighteen hours on April 15, 1927.

    Greenville residents who had prepared for the flood by raising their valuables were somewhat safe; the water rose to several feet in high places to over rooftops in others. Many residents fled upon hearing the fire whistle announcing the levee break, jumping on trains out of town until the tracks became unstable. Within ten days, one million acres had been covered with ten feet of water that had raced through the levee.

    A tent city was set up on the levee at Washington Street; it would eventually be run by the Red Cross and extend for seven miles. Immunizations were given to prevent the spread of disease. The National Guard was called to retain order. The men living on the levee, mostly black laborers, were coerced into helping fix the levee for no pay. This augmented tension. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover established the Colored Commission to look into the matter. Robert Morton of the Tuskegee Institute was to head the effort.

    Conditions improved in Greenville once the protection levee was fixed and the town avoided the expected June rise in water. They held a parade in town on July 4, 1927.

    Impact of the Flood

    In Mississippi alone, an estimated one thousand people died of the over 185,000 people impacted. 41,673 homes were flooded; 21,836 buildings destroyed. All crops for the 1927 season were lost. Over three hundred thousand animals were drowned.

    In Arkansas, the water covered six thousand six hundred square miles, two million acres of farmland, with water up to thirty feet deep. One hundred people died. There was the need for eighty-four Red Cross refugee camps. For months, the streets, shops, and homes of Arkansas City sat in six to thirty feet of murky water.

    The Mississippi River stayed above flood stage for a record 153 days. Death tolls for the flood fluctuate, with a low estimate by the Red Cross at two hundred and forty-six to thousands. The overall cost to property, without inflation, is estimated at between two hundred and forty-six million dollars to one billion dollars. Most of the devastation was in the lower Mississippi Valley states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

    From a Congressional standpoint, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 had a direct impact on legislation. In 1928, the National Flood Control Act was passed.

    Photo above: Aerial view of Indian mounds in the Mississippi valley where refugees and cattle flocked until rescued by the American Red Cross, 1927, unknown author. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Refugees of the 1927 flood in Red Cross tents on a levee at Greenville, Mississippi, 1927, American Red Cross. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: "The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, Ain't No Place To Go," 2016, Laura Cole, National Musuem of African American Culture, Smithsonian Institute; "The Final Report of the Colored Commission; "The Flood of 1927 and its Impact in Greenville, Mississippi," 2006, Princella Wilkerson Nowell, Mississippi History Now; encyclopediaofarkansas.net; Wikipedia Commons.

    Mississippi River Flood Refugees 1927

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