Gone With The Flood by William Armstrong Percy III
GONE WITH THE FLOOD
By William Armstrong Percy III
Professor of History (retired),
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Natural disasters such as Katrina create humanitarian crises in which class and race interests are brought starkly into focus as leaders grapple with crunch decisions. My family of plantation owners occupied just such a leadership role in the great Mississippi flood of 1927, when a threatened sex scandal became the focus of an extraordinary psycho-drama between father and son, with huge ramifications for the handling of the crisis. I here consider this episode, and the extent of its lasting consequences, in the light of several historians’ contributions. These include a recent biography of the son, William Alexander Percy, author of the memoir Lanterns on the Levee, who was my Uncle Will. His father was plantation owner Senator LeRoy Percy (U.S. senator from Mississippi, 1910–1913). LeRoy, it must be said, would have been amazed to discover that his son has attracted a biographer’s attention before being so honoured himself. Regarded in his own day as by far the more significant figure, LeRoy would struggle for many years to see Will as a worthy heir. Eventually, though, there would be mutual respect and admiration between these two very different characters.
A secret dark as the Mississippi’s murky flood waters lies at the heart of my family’s story as cotton kings of the deepest Deep South; a secret in which honour and scandal once swirled together in a furtively rumoured drama that would seal the fate of thousands; a secret shocking even today in what it tells us—and asks us—about race, sex and power.
Flood waters are no mere metaphor in this story. The human drama was played out in the midst of arguably the greatest flood disaster this country had ever seen before Katrina, the Mississippi River flood of 1927. When water overtook the levees on April 21 that year causing the Mounds Landing to break, more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls thundered through . The roar could be heard miles away.
A dozen of those southern miles downstream lay Greenville, Mississippi, where everyone, including the Percy family to which I belong, had been watching and waiting with the utmost consternation as record rainfall brought the threat of calamity ever closer. Not for nothing were my Uncle Will’s memoirs later published as Lanterns on the Levee, a title that recalled night-time lantern-lit vigils atop the levees in anxious search for danger signs: spots where man’s hubristic bid to contain the vast flow looked in urgent need of reinforcement. The patrols were also needed to keep at bay a more deliberate human menace: dynamiters plotting to blast the levee on the opposite river bank to their own land, thereby sabotaging their neighbours to save themselves. For many a southerner Lanterns, an elegiac lament for a lost South, made a companion volume to that other classic of southern apocalypse, Gone With The Wind. Will’s book could easily have been called Gone With The Rain or, more dramatically, Gone With The Flood.
And what rain! What a flood! The press dubbed it the greatest inundation since Noah, and that was hardly an exaggeration. It began when heavy rains pounded the Mississippi basin in the summer of 1926. By September, the Mississippi's tributaries in Kansas and Iowa were swollen to capacity. On Christmas Day of 1926, the Cumberland River at Nashville topped levees at over 56ft, a level that remains a record to this day, even exceeding the devastating 2010 floods. The Mississippi River broke out of its levee system in 145 places and flooded an area 50 miles wide and 100 miles long up to 30 feet deep, taking in 10 states.
Over a thousand perished and nearly a million were left homeless.
Greenville, in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—strictly speaking not a delta but a richly fertile alluvial plain between the Yazoo ( “River of Death”) and the Mississippi—is flat, vulnerable, terrain. Quaking in their hearts, Delta folk shook in their boots as well, for they could feel the levee vibrate under their feet from even further away than the thunderous sound would carry. One planter stood on his veranda and watched the flood water approach along the rim of the horizon “in the form of a tan-coloured wall seven feet high, and with a roar as of a mighty wind.”
The chocolate tsunami quickly ripped apart Greenville’s protection levee. Not many city dwellers had tried to escape by car. That would have been to invite death by drowning on low land. More made their getaway by train, but then the line was torn away by the raging waters, leaving the track standing upright like a picket fence. As for evacuation using the overwhelmingly available element—water—no one in those days questioned that the white population should be first aboard the Mississippi steamers and barges.
Those who remained would face a grim struggle for survival, especially the African Americans, whose homes typically had no upper story to retreat to. Many made for the high ground atop the Mississippi levee, where they stood in mud, sat in mud and slept in mud, utterly exposed to the unseasonably chilly night air. And they had to share that crowded space with recued livestock: cattle, horses, mules and pigs.
Water, water, everywhere, coursed through the downtown—but soon there was the threat of not a drop to drink as supplies became contaminated. The level rose rapidly: three feet, five feet, eight feet. Percy Street, named for my family, went under. The Percy residence itself suffered no worse indignity than a flooded garden and tennis court, with water climbing the steps of the porch. From this slightly elevated topography of aristocratic privilege, my family understood it had duties to perform. Greenville would depend on their leadership of the relief efforts. Their habit of command, and their clout in the commandeering of resources, marked them out as decision makers.
So who were they, these Percys? “Cotton kings” hardly begins to convey the standing of my family in those days, not just in Greenville and the Delta, but far beyond. Winning acclaim from the battlefield to the Senate, their diverse strengths saw triumphs in finance and industry, literature and law.
The family roots in Mississippi and Louisiana reach back to Charles Percy, an eighteenth-century captain in the British Royal Navy. Mysteriously but potently armed with a land grant from the Spanish king, in 1777 Charles sailed a boatful of slaves from the West Indies to Spanish West Florida, part of which later became Mississippi. His slaves converted wilderness into a plantation on a grand scale. The Spanish made him a magistrate-commander, earning him the sobriquet Don Carlos. Charles claimed descent from the great English noble house of Percy, earls of Northumberland. Shakespeare immortalized a 14th-century member of the family, Henry Percy, making the nickname Harry Hotspur synonymous with impetuosity in the pursuit of honor.
While the Northumberland connection is unproven, the family’s martial distinction undoubtedly came to the fore in the Civil War, when my great-grandfather, Colonel William Alexander Percy’s valiant exploits in the Shenandoah Valley earned the nom de guerre "Gray Eagle of the Valley”.
Most planters lost everything in the wake of that terrible conflict. They no longer had slaves to work the land, and those who held Confederate bonds and currency now found them worthless. Short of cash, they had no means of paying their former slaves to continue working on the plantations. In any case, the blacks were all too familiar with working in gangs under often brutal overseers. Even if pay was available, they would surely resist working in ways that still smacked of slavery.
In this unpromising scenario the Percys fared much better than most, starting with the Gray Eagle. He understood both the capital shortage and the importance of a contented workforce. He had the smart idea of letting black people work his land with a measure of independence. Instead of being paid a wage they would get half the profits from the crop they grew. Thus they would be neither slaves nor wage slaves. They would be partners with the plantation owner. The scheme proved attractive to blacks. It came to be known as sharecropping, and Col. Percy has been credited with its invention . Later abuses would make sharecropping a byword for downtrodden poverty but in the early days the system worked, and the Percys themselves would continue to maintain relatively good conditions for their black sharecroppers in the coming generations.
Col. Percy thrived during the Reconstruction era, rising to ever higher prominence in Delta legal, political, and social affairs. His success derived in part from an ability to do business with northern industrialists. But making deals with former mortal enemies did not stop the colonel from fighting injustices that came with Yankee domination. A fabled "redeemer," he chaired the committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives that drew up the articles of impeachment to remove the last carpetbag governor, Adelbert Ames.
Many decades later it would fall to the colonel’s eldest son LeRoy, and his grandson William Alexander, to wrestle with the flood relief crisis. As will soon be seen, the strikingly different qualities and temperaments of these two Percys, and the dark psycho-drama of their complex relationship, would prove fateful.
LeRoy, a brilliant young man, finished a three-year program at the University of Virginia Law School in just one year and was admitted to the bar on his 21st birthday. He prospered as a planter in succession to the colonel, and expanded the levee system, which in good years kept the Mississippi at bay. A hunting partner of President Theodore Roosevelt and a poker mate of the United States Speaker of the House, Percy had friends on the Supreme Court and in executive government. As a Federal Reserve Bank governor and as a trustee of both the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, LeRoy Percy was on close terms with the major industrialists of his day.
William Alexander, LeRoy’s only son surviving to adulthood, (another son died in a tragic childhood hunting accident), had seemed unpromising material as a child. LeRoy was a man’s man, a hunter, gambler and hard drinker. Will by contrast was a frail, prudish, introverted child—a sissy even, or “a queer chicken” in his father’s words. As a teenager he had an unmanly (by his father’s standards) interest in poetry. At 15 he stood only five feet tall and weighed barely 100 pounds. He was no coward, though. Determined to prove himself, he volunteered for service in the First World War. His heroic role as an officer in rallying troops for a counterattack, after they had broken in disarray under heavy fire, was recognised by the award of the Croix de Guerre.
LeRoy now had every reason to be proud of his son. Indeed, despite the improbability of them ever being soul-mates, they had managed a decade earlier at least to find a way of getting along together. After attending the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a post bellum family tradition, Will earned a law degree from Harvard, was admitted to the bar, and from 1908 practiced law in his father's Greenville firm. They would walk together companionably from their home to the office of what was now “Percy & Percy”. While they appeared to share little in common, a bond was forming between the odd couple—it was a partnership that would soon take on a political dimension which would be forged in the heat of one of the bitterest political battles in southern history.
It all started late in December 1909 when the death of a Mississippi senator left his seat vacant, with the strong possibility that former state governor James K. Vardaman would replace him. Vardaman, a demagogic, virulently racist, politician had once made a campaign promise that if he became aware of a black rapist in town, he would “head up the mob to string the brute up, and I haven’t much respect for a white man who wouldn’t.” Known as the Great White Chief, he stood for the poor white against the “nigger”—and also against the privileged planter aristocracy, with its growing industrial interests, a class epitomised by LeRoy Percy.
LeRoy resolved to stop the rabble-rouser. He had no desire to go into politics and lacked the common touch needed for electioneering. What would matter early in 1910, though, was influence in the right places, not mass appeal. The seat would be chosen not by popular vote but by the state legislature. Voting was to be by secret ballot. After an epic sequence of ballots by this “Secret Caucus” that went on for six nerve-racking weeks, featuring Vardaman and half a dozen other candidates including LeRoy Percy, LeRoy finally emerged as the winner on the 58th ballot.
Unsurprisingly, given the limited nature of the electorate, there would soon be allegations of chicanery. It all smacked of a political fix, with influence-peddling and bribery going on behind the scenes. After a couple of months another prominent demagogue, and Vardaman stalwart, Theodore G. Bilbo, appeared before a grand jury to say he had been bribed to vote for Percy in the election. He claimed this was the result of a trap he had set in order to expose corruption, and that he had never intended to keep the money that had changed hands. All hell was let loose. Bilbo was soon discredited in court, but not in the popular imagination, and not before the politics of the state had descended to a vituperative abyss (Bilbo described one opponent as “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel...begotten in a nigger graveyard at midnight” ), amidst resentment among the poor white “rednecks” against stitch-up politics by powerful entrenched interests.
The upshot of all this was that LeRoy Percy’s days as senator would be limited. He held office until 1913 after being decisively defeated in the Democratic primary election of August 1911 by Vardaman. It was the revenge of the rednecks.
Throughout this bare-knuckle saga Will had been at his father’s side, fighting his cause at times almost literally. At the climax of the campaign Percy family members even plotted to shoot a leading opponent at an hotel. This was Bilbo, then running his own campaign in the Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi. Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown writes of the desperation of Senator Percy’s camp and the “almost insane behaviour” of his brother, Walker Percy, who was apparently willing to start a gun battle, risking his own life and that of two other Percys: young Will and a cousin. Recalling the scene in Lanterns, Will confessed he spent half the night practicing with his pistol for a planned clan confrontation with Bilbo in the hotel the following morning. The idea had been to provoke Bilbo into a dual, a scheme thwarted by the victim’s wise refusal to hear Walker Percy taunting him in the hotel’s dining room at breakfast time. Bilbo just carried on eating his oatmeal!
Fiasco, this may have been, but Will’s politics, his courage and his loyalty to his father took shape amidst such struggles. His spirited and steadfast support made a deep impression on LeRoy. He now knew his son was capable of standing up to the rednecks and could be relied upon. Will came to admire his father’s cause. He felt LeRoy stood for decency and civilized behaviour. At a time when African Americans in the South were disenfranchised, lynched and chased off their land, LeRoy had seen to it that they received loans for mortgages to buy farms in the Delta. His own Washington County had black police officers, judges and mail carriers, and the best schools in the state for blacks as well as whites. His policy of “noblesse oblige” paid off. Greenville prospered, and the Delta was an island of comparative civility in the Jim Crow South.
Like his father and grandfather, Will came to feel a responsibility to articulate and defend his class’s view of race relations: gifted, privileged, whites, called Bourbons or magnolias, had a duty to protect and provide for the blacks, who they saw as childlike, and not well equipped by temperament to look after themselves. This is easy to dismiss as the elite’s self-serving hogwash, especially coming from a family member like me. So here is a bit of what historian Benjamin E. Wise says on the subject in his new biography:
It was a system of social and economic authority packaged in the rhetoric of paternalism: elite whites, who had intellectual and material attainments, would provide fatherlike care for blacks under them. In some ways—such as the Percys’ steadfast opposition to racial violence—this paternalist concern was more than mere rhetoric. But even in this, economic priorities were also at stake. Lynching was bad for business, especially in a place where Chicago-bound trains left the station every day. Greenville elites wanted the black population to stay just where they were, focused on their work while remembering their place.
I will not argue with that view. I will add, though, that soon after the war, in 1922, LeRoy rose to national prominence when the Ku Klux Klan attempted to set up in Washington County, Mississippi. He sent them packing with a stirring speech—partly written by Will—at Greenville courthouse that wrecked a Klan recruitment rally there. After Percy stepped down, an ally of his in the audience rose to put forward a resolution condemning the Klan. The resolution passed and the Klan ceased its efforts to get a foothold in the county. Percy's speech and victory drew praise from newspapers around the nation.
By the time of the flood, then, in 1927, father and son had both made their mark in life. Either or both of them could have been seen as natural leaders of the flood relief efforts. The father unquestionably had much the greater authority, but the son was well qualified for the task in hand. Before his army service he had worked as a volunteer with Herbert Hoover’s Belgian Relief Agency, helping provide emergency food for Belgian and French citizens cut off from supplies during the war. Thus it was that Greenville's mayor saw fit to appoint Will as chief of a Red Cross emergency flood relief committee. The choice seemed even more logical given that U.S. Commerce Secretary Hoover was himself appointed chairman of a special committee to coordinate all relief efforts on the morning after the Mounds Landing breach.
All went well until LeRoy objected to Will's plan to evacuate the thousands of black sharecroppers marooned on miles of levee stretching north from Greenville. LeRoy feared that if the sharecroppers left the Delta they would never return, a nightmare for the planters given their chronic manpower shortage for the growing and picking of cotton. A system of debt bondage bound blacks to the plantations almost as coercively as had slavery. State law, however, dissolved such debt in the event of natural disaster.
Will had expeditiously arranged for a flotilla of barges to be towed down from Memphis. They were to be loaded with blacks and brought south to Vicksburg, the nearest downriver bluff. A steamer had already docked; hundreds of blacks were boarding it, to the great chagrin of whites who had not already shipped out. Will was angrily attempting to bring order to the chaos. LeRoy approached and accosted him. He insisted they go for a walk together on the levee.
They chatted, striding through throngs of desperate black refugees clutching all that remained of their paltry worldly possessions, the Mississippi swollen and turbid to the west, Greenville and all of Washington County submerged to the east as far as the eye could see. The cold weather added to the misery. Panicked livestock shivered on the levee, hungry dogs brawled. Everyone and everything that could climb, crawl, swim, row, or slither had made for attics, roofs, tree limbs, anywhere to escape the violently rising water. But the destination of choice was the levee. It provided the only large platform above the river and the newly created inland sea. More significantly, it was the sole feasible staging ground for evacuation. Steamers and barges coming downriver could moor at it. The river was the only exit.
The sole first-hand report we have of what Will and LeRoy discussed as they strode through the misery huddled on the levee, mud caking their boots, is Will's description in Lanterns . He says his father broached the question of the evacuation quietly, asking if Will had considered the reaction of planters who would lose their labor. Of course he had, Will retorted. He pointed out the obvious, that the planters, many of them by his standards uncultivated, redneck racists, were incapable of seeing beyond money considerations. They had no ethical conception of what was the right thing do. He would not submit to their pressure.
LeRoy understood that kind of language. Percys did not tolerate intimidation. In Will's case I can imagine it had already bordered on the physical, although Will does not say so in Lanterns. Physical intimidation of a Percy? Unthinkable to a man like LeRoy. He wanted to defend his son. However, in this case, Will's actions from a practical standpoint were, quite simply, intolerable.
It is hard to imagine today the violence of the forces at play. The flood had not only washed out the planters' communal buildings and crops, killed their livestock, and in most cases, although not in that of the Percys, demolished their grand homes. The cataclysm also jeopardized what the planter class had always taken for granted, what they felt that, by birthright, they were entitled to: black muscle creating elite white wealth. Did Will Percy think he could take that away? The poet of exquisite refinement and noble sensibilities, who extolled the grandeur of the southern past, now wanted literally to send that past down the river? In the eyes of the Delta planters Will was a traitor to his class, to his race, to the entire tradition of mint juleps on the veranda, of lavish parties at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, at the Boston Club in New Orleans.
An ironic predicament for Will it most certainly was. But he was, in his own way—in the way, it is worth pointing out, of many a grandiose queen—a man who could focus grievance with terrible intensity. When he got mad, he got very, very mad. When he knew that he was right and that everyone else was wrong, he would stay his course, even if it seemed suicidal. This was, after all, the war hero who had faced enemy fire without flinching.
LeRoy knew this. I am sure that in some ways he respected it. Homosexuality ran in the family. One of LeRoy's uncles had been sexually attracted only to males, and many other Percys, male and female, were bisexual. I am also sure that Will’s headstrong idealism, a certain uptight moralism not uncommon among gay men then and since, aroused in LeRoy more than a little contempt.
In any case, LeRoy needed to do something. I do not think that Will told the full story of their walk together down that woebegone levee. We know from Will's account that LeRoy did extract, with some difficulty, agreement from Will to consult one last time the members of his emergency committee. But I think that LeRoy forced Will to do it with this admonition, or something very like it: "Look, son. If you ship out all those hands, I will no longer be able to protect you. And you do know what I mean. I will no longer be able to keep you safe from men who will despise you for the rest of your life and, worse, who do not believe you are a man."
How can I be sure that LeRoy confronted Will with his homosexuality? Because he must have seen very clearly the consequences for Will down the road, especially after LeRoy's death. Will might have shrugged off the possibility of planters holding a grudge. But I do not believe he could have dismissed the prospect of what later became known as gay-bashing. The Klan, after an ugly political power struggle, had even tried to assassinate his father. Others who have studied this father-son relationship might doubt that LeRoy could have taken such a step, or even that LeRoy knew that Will was gay. Nonsense!
The whole family knew. My father, William Armstrong Percy II (not to be confused with the two William Alexander Percys in this story), who lived in the Percy home during his senior year at Greenville High School, in 1923, came away shocked and disgusted with Will's effeminate ways and sexual liaisons with black employees—although, in the manner of many homophobes, this was partly because he distrusted his own sexuality. Later, at Stanford and then at Stanford Law School he had a wild affair with his roommate, Frank McNamee, the future chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nevada.
More to the point, LeRoy would of course play the sexuality card to have his way. Not only was he ruthless in matters of money and power. He was also a practical man, clear-eyed, unsentimental. He knew well what would happen to Will if the question of his "eccentricity" escalated into charges that he had betrayed the planters. It was one thing if Will wrote poetry and kept up appearances with the occasional participation in a parade commemorating military service. Quite another if this confirmed bachelor used his sudden and quite unexpected powers to wreck the social order.
In fact, Will barely kept up appearances as it was. He had gay affairs in Greenville, prompting much gossip among the servants. The more worldly of Greenville's residents knew that Will frequently repaired to New Orleans and New York City, where coteries of bachelor friends lived, and that he regularly vacationed "on Greek islands and Anatolian hillsides"—the wry reference of a reviewer, years later, when casting doubt on the explanation offered by some apologists for Will’s visits to known gay resorts. The excuse-makers had risibly proposed that most of his travels had been to find a wife who "could live up to his mother.”
Will continued to resist LeRoy, or at least pretended to. But he stopped the loading of the steamship, returned to Red Cross headquarters, and called an emergency meeting of his committee. LeRoy meantime had secretly lobbied the committee to vote down the evacuation. He urged them not to tell Will that he had told them to do so. Will professes in Lanterns to have been shocked some hours later when every last member voted against his plan. But I think he knew it was coming.
He sent the barges downriver to Vicksburg, empty. This latter day Noah had turned the Ark away!
I believe that LeRoy, other leading Washington County planters, and Will struck a kind of Faustian bargain. If Will let the planters keep their labor, they would leave Will alone. As it happened, Will continued to live in Greenville unmolested, although with increasingly gay flamboyance, even after LeRoy's death in 1929, until his own in 1942.
Historian John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide, the best-selling book about the flood, does not speculate that LeRoy threatened Will in the manner I suggest, but he rightly concludes that the frail, literary gay son could not stand up to his legendarily domineering father. Rising Tide provides an accurate analysis of their relationship, in the process giving the fullest public account to date of Will's sexual nature. For example, Barry describes Will's affairs with three of his black chauffeurs, a subject that not even Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of The House of Percy, broaches, even though this is the most comprehensive and by far the best of the Percy family biographies.
There is an irony here. I provided Wyatt-Brown with a prime source on Will's sex life in Greenville. He did not pursue it. But Barry did. Millie Commodore, a lovely old African American lady with cafe-au-lait skin, lived two doors down from me years ago on Tremont Street in Boston's South End. She was always most friendly, which I at first attributed simply to southern graciousness. Then one day she informed me that she had grown up in Greenville and had many memories of my relatives there. In fact, she was very familiar with my Uncle Will's memoir, Lanterns. This intrigued me. To my fascination she recounted detailed stories about Ford ("Fode") Atkins, Will's chauffeur of many years who appears in Lanterns . Millie's husband had been Fode's classmate in high school and best friend. They often motored about town with Fode in a car that Will had given him. Moreover, Millie also had stories about many other clandestine interracial sexual relationships, both homo and hetero. Millie knew whereof she spoke. She was herself more white than black.
I asked Millie if we could tape-record this valuable information. She agreed. Some years after that Wyatt-Brown came to visit. I supplied him with copies of the recordings . He then interviewed and taped Millie extensively. Millie mentioned that she had several friends still living in Greenville, lighter-colored, or “high-toned” blacks, who could provide more testimony. She offered to introduce them to me and Bert.
Although Wyatt-Brown found Millie's perspective quite interesting, he did not want to pursue her "uncorroborated" account of Fode's sexual relationship with Will or that of other whites with blacks. To be sure, the stories strained credulity. For while tales of interracial heterosexual affairs were, in Will's era, taboo in the extreme, tales of a male white aristocrat bedding his male black employees went utterly beyond the pale. Bert did not want to go there. It would have meant jeopardising his permission to quote from the novels of Walker Percy. Walker, one of three brothers adopted by Will after the tragic death of their parents (also Percys), was destined to become the most famous of the literary Percys, winning the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962. Also in 1989, the National Endowment for the Humanities chose him as the winner for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Walker threatened to withhold copyright permission not just for Will’s publications but his own as well if Bert outed Will as gay. Clearly wedded to fiction in life as well as in his novels, Walker repeatedly and ludicrously insisted to both Bert and me that Will had been straight. After Walker’s death in 1990 Bert still had the executors of the novelist’s estate to worry about. The House of Percy was published, minus any explosive sexual revelations, in 1994.
It was left to John M. Barry to spill the beans three years later in Rising Tide. Even he did not reveal the full truth, though, and neither does Ben Wise, whose biography William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker, is the latest account. While Ben reveals much about Will’s gay sensibility, which is extensively explored through my uncle’s poetry and other writings, the picture he paints is that of a “good gay”—a sensitive, high-minded, aesthete, who shared many of the racist assumptions of his era but who was also keen to engage in a serious way with black culture. We are shown, for instance, Will’s friendship with Harlem Renaissance types, particularly the gay black poet Langston Hughes, precursor of négritude, or black pride.
So far, so safe. It is homophobia, not homosexuality that is politically incorrect these days, at least in the academic world, where Wise teaches gender and sexuality. So what was Ben Wise hiding that could possibly be so explosive? What is the dark secret, “shocking even today”, that cannot be told?
It comes back to those three black “chauffeurs”. Not one of those guys was born wearing a chauffeur’s uniform. They were all given the job as a favour following sexual relationships with Will that began long before any of them even knew how to drive or would conceivably have been allowed behind the wheel. They were scandalously young, only 12 or 13 years old, when these affairs began. Indications of his interest in such pederasty are there for those with eyes to see it: in the taped interviews; in Will’s writings; and (to call a spade a spade) in his sex tourism travels around the world. He was a friend of the notoriously paedophilic Scottish novelist Norman Douglas. He visited Taormina, Sicily, where Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden photographed nude Italian boys, often prepubescents and sometimes available sexually for special clients . An anthology called Men and Boys included a poem of his, slightly altered. As the title implies, it focused on intergenerational male relationships. In those days, they were no more condemned than those between adults.
Rather than saying Will’s behaviour was, “shocking even today”, we can go further: it is shocking especially today, with our present emphasis on child protection. The triumphs of civil rights activists and feminists have sensitised us to potential abuses of power not just of white over black, and men over women, but also adults over children.
Looking back, though, the age factor was not such a big deal in 1927; nor was Will’s sexual behaviour necessarily seen as a wealthy white plantation owner’s abuse of his enormous power. On the contrary, it would have been seen by many as a form of patronage: Will offered favoured black boys educational opportunities, training, and jobs they would not otherwise have had. Millie Commodore herself spoke of a culture in which rich white men had their boys working for them and “treated them royal...It was a way to get ahead.” The gossip among black household servants about these matters would often have included an element of jealousy over preferential treatment rather than outrage over a youngster’s violated innocence.
As for the hostility Will would have faced had he persisted in his plan to evacuate the blacks after the flood, that too would have owed little or nothing to a tender concern for the moral purity of young black boys. To be sure, the planters were worried about the fate of black bodies, but mainly because they needed those bodies to work the land. Will’s offence—which would have been unforgivable had he not backed down—lay not so much in him being a “boy lover” as a “nigger lover”. His sexual tastes would have been seen as unmanly and shameful, but the real outrage would have been to put the interests of black people above those of white ones by shipping the blacks away to safety in preference to keeping the labour force in place. His homosexuality, or pederasty, would have been denounced not on moral grounds per se, but because his sexual tastes had caused him to betray his own class—or so it would be claimed.
As both a scion of the Percy family and a veteran professor, I find myself looking at all this from two very different angles, reflecting fundamentally opposed views of history. As a family member, I am naturally inclined to think first in terms of what used to be known as the Great Man theory of history. This was the idea that history can turn upon the deeds and decisions of just one person. So, in this case, I cannot help wondering how things would have turned out if Will had had the strength to stick to his evacuation plan. It certainly would have been a turning point for thousands of black labourers if “Noah” had not turned away the Ark, and they had been rescued. Much black bitterness against the whites could have been avoided in the following months and years. I am naturally proud of the great wealth of talent and energy my family has shown over the generations in a variety of fields. And like my forebears I have a southern sense of family honor. If Uncle Will had not buckled at the crucial moment, if his sexuality had not been the Achilles Heel that caused him to hesitate, perhaps I could feel more proud of him?
Putting on my professor’s hat, though, I turn instead to the Blind Forces view of history. What really counts is the big picture, not the individuals who seem to be in the driving seat, even when their psycho-drama is as vivid and intense as that between Will and his father, LeRoy. The hard fact is that impersonal “blind forces” including economics, class interests, demography, and geography (the people in relation to the land, including the mighty river in all its vicissitudes), would together be decisive in this case. Sentiment, conceived broadly, was also part of that decisive mix, including attitudes to race, sex and power. But the collective mood is aggregative, and impersonal: leaders can read the mood and try to channel it, like the Mississippi, but they cannot go wholly against the flow.
Seen this way, the aftermath of that father-son powwow on the levee assumes a terrible inevitably, at least with the benefit of hindsight. LeRoy had read the mood of the planters, his own class, and had urged his son to go with the flow. But the great river of humanity in the Delta, would soon take its own course regardless.
Keeping the vast numbers of black labourers on the land after the abolition of slavery had been a long-running problem. Rather than alleviating it, bowing to the class interests of the planters by refusing to evacuate the flood-threatened workers turned out to exacerbate it. Within a year, half of the Delta's black population had already departed .
The river continued to be unkind. After first receding, the flood waters rose again, and would stay high until August. “With that frustrating change,” said historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “there arose a spirit of selfishness that common danger had formerly tempered.” My family’s refusal to evacuate the blacks in time of danger cannot have done much for their communal spirit either. But Wyatt-Brown continues, “As a result, Will could not find sufficient black workers to unload the supplies from the relief vessels that docked at Greenville.”
This would be the start of real ugliness. Will organised an all-black committee in the hope of inspiring some public spirit, but this white-appointed body was faced with widespread indifference or hostility. Desperate, the whites of the main relief committee prevailed on Will to send a police expedition to round up conscripts. When a black man refused, a patrolman shot him dead.
Grotesquely, from today’s perspective, Will’s frustration caused him to lash out not at the shooting but at the recalcitrant African Americans. After calling a meeting at a black church, ordering that there should be no whites present but himself, he mounted the pulpit and harangued the packed assembly. “Because of your sinful laziness,” he chided, “one of your race has been killed.”
The arrogance is breathtaking to us today. Resentment was bound to grow after whites were taken away to safety while blacks continued to face atrocious conditions in which they were forced at gunpoint to work. It was a poisonous atmosphere in which false rumours flourished and found their way into the press: Will had supposedly withheld supplies from black families if the head of household was not present; whites had being whiling away their time playing golf—at a time when the fairways were under four feet of water!
Worst of all, and this was all too real, not a rumour, more than half a century after the abolition of slavery the blacks found their freedom taken away again. Throughout the state of Mississippi, not just in the Delta, the National Guard was deployed with rifles and fixed bayonets to prevent the blacks from looting or leaving.
No one could seriously be surprised, then, that once the emergency abated the black population began to leave at an unprecedented rate, heading for new opportunities in burgeoning cities to the north, such as Chicago. There, in addition to finding a new world of opportunity, some would find cathartic deliverance from their former woes by reliving them in the soulful words and music of the Blues.
My Uncle Will went some way towards making personal amends for the tragic debacle of 1927. In another flood, ten years later, long after his father LeRoy’s death in 1929, he was instrumental in keeping the National Guard out of the Delta. Although Will had little personal interest in plantation management, handing over to his adopted son LeRoy as soon as he came of age, he was scrupulous in maintaining good conditions for the black workforce at his model Trail Lake plantation.
Was this decision rooted in ethics, or was it just a matter of enlightened self-interest? After all, his workers could simply vote with their feet and move north if they wanted, like so many others. As we have seen, his father before him also had an excellent record of providing better conditions than most plantation owners. While this had accorded with LeRoy’s sense of honour and civilized values, the policy was far from disinterested.
But there was a difference between father and son. When Will was serving in the First World War, shortly before he found himself in the thick of the action, he wrote to his father: “My work, I suppose, will always be among the chess players at the top, but my game will never be a good one for I’ll never be able to think of the pieces as pawns.” Leroy, when it came to the crunch, had no such scruples, and Will knew it.
That did not stop Will from presenting a largely romantic view of our family in his memoirs, published in 1942. Lanterns had the charm of being self-deprecating and humorous, but it also looked back with fondness on the ways and values of the past, including the white aristocracy’s doomed attachment to ideas of their genetic superiority.
Stuck for far too long with such outmoded attitudes, the genteel South, meanwhile, was quietly dying, especially in Mississippi. The floods receded, but the state became a backwater, a byword for poverty, ignorance, corruption and violence. One 1930s study dubbed it quite simply “The Worst American State”, as measured by numerous indicators: per capita income, literacy rates, death rates, medical facilities, crime rates, public services...Mississippi had the most maternal deaths in childbirth, the lowest school attendance and the highest number of lynchings. And, as Ben Wise points out, if Mississippi was the worst American state, the Delta was the worst part of it.
What then, in the last analysis, had been changed by the great flood of 1927 and by the role of the Percys in handling the relief efforts? When we pan out to the big picture we see huge changes, some of which loom large in history and some of which are still with us to today. In the former category, Herbert Hoover had a good flood: his overall coordination of the relief work helped propel him to the presidency of the U.S. As already noted, the flight of black labour—and with it the decline of sharecropping—was a major permanent change. Another was the abandonment of the idea that the Mississippi River could be contained by levees alone. Controlled flooding would be the pattern in the future, a policy that also saw the most ambitious and expensive U.S. congressional legislation ever, in which the federal government was prevailed upon to take responsibility for flood control across the entire basin of the Mississippi and its tributaries, which stretch as far as the Rocky Mountains, Canada and New York state.
After Will’s less than stupendously triumphant leadership in Greenville, it might be thought the discredited Percys could have no role in the formation of this vast new scheme of things that would directly affect more than half the states of the union. Nothing could be further from the truth! LeRoy’s influence was everywhere. As secretary of a Tri-State Flood Control Committee, it was he and a mere handful of others, all unelected, who drew up a policy that was in essence rubber-stamped by Congress. As an Associated Press report of the time put it, “It remained for the Old Roman of the Delta, Senator LeRoy Percy of Greenville, Mississippi, to sound the keynote of these problems.”
I guess it is as a proud scion of the family, rather than in my professorial “blind forces of history” role, that I conclude with this fact!
Baker, Lewis, The Percys of Mississippi: Politics and Literature in the New South, Louisiana State University Press, 1983
Barry, John M., Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998
Kirwan, Albert D., Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics 1876-1925, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 1951
Lemann, Nicholas, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, New York, Vintage, 1992
Percy, William Alexander, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1973
Wise, Benjamin E., William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994
Christian Science Monitor: Five of the costliest U.S. river floods
Mississippi Department of Archives and History Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Flood photographs
Mississippi River Commission Mississippi River Commission, history
PBS: flood timeline, documentary film, and much more: PBS American Experience: Fatal Flood
Signal Corps, U.S. Army, The Power of Nature: Mississippi Flood 1927 A silent film produced by the Signal Corps of the Mississippi flood of 1927.
Wells, Jessica, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 Sam History Videos, May 5, 2011 With many facts and figures, and historical commentary on the building of the Mississippi levee system and the Great Migration of black labour northwards from 1915-30