Gone with the Flood: A Hidden Family Narrative by William A. Percy III
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Revision as of 21:48, 15 April 2013
Gone with the Flood: A Hidden Family Narrative By William A. Percy III
Natural disasters create humanitarian crises in which class and race come into stark focus while community leaders grapple with crunch decisions. One such crisis was the Great Flood of 1927, which covered the Mississippi Delta over a space as large as all New England minus Maine.
My family of planters had long dominated Washington County, the heart of that area. Leadership fell largely to them when the levee broke through to submerge the fields and inundate our town of Greenville. Unbeknownst to nearly all of those involved, a sex scandal threatened to erupt into the open with an extraordinary psychodrama between father and son with huge ramifications for the developing crisis.
I here consider the episode and the extent of its lasting consequences in the light of several historians’ contributions, including Benjamin Wise’s recent biography, William Alexander Percy: A Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (2012). My Uncle Will’s classic Lanterns on the Levee: Memoirs of a Planter’s Son (1941) told the story as only a noted poet could, eulogizing his father LeRoy Percy, U.S. Senator from 1910 to 1913, the hero who stopped the Ku Klux Klan cold in 1922.
LeRoy, it must be said, would have been amazed to learn that his queer son attracted a biographer’s attention before being so honored himself: a prominent, powerful, wealthy member of the Southern aristocracy (often dubbed Bourbons or Magnolias) in the paternalistic noblesse oblige tradition. Regarded in his own day as by far the more significant figure, LeRoy would struggle for years to see the effeminate Will as not an unworthy heir. Eventually though, there would be mutual respect and admiration between these two very different gentlemen.
Secrets Dark and Deep
A secret as dark and murky as the great flood lurks in the hidden shadows of my family’s notorious history as cotton kings of the Deep South, a secret about which honor and scandal swirled in a furtively rumored drama that, because of Will’s homosexual preferences which forced him and his father to back down from their plan to evacuate the blacks to safety, sealed the fate of thousands, a secret shocking even today in what it tells us—and asks us—about race and sex, politics and power in Dixie.
The flood is no mere metaphor in this story. The human drama played out during the greatest natural disaster this country had ever seen, and one that only Katrina can rival in intensity, tragedy, and death. This was the Mississippi flood of 1927. When the levee broke at Mounds Landing on April 21st , a dozen or so miles away from our ancestral home in Greenville, Mississippi, the roar of water could be heard miles away as more than twice the volume of Niagara Falls thundered through.
The Percys watched and waited from their veranda as the pending deluge, fueled by record rainfall, brought the threat of calamity ever closer. The unfolding tragedy is well described in Lanterns, whose subtitle recalls night-long vigils kept atop the levees. Sentinels would stroll them in search of saboteurs from the opposite bank hoping to divert the flood from their side as well as for danger spots, bubbling brown spurts or “boils” of water on the land side of the levee that suggested a pending breach in an embankment in urgent need of repair. Lanterns is an elegy for those men, black and white, as well as for the antebellum world that had begun slipping away from them four-score years before. Published in the wake of another great classic of southern apocalypse, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), Will’s memoir could just as easily have been called “Gone with the Flood.” It encoded for those in the know, his homosexual liaiasons— even with black teenagers.
The Great Flood
And what a storm! What a flood! The press called it the greatest inundation since Noah, and that was hardly exaggeration. Heavy rains had pounded the Mississippi basin all through the summer of 1926, from the Dakotas on down. By September, the river’s tributaries in Kansas and Iowa swelled to capacity. On Christmas day, the Cumberland River topped levies at Nashville by a record level of 56 feet, far exceeding even the recent devastating floods there in 2010. One by one, the titanic Mississippi broke free of its bonds in 145 places, flooding an area 50 miles wide and 100 long, soaking 10 states in water up to 30 feet deep. Over a thousand perished then, as opposed to the 1,800 Katrina killed, and nearly a million were left without homes.
The Mississippi port Greenville is located in the precarious lowlands of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta on a fertile alluvial plain between two mighty rivers. In the middle of the flat terrain halfway between the bluff ports of Memphis and Vicksburg, it was accustomed to annual overflows leaving rich loamy soil behind, higher and richer the nearer it was to the banks. By the time of the flood, the great Mississippi had been bound and tethered through a vast series of damns and berms, breakwaters and levees. Once the river breaks out of its chains, it becomes a raging titan. It’s no wonder the Delta folk shook in their boots at the impending deluge: they were destined to suffer hell and high water, literally. But they stayed true to their posts atop the levee, which trembled under foot long before the thunderous surge could be heard.
Having breached Mounds Landing, the river quickly ripped through Greenville’s rear auxiliary levee. One planter described standing on his porch and watching the flood approach along the rim of the horizon, a dun-colored wall seven feet high “and with a roar as of a mighty wind.” Few of the townsfolk even tried to escape by car—that would have been to court death by drowning on low land. More made their getaway by train before the tracks were torn asunder by the raging waters, leaving the rails standing askew like pickets in a dilapidated fence. As for an exit by water—well, no one in those days would question that the privileged whites would be first aboard the steamboats and barges.
The fate of the five thousand Negros remaining was of secondary concern to most. Theirs was to be a grim struggle for survival. Black corpses joined the flotsam when the water overcame the roofs of their single-story bungalows. Those who could, made for the high ground atop the Mississippi levee where they stood, sat and slept in mud, utterly exposed to the cold night air with burlap scraps they had tied around their heads. Like the sons and daughters of Noah, they had to share that crowded space with cattle, horses, mules, pigs, dogs and chickens.
The water rose rapidly. And where would it stop? Three feet? Five feet? Eight? Uncle Will and his ilk could only watch as Percy Street went under and the water continued to rise. Their gardens and their tennis courts flooded under. Water began lapping at the steps of the porch and then, miraculously, it stopped. The house suffered no greater indignity than the flooded yard, the stately mansion standing like an island of safety in a dark and festering sea. My family knew they had duties to perform. Of aristocratic privilege, it was no accident, truly, that ours was the highest ground in the town, that nearest to the river where the most sediment had been deposited. All of Greenville would be dependent upon their leadership and relief efforts. As pre-eminent citizen and paterfamilias, LeRoy Percy was accustomed to giving orders. His habit of command and clout in the commandeering of resources from far and wide, marked the Percy clan as the obvious decision makers.
So who were these Percys? “Cotton Kings” hardly begins to convey the standing of my family in those days, not just in Greenville, but far beyond. Long famed in war and politics, literature and law, finance and industry as well as planting, they stood apart from all the others in the Delta. Lewis Baker’s The Percys of Mississippi (1983), and Wyatt-Brown’s magnificent and comprehensive The House of Percy (1994) and its offshoot The Literary Percys (1994) emboss our background, while Kirwan’s Revolt of the Red Necks (1951) and John Barry’s Rising Tide (1997) are more critical.
Our roots reach back to 1774, when Charles Percy landed in West Florida. He had been born in Ireland, enlisted in the army at twelve and somehow rose to the rank of captain in the Royal Navy. Mysteriously, he arrived with a land grant in hand from the Spanish king and a shipload of African slaves in tow that he had procured in the West Indies. Together, they cleared fields from out of the forest and swamps, converting wilderness to plantation on a grand scale.
Charles claimed descent from the English Percys, earls of Northumberland. William Shakespeare had immortalized a 14th-century knight of that clan, making the name Harry Hotspur synonymous with impetuosity in the pursuit of honor. At once, Charles named his place fifteen miles south of Natchez, Northumberland House. Because command came naturally to him, the Spanish soon made him a magistrate-commander (called alcade) in the area that included Natchez, earning him the sobriquet “Don Carlos.”
While this Northumberland connection cannot be demonstrated, in spite of fervid attempts by genealogists over centuries, Don Carlos sent his youngest son, Thomas G., to Princeton, class of 1806, to assure his place in the Southern aristocracy. In 1813, in order to be next door to his best friend and lover from Princeton, John Walker, he moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where they married sisters, the daughters of Leroy Pope, the richest man in Tuscaloosa, who even claimed descent from Alexander Pope. They named their children for each other. Incidentally, Walker became one of Alabama’s first two senators in 1819. The other was William Rufus Devane King, who was also homosexual and rumored to be the lover of President Buchanan whom he had roomed with together in Washington as a senator. Thomas G. died in 1841, but his widow Maria executed his plan to move to the Delta, where his son the Colonel (Princeton 1853) flourished.
Our family’s martial distinction came to the fore again during the Civil War, when Thomas G.’s youngest son, my great-grandfather Colonel William Alexander Percy, was dubbed with the nom de guerre “Gray Eagle of the Valley” for his many valiant cavalry exploits in the Shenandoah Valley. Most of the planters, even those who survived the war intact, lost everything. Without capital, the freed slaves had been worth more than all other enterprises in the land put together. With Confederate bonds, currency, and even state bonds declared worthless, there was no way to pay the freed people. In any case, they were all too familiar with working in gangs under overseers who were often brutal. Even if pay had been available, they might have resisted working in ways resembling slavery.
In this ravaged land, the Percys fared better than most. With a law degree from the University of Virginia, the Colonel well understood both the capital shortage and the importance of a contented workforce. He had the smart idea of letting blacks work his land with a measure of independence. Instead of a wage, they would get half of the profits from the the cotton they grew, a system that could theoretically allow blacks to save up capital of their own and become landowners themselves. They would be neither bondage slaves nor “wage slaves” (that Yankee factory owners exploited) but partners with the planters.
This scheme proved popular with some black folks. It came to be known as sharecropping, and Col. Percy is credited with its invention. Later abuses, however, would make sharecropping a byword for downtrodden poverty. In the early desparate days however, the system worked fairly well and the Percys would continue to maintain relatively good relations with their sharecroppers in the following generations.
Col. Percy thrived during Reconstruction, rising thereafter to a position relatively higher than he had during the halcyon antebellum years. His success in the legal, political, and social affairs of the Delta derived in part from his pre-war connections that gave him unique opportunities to engage with Northern bankers, industrialists and railroad magnates, after Reconstruction. But making deals with former mortal enemies did not prevent him from standing up against the injustices that had come with black rule and 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.
Decades later, the Colonel’s eldest son, LeRoy, U.V.A. lawyer and former U.S. senator, and his grandson William Alexander, wrestled with the flood-relief crisis. In the spring of 1926, as will be seen, their strikingly different qualities and temperaments and the dark psychodrama of their complex relationship would prove fateful, with near-epic ramifications.
A Family of Stoics and Romantics
After graduating from the University of the South at Suwannee, the brilliant Leroy Percy completed a three-year program at the University of Virginia Law School in just one year. Admitted to the bar on his 21st birthday, he prospered as a planter in succession to the aging Colonel, who had died in 1888, and helped to expand the levee system that, in good years, kept the Mississippi at bay. A hunting partner of President Theodore Roosevelt and poker buddy of Speaker of the U.S. House, Percy also had friends on the Supreme Court and in the Cabinet. As a Federal Reserve Bank governor and a Trustee of both the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, LeRoy was well known to most of the major capitalists of his day.
William Alexander, LeRoy’s only son to survive to adulthood, had seemed unpromising as a child. Neglected by his busy parents, he grew up on the lap of Col. Percy’s widow, Nanna Armstrong. Proud of her own grandfather, General James “Trooper” Armstrong, who had helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, she nourished Will on tales of Ivanhoe and the heroic exploits of other Waverly Novels hoping to inspire him by his family’s warrior past, but it didn’t.
LeRoy was a man’s man, a hunter, gambler, womanizer and hard-drinker. William’s younger brother, also named LeRoy, seemed poised to follow in his father’s virile footsteps until he was killed in a hunting accident at the age of 11. Will had been a frail, prudish, introverted child—a self-described sissy, or “the queerest chick that this brood has ever hatched” as his father put it. First taught by nuns, he developed a devotion to Catholicism and intended as the best little boy in the world to become a priest. Shocked, his family withdrew him to have him privately tutored by a judge and a poetess who instilled in him a love of learning and poetry. Standing only five feet tall and weighing barely a hundred pounds, he was threatened with being sent to Sewanee Military Academy but he was allowed to take the entrance exams to the University of the South. To everyone’s except his tutors’ surprise, he passed. When he arrived at that bucolic High Episcopal University, his father’s alma mater, he continued slipping off to Catholic chapel down the hill. “Surrounded”, as he wrote “by fauns and satyrs”, and learning of his younger brother’s fate, he lost his faith and began having sex with his older classmates and perhaps with professor Huger Jervey on that isolated monastic mountaintop.
After a post-graduate relaxing and studious year in Paris, where he had mentioned that he often frequented the Luxembourg Gardens, a famous cruising locale then as now, he entered Harvard Law School. There, during three more years of study he fell desperately in love with a large blonde, a very rich and very brilliant Yankee from New York. That great love of his life, Harold Bruff, stricken with tuberculosis, committed suicide in October of 1911, having mailed his two-volume type-scripted autobiography to Will.
After his graduation in 1908, Will reluctantly practiced law from his father’s firm in Greenville. Each morning, father and son would walk amicably from home to their firm, Percy & Percy. While they appeared to share little in common, a bond began to form between this odd couple—a partnership that would soon take on a political dimension. It would be forged in the heat of one of the most bitter political battles in southern history, now known as the Revolt of the Red Necks.
Escaping from Greenville whenever he could with any excuse, Will fled to New Orleans, as well as to New York and Boston, where he and Bruff had many elegant gay friends. Huger Jervey, who had moved from the faculty at Sewanee to introduce international law to Columbia. The architect Gerstle Mack, who served in both World Wars as well as the OSS and authored of a history of the Panama Canal and at that time the best book about Paul Cezanne. Our Yankee cousin Janet Percy Dana who had tried to marry Will but on his refusal married the eminent physician Warfield Longcope who taught at John Hopkins. The Danas shared an island off Maine with J.P. Morgan and had sold their mansion at One 5th Avenue to him. The Longcopes had owned the U.S. Mail monopoly on their stagecoaches from New York to Boston. It was in New York where Will met and befriended Langston Hughes, the handsome gay black poet, who precursed the idea of negritude, and whom he invited to stay with him in Greenville after Leroy’s death.
When the U.S. Senate seat became vacant in December of 1909, it was expected that the legislature would elect former Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman to fill it. The sitting governor connived to have enough candidates apply to prevent Vardaman from gaining a majority. Like many others including President Theodore Roosevelt, LeRoy resolved to stop that Populist “rabble-rouser”. Though he lacked the common touch needed for electioneering, Leroy had friends in high places. According to the constitution in Mississippi at that time, the open seat would be filled not by popular vote but by the state legislature.
The process took six grueling weeks. After an epic sequence of voting by the controversial secret caucus of legislators, on February 23rd, Leroy won on the 58th ballot after more than a dozen other candidates dropped out along the way. As some thought, it had been Leroy’s plan all along. Incidentally, this was the last senatorial election ever held by any legislature before the 17th Amendment required popular vote, which in the “Solid South” meant the Democratic Primary.
Unsurprisingly, given Vardamans’s large early plurality and a restless electorate, he was emboldened. Soon, allegations of shenanigans abounded. It smacked of a political fix, with influence peddling and bribery going on behind the scenes—with prostitutes and liquor supplied on request. Two months after the election, another prominent demagogue and Vardaman stalwart, Theodore G. Bilbo, appeared before the grand jury to proclaim that William A. Percy, my grandfather, had attempted to bribe him during the balloting with a package containing $5,000 in bills and promise of a Federal judgeship. Bilbo claimed to have set a trap for the would-be senator in order to expose campaign corruption. “Of course”, he had never intended to keep the money that he had “accepted”.
All hell let loose. Bilbo was soon discredited when it was noticed that some of the bills in question were brand new, printed after the alleged bribe. In the popular imagining, though, Bilbo’s claim had resonance. Bilbo was an expert rabble rouser, having called another opponent “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel…begotten in a nigger graveyard at midnight.” His vitriolic rants resonated among the “rednecks” who dragged Mississippi state politics into a vituperative abyss where the poor whites railed against the wealthy entrenched that supported LeRoy Percy.
Young Will remained at his father’s side throughout this bare-knuckle saga, fighting for his cause at times almost literally. At the climax of the campaign, Walker Percy, LeRoy’s youngest brother, even plotted to shoot Bilbo in the dining room of the main hotel in Jackson, with Will sitting at his side. He shouted an insult that would normally have led to a duel, but Bilbo serenly continued eating his oatmeal.
Leroy headed gleefully for Washington, well aware he would be underdog in the Democratic primary that would be held in 1911. Vardaman, editor of the Jackson Newspaper The Issue that he started in 1908 after he lost the governorship, charged that LeRoy had won through corruption. All of this is vividly described in Kirwan’s The Revolt of the Rednecks (1951) with an anti-Percy bias. The scandal however, had not stopped Will from presenting a largely romantic view of our family in Lanterns.
During the first World War, Will volunteered for service, first in the Belgian relief headed by Herbert Hoover. His experience therein reinforced his antipathy against the “Huns”, from whom the Anglo-Saxons of course descended. He alluded to his “close friends” there, implying sexual liaisons, mostly French-speaking officers [Walloons] interned by the Krauts. As soon as we entered the war, he volunteered managing to gain enough weight to qualify for OCS (Officer’s Candidate School) by stuffing himself.
Will could have used family influence to secure a safe assignment. He had in fact, been assigned to command a black battalion as was the custom in those days for Southerners to do, none of which ever saw action. Despite that, he worked his way to the front lines. Under General Pershing, he fought in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, a significant point in the turning of the war on the Western Front. His heroic role in rallying the troops for a counter attack after heavy fire had broken them into disarray won him the Croix de Guerre.
Thereafter, LeRoy then had another reason to be proud of his son but came to realize that even the war hero had no intention of marrying any of the belles that threw themselves at him. Instead, he took up with the brilliant lesbian Charlotte Gailor, daughter of the prominent Episcopal bishop of Mississippi, whose older sister had married Grover Cleveland. Miss Charlotte saved Sewanee during both World Wars, when it nearly collapsed as it had indeed during the Civil War. She also raised her youngest brother Frank, the Rhodes scholar who became Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Leroy achieved his most deserved fame as the nation’s boldest denouncer of the new Ku Klux Klan. After WWI, it revived in far more odious form than the original Klan of Reconstruction times, now not only being anti-Koon, but also anti-Katholic and anti-Kike as well. On 1 March 1922, delivered extemporaneously a scathing anti-Klan speech to a mob in the Greenville courthouse that the Klan had recruited but that he had packed with some of his own allies: One of the strangest aberrations in American life since the War is the growth of the Ku Klux Klan…a colossal buffoonery..in the South and Southwest…evil and seriously dangerous…among the Negroes a nighttime terror…[revived] for profit…[excluding] Jews, Catholics and Foreigners, even citizens…secret viscious…enrolling officials and even members of the judiciary…replacing good officials with Klansmen…masked like clowns sheeted like servants of the inquisition…Jewry and Rome need no defense in this writer’s opinion…the struggle in these sections is to maintatin the negro population..to all genii, grand dragons, and Hydras of Realms, Grand Goblins and Kleagles of Domains, Grand Titans and Furies of Provinces, Giants, Exalted Cyclops… I have heard of no criminal in the garb of the klan who has been brought to justice by the Klan, who alone can know whether he is a member of the Klan or not…devised it to conceal their identity when doing the lawless deeds that they felt justified in doing….goes about after nightfall…tries a man on hearsay evidence, without giving him an opportununity of being confronted by his accusers…the chief appeal has been to religious intolerants …pastors of churches have enrolled themselves as members…[claiming that] the morals of the country are in a parlous condition; sexual vice, bootlegging, gambling flourish, the Klan loveth righteousness; if you are on the side of the angels, join the Klan…the first part of the programme is effected by moulding public sentiment, by watching wayward politicians, by combating the sinister propaganda of the press, which is under the control of Jews or Catholics or negroes or foreigners. The second part of the programme is the real work of the Klan of the separate local Klans. It is accomplished in this wise: each Klansman is a ‘detective’; he goes about his community ‘with eyes and ears open’, spying on the morals of his fellow citizens…were they have gone has been a trail of lawless deeds.”
Subsequently, the Klan tried to assasssinate Leroy by luring him out on a cold winter’s night to help a car supposedly broken down. Will was there to help stop his father from falling into the trap and to guard him against future attempts. Henceforth, Leroy almost trusted Will completely.
As my father, who attended Greenville High School the following year because Uncle Leroy was his legal guardian, learned that Uncle Will had helped him to devise the speech and later polish it before it was disseminated throughout the state, reprinted in revised form in the Atlantic Monthly and even appeared in foreign journals. But Daddy, as I called him, also learned at that time, that Uncle Will, so confident he had become in his own invulnerability, dared to start an affair with Ernest. Ernest was especially dark-hued and the first of three black teenagers he successively took up with in Greenville itself. The last, “Honey”, was admired not for his skin color but his charm. He had “jet black skin, flashing teeth, and wore a mink tie. [He went] into the poolroom on Nelson Street, parking Percy’s enormous black car by the door, and shooting pool…Outside, it was said, Will lay on the floor in the backseat to avoid being seen. Then Honey said, “I got to take my who’ home,” laughed, dropped his pool cue, got into the car, and drove away.” (Barry, 421)
In 1926, father and son, confident about each other, marched forward to take control of the impending crisis. As explained earlier, everything went well until the time came to transport the blacks downstream to safety on the bluffs of Vicksburg. For months, the Red Cross Committee, nominally headed by Will but really manipulated by Leroy, had over and over again unanimously agreed to the evacuation of the vulnerable blacks. Both justice and exepediency commanded it. As Will was trying to oversee their evacuation amid many threats, and much confusion and disarray, Leroy approached him and, during a long solitary amongst the suffering victims on the levee, convinvced him to call yet one more meeting of the committee. When it convenved, Will feigned shock when every last member voted against the evacuation. As he claimed in Lanterns, it was only years later that he learnt that his father had persuaded every one of them to change their votes. I believe that Will lied to protect his reputation.
My next-door neighbor when I lived at 587 Tremont St. in Boston, Millie Commodore clued me in. Almost able to pass as white, gracious, well-spoken, and skilled in sewing and other lady-like arts, she descended from the “high yellows” who ran a very high-class house for the white elite of Greenville. Her father who was proud of his white ancestry, had led the strike by the blacks called when one of them was shot by whites forcing them to work overtime during the flood. Afterwards, they quit patrolling workers on the levee with shotguns. Millie had married Fode’s best friend and they had moved to Boston after the flood. She also knew about Ernest and Honey. She had long been especially friendly to me, but I didn’t pay enough attention to her, although she said that in Greenville, the Percys were talked about as fondly as the Kennedys were in Boston.
It was Arthur Warner who got her to spill the beans when he was up here visiting me. A Princeton graduate with a Harvard Law degree, Arthur was disbarred while an officer in the Navy for soliciting blacks in Lafayette Park. He then earned a PhD in history from Harvard and after a brief teaching career became a leading gay activist. He was only sexually attracted to black males, he led Mattachine East after that pioneering gay oprganization split, until overtaken by the openly Jewish Frank Kameny, another PhD from Harvard with the slogan, “Gay is Good” in 1967. Neither Wyatt-Brown or Ben Wise investigated Millie’s leads, claiming in footnotes they were unsubstantiated. For Rising Tide (1997) John Barry went to Grrenville and carefully interrogated all of her leads and other people to document Will’s liaisons with the “Negro” teenagers.
I conclude that Will, more confident than before, became involved with Ernest shortly after Leroy’s spectacular victory over the Klan in 1923. Then, when Ernest was promoted to chauffeur as was then the custom, he loved Fode, who was born the same year as Walker (1916), and to whom he devoted a chapter in Lanterns. After Will came back from a year in Japan, where he had fled for rest and recuperation after the flood, he definitely took up with Fode, for whom he’d long had eyes. I’m not sure whether he dared carry on with Fode when his father was alive. Barry carefully documented the three teenagers whom Will loved seriatam. But, Weiss whom Wyatt-Brown had advised, ignored all this evidence, apparently in an old-fashioned attempt to keep Will’s reputation clean.
I remember meeting Ernest twice. My parents often visited Greenville when I was young but I remember one spectacular encounter there. Will never locked the front door. The butler would count the closed bedroom doors to approximate how many he might expect for breakfast or lunch. Will always arose early and dressed in his Japanese kimono. My mother was also an early riser and one day she brought me down, sat at Will’s left hand holding me in her lap having carefully told me to address him as Uncle Will, as his three adopted orphaned cousins regularly did. With a weak stomach and eating only milk toast, Will quickly put me on the floor and summoned Ernest, then acting not only as his chauffer but butler, took me for a walk in the garden holding me by his hand. I immediately went straight for a yellow pansy like any good fairy. But Ernest tactfully explained to me that was the only flower that Will didn’t allow anyone to pick.
Eventually, Will fired Ernest for stealing too many valuables and then came to work for the leading lumber baron in Memphis, Mr. Gooch. After the publication of Lanterns, Ernest came to our backdoor and asked to see my father. The maid Azalea ushered him into the dining room where Daddy, after listening carefully, gently advised him not to sue Will for libel. He had come because he knew that my father had disrespected Will ever since he had spent his senior year at Greenville High School knowing that Will was having sex with Ernest.
I realized that Will had lied in Lanterns and that his father had warned him about the impending committees’ change of heart because some would have lynched Will as a “nigger lover” and thereby destroy Leroy. The worst possible thing you could do in the bible-thumping homophobic South was to have sex with a black male of any age. Rich enough not to be bothered by the loss of black labor, as most of the other planters would have been, Leroy, always a realist, gave in to the inevitable. If Will had tried to rescue the stranded blacks, Leroy warned him during the walk down the levee that enough people knew of his dalliances with Ernest, detailed in Rising Tide, and would lynch him if he resisted. Always a gambler, Leroy expected the weather to improve shortly, so the stranded blacks wouldn’t suffer too much for too long, but prolonged bad weather made him lose his wager.
Charming with his self-deprecating humor, Will looked back with fondness on the ways and values of the past including the aristocrats’ doomed attachment to ideas of their genetic superiority not only to blacks but to “White Trash”: poor pure Anglo-Saxon. Will went even farther because his mother Camille, a French Creole from New Orleans, most of her life married to a serial philanderer and neglectful husband, wept for her son who died young and for the other who was obviously homosexual. He also firmly believed that the Percys, being Normans, had incredibly not mixed much during their centuries in England with the Anglo-Saxons. In spite of the fact, that Henry Adams, on whose Education Will’s Lanterns was the best selling imitation, had quipped that everyone in England in 1900 would have been descended from everyone there in 1066 if there had been no intermarriage.
After the death of his best friend Walker, who had written to me: “I lived at Will’s for three years and during that time I never once heard or saw anything that made me believe he was homosexual.” I phoned Shelby Foote who had moved next door to my father’s place in Memphis. Then he told me that of course all those in Greenville in the know knew about Will’s taste for Blacks, but “ Mr. Will was twice the man his father was.”
Stuck for far too long with outmoded attitudes, all genteel Southerners, even those proud of their Anglo-Saxon background, were losing out. They were dominated by Red Neck demagogues, as Will put it, “the bottom rail was on top and would stay that way”, and losing their labor force. It declined especially sharply in Mississippi, as a result of the mishandling of the Flood, savagely denounced by black newspapers in Chicago and Detroit. It did finally recede, but the Negroes sped up their exodus from the Delta. The Great Migration had begun by 1916, when after the war’s outbreak demand for American factory goods increased but foreign immigrants no longer came. Blacks began moving North to work in factories, often to replace whites who had gone to war. Incidentally, it did not end until the 1980’s when Blacks secured equal rights in the South.
Mississippi however, remains a backwater and a byword for poverty, ignorance, corruption, and violence. Ironically, that too has now become a condition of many Northern cities. After busing, many whites fled to the suburbs while the transfer of manufacturing abroad exacerbated financial crises that began in 2000. Northern cities suffered and their urban schools suffered, having lost support from the whites. Unions declined and the well-paid urban Blacks who bought houses they couldn’t afford, urged on by the government and ruthless financiers faced foreclosures.