Peter Coates at the Times Literary Supplement:
At the flood’s height, an expanse equivalent to all the New England states was awash, and the river was 80 miles wide in places. As Vernon Tull, a character in William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying (1930), put it, you “couldn’t tell where was the river and where the land. It was just a tangle of yellow and the levee not less wider than a knife-back”. According to the American Red Cross, which spearheaded relief efforts, the death toll was 246. But this figure did not include the deaths of black Americans; the total body count was probably over a thousand. Between 700,000 and 900,000 people were rendered homeless. Around 130,000 homes were destroyed. Some 300,000 African Americans were consigned to makeshift refugee camps. At Mounds Landing, just north of Greenville, Mississippi, when a crevasse appeared in the levee on April 21, 1927, a wall of water poured through with a force equivalent to that of Niagara Falls. Around 13,000 residents were evacuated to higher ground, and local black men toiled at gunpoint to shore up the defences. This incident inspired the husband and wife duo, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, to record “When the Levee Breaks” (1929), a song reworked in 1971 by Led Zeppelin for their fourth album.
The flood of 1927 has multiple dimensions: the harrowing individual sagas of up to a million refugees; a relief effort of unprecedented scale in American history; the hubristic “levees only” conviction of over-confident hydraulic engineers that the unruly, indomitable river had finally been tamed in the early twentieth century by lining its entire lower stretch with enormous dykes 30 feet high and 188 feet wide at the base; the uneven impact of the disaster on blacks and whites, rich and poor, and the inequitable, often brutal treatment of African Americans in the relief camps; the forced levee and relief work imposed on African Americans in a variation on debt peonage and convict-lease, and white bosses’ coercive attempts to prevent the loss of a cheap and servile black labour force enticed by the “promised land” of northern cities and factory jobs; the exacerbation of already entrenched racial tensions in the Jim Crow South, from which charitable operations were in no sense exempt (“Farms, cattle, furniture and houses may be washed away by the disastrous Mississippi flood, but race prejudice remains as prominent as a butte on a Western plain.