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Thursday, May 4, 2017

May 4, 2017: DisasterStudying: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

[May 6th marks the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg fire, a turning point in the use of video and newsreel footage to chronicle tragic disasters. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of historical disasters, leading up to a weekend post on that and other contexts for the Hindenburg.]
Connecting America’s most destructive river flood to three prominent historical figures and issues.
1)      Herbert Hoover: In 1927 Hoover was Secretary of Commerce under President Calvin Coolidge; yet while Coolidge generally maintained his administration’s laissez faire, small-government attitude in the flood’s aftermath, refusing almost all federal intervention in or aide to the stricken states and communities, Hoover took a different approach. His hands-on management of the flood relief camps in particular (despite the racial inequities on which my third focal figure here focused) received widespread national acclaim, and helped propel the previously unknown Hoover toward his successful 1928 nomination for and election to the presidency. It’s one of the great ironies of American history, though, that it was Great Depression migrant camps—which came to be called Hoovervilles—which contributed significantly to Hoover’s subsequent loss to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. Disaster relief giveth and disaster relief taketh away.
2)      Huey Long: Hoover wasn’t the only political candidate to benefit greatly from the 1927 flood’s effects and aftermath. Long had unsuccessfully run for Governor of Louisiana in 1924, and in the years since had continued his populist activism as a member of the Louisiana Public Service Commission. The 1927 flood allowed Long to leverage those longstanding populist attitudes and actions into more direct critiques of New Orleans elites, the state’s government bureaucracy, and their concurrent failures to look after the impoverished and working-class communities most affected by the flood. As this Slate article argues, the 1927 flood ushered in a new era of public calls for government intervention and aid; yet it’s equally important to tie those changing attitudes to populist movements like Long’s, which throughout the South almost always flirted with white supremacism and organizations like the Klan. Long himself was no friend of the Klan, to be clear; but as my next figure makes clear, populist responses to the 1927 flood were inseparable from the region’s systems of racial prejudice and segregation.
3)      W.E.B. Du Bois: As I highlighted in this post, and as a river park in his hometown of Great Barrington (MA) commemorates, Du Bois had a lifelong, multi-layered attachment to rivers, and his strong interest in the flood and its aftermath was likely tied to that personal perspective. Yet as this wonderful exhibit at the National Museum of African American History & Culture makes clear, both the 1927 flood itself and the subsequent disparities in relief efforts disproportionately affected African Americans, giving even a less personally interested activist and journalist more than enough reason to cover the story at length (as Du Bois did in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, which he edited). Moreover, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Southern African Americans amplified the already-underway Great Migration, further shifting the nation’s racial and cultural demographics in profound and lasting ways. As usual, W.E.B. Du Bois has a great deal to tell us about those interconnected histories and effects of this singular yet telling disaster.
Last DisasterStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historical or contemporary disasters you’d highlight?

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