Aftermath : Throughline In 1927, the most destructive river flood in U.S. history inundated seven states, displaced more than half a million people for months, and caused about $1 billion dollars in property damages. And like many national emergencies it exposed a stark question that the country still struggles to answer - what is the political calculus used to decide who bears the ultimate responsibility in a crisis, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable? This week, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and what came after.


  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JOHN BARRY: It started raining in August 1926. And it didn't really stop. Henry Waring Ball had recorded in his diary, it had rained heavily for months. March 8, quote, "pouring rain almost constantly for 24 hours." March 9, quote, "rain almost all night." March 12, quote, "I don't believe I ever saw so much rain."


BARRY: March 19, quote, "rain all day." March 20, quote, "still raining hard tonight." March 21, quite cold turn of rain last night. March 26, bad, cold rain. March 27, March 29, still cold and showery. Very dark and rainy. March 30, too dark and rainy to do anything.


BARRY: April 1, violent storm almost all night. April 5, quote, "much rain tonight." April 6, quote, "rained last night, of course."


BARRY: In the first five months of 1927, there were five storms, each one of which was bigger than any single storm in the preceding 10 years. If you lived near the river and you had a brain, you knew perfectly well you were facing a serious threat. It is raining, as usual. On April 21, you have hundreds of men working at a weak spot in the levee, piling sandbags, piling sandbags, piling sandbags. Water started to come over. You cannot hold back the Mississippi River when it's rising with sandbags. All of a sudden, part of the levee sort of pushed forward. People started screaming and running and rolling off the levee. And then, imagine 1,000 fire hydrants bursting forth at the same time.


BARRY: Somebody said that they heard what sounded like dozens of railroad trains coming through the forest at them. And that was the water.



You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


And on this episode, The Great Flood of 1927.

BARRY: Well, we're about to start climbing the levee. And once we cross the street, we will be facing the Mississippi River. And it is a big river.

ARABLOUEI: The voice you're hearing belongs to John Barry. He lives in New Orleans.

BARRY: I'm a writer. And we're standing on the levee looking out at the Mississippi River. I became a river rat, you know? T.S. Eliot wrote, the river is within us. And, you know, for some reason, the Mississippi always seemed to be within me.

ARABLOUEI: He looks out on the Mississippi River every day, which explains his obsession with its awesomeness.

BARRY: It drains 31 states and two Canadian provinces. And the drainage basin, actually, stretches almost from Buffalo, N.Y., all the way to the Rockies. So it's a pretty large area. And it carries a tremendous amount of water.

ABDELFATAH: The Mississippi River, this tremendous amount of water, floods. It's flooded hundreds of times. But there's one historic flood that John wrote an entire book about called "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood Of 1927 And How It Changed America."


ARABLOUEI: The flood inundated seven states from Illinois down to Louisiana, where the river swelled to 80 miles wide. For context, the Grand Canyon, on average, is only 10 miles wide. And more than half a million people were displaced for months.

ABDELFATAH: From a money standpoint, it's estimated that the flood created a billion dollars in property damage, which, in 1927, was a third of the U.S. federal budget.

BARRY: So when you think of it in those terms, it was enough to have some impact on the national economy. It had significantly greater impact on American culture, on demographics and particularly on politics.


ABDELFATAH: This story about the most destructive river flood in our country's history takes us to an inflection point in the ongoing battle between big government and small government approaches to crisis. It's a story about a president who didn't think the disaster was his problem to solve and the inherent shortcomings and prejudice that are often tied to government response.


PAM: Hi, I'm Pam (ph). My team is the winner of THROUGHLINE trivia, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 1 - Search and Rescue.


ABDELFATAH: By the 1920s, folks who lived near the Mississippi River were used to floods.

RICHARD MIZELLE: From the 19th century and into the 20th century, you have a number of manmade levees that were being built to confine the Mississippi River, and that was supposed to protect this region from flooding.

ARABLOUEI: This is Richard Mizelle Jr.

MIZELLE: I am an associate professor of history at the University of Houston, and I am the author of "Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood Of 1927 In The African American Imagination."

ARABLOUEI: So there were all these levees built up at the turn of the 20th century to protect river communities from the near constant flooding they had become used to. But there was so much rain in the first few months of 1927...

MIZELLE: It rained incessantly.

ARABLOUEI: ...That people worried the levees wouldn't hold. The authorities tried to calm the public. They downplayed the storms and doubled down on their confidence in the system.

BARRY: The Corps of Engineers said for the first time, they were in a position to contain the Mississippi River...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All levees are in fine condition, and we expect no trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The organization is functioning perfectly in all sectors.

BARRY: ...Which is, of course, classic hubris.

ARABLOUEI: Hubris that was quickly and tragically proven wrong.


MIZELLE: The first breaks occurred in the upper valley, up by Cairo, Ill. But slowly but surely, these levees began to break throughout the Mississippi Valley and into Louisiana and Mississippi and the cotton-producing regions.


MIZELLE: This was really a domino effect. Once one levee began to break and the flood waters began to sort of continue to push down towards the Gulf of Mexico - when those levees began to fail, you have a cascading effect of breaks throughout the Mississippi Valley.

BARRY: At every point, people were fighting hard to save their homes. And at every point, the river defeated them.


BARRY: You know, people were killed from Virginia to Oklahoma. But of course, the greatest damage was on the lower Mississippi River in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

ABDELFATAH: Perhaps the worst and most dramatic break happened in the Mississippi Delta, causing it to be one of the regions hit hardest by the flood.

PETE DANIEL: Then the water came out at the same rate, they said, as Niagara Falls. And so when the levee broke, it was just - it was over.

ABDELFATAH: This is Pete Daniel, a researcher and the former senior curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American history. He's also the author of "Deep'n As It Come," a book on the flood with multiple firsthand accounts from survivors.

DANIEL: I interviewed these people in 1975. And they were old, but their memories were vivid.

ABDELFATAH: Pete traveled down to the Delta with a tape recorder to talk to whoever he could find who was willing to share their experiences.

DANIEL: I asked Mrs. Coralee Campbell (ph) about the flood. And she started by saying, well, I believe it was a Thursday. And then she gave this frantic description of what happened that morning and how she barely escaped and got her son, Roosevelt Campbell Jr. (ph), in her arms and took him up to the levee, the highest ground still.

ARABLOUEI: The Mississippi Delta is flat farmland, so when the water came, it stayed. The only dry ground was up on the levee itself, so Mrs. Campbell (ph) wasn't the only one climbing up that muddy hill in search of safety.


BARRY: Thousands of people took refuge on the tops of levees. And, you know, that's a crown that then was about 8 feet wide and then sloped off to the side. It's not a very comfortable place to be, and you might be there for certainly days, and maybe a good deal longer.

ARABLOUEI: Other people were stranded in trees or their roofs for weeks at a time. They couldn't come down because the waters were still rushing.

MIZELLE: These floodwaters could be deep, and they could be dangerous, and they could be fast-moving. You could easily drown, or the rip currents would take you away if you were not careful.

BARRY: There were splintered houses. There were cows, pigs just rolling over and over in this brown surf.

MIZELLE: You would see alligators and water moccasins in the street, in people's homes. People talked about walking over, you know, thousands upon thousands of crawfish and snakes and other river creatures.

DANIEL: The cows started lowing. The dogs were barking. People were screaming. It was a total chaos.


ARABLOUEI: The water covered the entire Delta like an unforgiving blanket until it eventually stifled all that noise into a deafening silence.

BARRY: There was nothing alive. Everything had drowned. There were no sounds. There was nothing.

ABDELFATAH: With all that noise and then all that silence, people couldn't just sit around and wait to be rescued by the federal government. So they took matters into their own hands.


BARRY: The rescuers and most of the Mississippi Delta were mostly bootleggers who came from Arkansas, and they had boats and pretty good boats.

ABDELFATAH: It was Prohibition. And yes, the rogue superheroes were bootleggers.


HERMAN CAILLOUET: They claim some of them - that was moonshiners. Now, whether they were or not I couldn't say, but they were - they played a big part in it, too, because they were used to running at night. And they were here about two, three days.

ABDELFATAH: And the other superheroes? Mailmen.

BARRY: You know, obviously all the roads were underwater, but they would put a mailman in the back of the boat who knew the terrain and could say, well, there - you know, two miles that way there's 50 people who may need rescue. You show up, and there are 50 people in a barn - things like that.

DANIEL: For example, Herman Caillouet had a boat, a powerboat, and he tied a skiff behind it, and he just went out and rescued people with his own boat. Pulled them off of houses, treetops and whatever.


CAILLOUET: And when you stop at the houses to get people, people would get on a boat. And dogs or chickens or anything, they would jump in the boat, too. Oh, the chickens would automatically jump in the boat because...

ABDELFATAH: The rescue went on day and night.


CAILLOUET: So one thing I had to do was keep a gun in the boat so when your boat get lowered - they'd just keep jumping on there if you wouldn't tell them to get off. They wouldn't stand for that. But there was couple of times I had to raise that gun and say, if another one of you all jump in here, I'm going to shoot the rest of you all.

DANIEL: It slowed them down.

CAILLOUET: Yeah, it slowed them down. And then more shipped (ph).

ABDELFATAH: In three days, Herman Caillouet saved 150 people.

BARRY: Individuals taking initiative in a matter of a few days is beyond remarkable.

ABDELFATAH: Remarkable, but not enough to save the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by this crisis.


ABDELFATAH: There needed to be a national response. The problem was, the president of the United States didn't think this was his problem.

BARRY: Well of course, Coolidge is president. Coolidge was a strange guy.

ABDELFATAH: Calvin Coolidge, whose nickname was Silent Cal.

DANIEL: Because he didn't talk much (laughter).

BARRY: His son had developed a blister after playing tennis on the White House tennis courts. It got infected, and he died. And after that, he said the power and the glory of the presidency went with it. He almost seemed to lose all interest in his office. Republican governors, Republican senators begged him to go south to show his support for people who were suffering.

ARABLOUEI: But the pleading fell on deaf ears. For instance, when a Philadelphia Republican told Coolidge that if he visited the flood district, the thrill would go through the country...

BARRY: Coolidge declined.

ABDELFATAH: When the president of the Mississippi State Board of Development pleaded, Mississippi Valley needs your help now...

BARRY: Coolidge declined.

ARABLOUEI: When the governor of Mississippi begged for the third time, telling the president, your coming would result in securing millions of dollars of additional aid...

BARRY: Coolidge declined.

ABDELFATAH: When NBC asked him to broadcast a nationwide appeal, and when the famous musician Will Rogers asked for a telegram to read at a benefit concert...

BARRY: All these requests, Coolidge declined.

ABDELFATAH: Coolidge wanted nothing to do with this mess. He saw it as something states had to clean up with the help of charitable donations and the Red Cross. But the one thing he did do was appoint a man to orchestrate that aid and relief effort, to serve as a sort of flood czar. And that man was Herbert Hoover.


BARRY: He was often referred to as the great humanitarian. He had quite a track record. During World War I, he organized a relief effort to feed occupied Belgium. Right after the war, he fed much of Europe. The continent was prostrate.

DANIEL: And so he organized that relief and made a name for himself, and then he got into politics. And so by 1927...

BARRY: Herbert Hoover is Secretary of Commerce. There weren't a lot of people he actually got along with very well because he was actually very shy. At one point, he said he couldn't stand the pneumatic drill of constant human contact, which is an odd thing for a politician to say. But if you give them a problem to solve, then he was in his element.

ABDELFATAH: Hoover hopped on a train from D.C. and headed straight to Memphis, where he set up his relief headquarters. From there, he addressed the nation in one of the first-ever national radio broadcasts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As Herbert Hoover) I am speaking to you from the temporary headquarters which we have established for the national fight against the most dangerous flood our country has ever known. It is difficult to picture in words the might of the Mississippi in flood.

ABDELFATAH: He described the situation to American citizens all across the country to solicit sympathy and donations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As Herbert Hoover) But thousands more have need to be removed in boats. Other thousands are camped upon broken levees. This is a pitiable plight of a lost battle.

MIZELLE: There were many people who were - who were moved by this. And so you had kids setting up lemonade stands. You had theater companies who would pass a donation can up and down the aisles. Churches would have two donations, one for tithes and offerings and the other for the Mississippi flood. You had Guam and Haiti sending cables of $500 or $200. So the fact that there were so many people who were willing to give money and put forward charitable operations really shows how prevalent this disaster was in the imaginations of most people in this country.


ARABLOUEI: With millions of dollars pouring in, the Red Cross teamed up with the Army to set out on perhaps the largest rescue mission the country had ever seen.

MIZELLE: The Army, Navy, Coast Guard - together they sent roughly 830, -40 vessels to the Mississippi Delta in the form of hydroplanes, boats, cutters, but also planes.

DANIEL: The planes were used to spot refugees. And any number of people I talked to said a seaplane would fly over and they would wave their white handkerchief at it. They would be on a roof or something. And an hour or so later, a boat would come. So it was very effective.

MIZELLE: The United States Army sent cots. They sent blankets. They sent cooks. And so it really did resemble, for quite a bit of time, a war zone.

BARRY: You know, the whole operation thrown together from scratch, from essentially zero, in a matter of a few days is beyond remarkable.

ARABLOUEI: The rescue missions were just the beginning. There was nowhere for these people to go. Their homes were either still completely flooded or destroyed altogether. They were refugees.

DANIEL: And they hated that name. Mrs. Campbell said, they called us refugees, and I guess that's what we were. But she said it with total distaste.

ARABLOUEI: So the Red Cross set up refugee camps, more than 150 of them.

BARRY: They were mostly tent cities, and they were scattered all the way from the state of Missouri down through Mississippi and Louisiana, almost to the Gulf.


ARABLOUEI: Around 600,000 people were being housed, clothed or fed by the Red Cross across the country, and Herbert Hoover was looking like a hero.

MIZELLE: There was a very triumphalist narrative that you would see in most newspapers.

DANIEL: That's very much American. That's what America wants to hear. They want to hear, oh, it was good. Everything worked out. They were heroes.

BARRY: And if there was the slightest criticism of anything, Hoover would always respond. He let nothing slip, even from the tiniest weekly paper in America. And of course, an editor of such a paper would be astonished and, you know, flattered to receive a response, and it would be printed.

MIZELLE: He definitely used this flood as a springboard into the 1928 presidency.

BARRY: He knew how to use the press. And in the middle of the flood, with editorials hailing him as a great humanitarian, begging him to run for president - and this is in Democratic papers, not just Republican papers...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Reading) He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. In personal fitness for the presidency, there is no other American even remotely in Mr. Hoover's class - The Oakland Tribune.

BARRY: But the press then was no different than it is today. It loves to hype someone, and it's just as happy to tear that person down if it has any good reason.

MIZELLE: The problem with that was that there were rumors and reports and confirmations that African Americans were being mistreated in these American Red Cross relief camps.

BARRY: These camps were mostly in the South, and not surprisingly, abuses began to surface. And this began to leak into what was then referred to as the Negro Press. And Hoover recognized that a scandal that developed in those papers might easily spread to The New York Times and the generally read press. So he moved pretty rapidly to try to prevent that from happening.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, dueling narratives over what's really happening in the relief camps, while Hoover does whatever it takes to preserve his path to the presidency.


SHEENA: This is Sheena (ph). What am I supposed to say again?


SHEENA: I forgot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No. Oh, you can just say you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

SHEENA: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: That was a good one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: That was a good one. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: That sounded professional.

SHEENA: I want to get into voiceovers if, you know, any of you can help.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Just went for it. I like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I like it. I respect that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part II - the promise.

ARABLOUEI: When the levee system along the river collapsed, the result was more than 23,000 square miles of land submerged completely under water. Some parts of the country, including residential neighborhoods, were 30 feet under water. The water just sat there, while people left behind sat in camps.

DANIEL: And that's where they stayed until the water went down, sometimes weeks, sometimes months. And of course, during that time, they didn't know what happened to their belongings. They didn't know if their house was still there, if what was in the house was still salvageable, whether or not they'd be able to plant a crop that year - all those questions of a person who's in a camp and doesn't know what happened back home.


ARABLOUEI: The flood dominated the national conversation, and the press kept it going with daily front-page news stories that painted Hoover as a national treasure - a narrative that helped catapult him into the mix of the 1928 presidential candidates.

ABDELFATAH: But there were two narratives forming about what life was like for flood refugees living in these camps under his watch - specifically, for black refugees in the Mississippi Delta.

MIZELLE: Well, many of them were saying that they were being forced into labor. Where white individuals in these relief camps were receiving supplies, food, tents free of charge, many African Americans had to work for this charity that was being given by citizens across the country.

DANIEL: The headline was, like, Peonage in Red Cross Camps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Reading) "Refugees Herded Like Cattle To Stop Escape From Peonage" - the Chicago Defender.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Reading) "Conscript Labor Gangs Keep Flood Refugees In Legal Bondage" - the Pittsburgh Courier.

DANIEL: Well, at that moment, I didn't know what peonage was, but it's debt servitude. It was so sensational that there was still slavery in Mississippi.

ABDELFATAH: Sensational since slavery had officially ended almost 65 years before the flood. But now many descendants of former slaves were finding themselves under similar circumstances to those before emancipation, and word was travelling to black newspapers up north about what was going on down south.

MIZELLE: If you were African American and you arrived at one of these Red Cross relief camps, then you would have to give the name of a white person that you worked for. And if you did not work for a white person as a sharecropper or as a domestic or in any other capacity, then you had to have some white person to vouch for you before you were given food or a tent.


MIZELLE: They were given a tag, which they had to have at all times, and they were prevented from leaving and entering the Red Cross relief camps freely. To not be able to move in and out of the relief camps was an affront to many African Americans across the country, resembling a form of 20th century slavery in many ways.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: They wasn't given too good of food from that Red Cross up there. Some of the people got beat bad up there.


MIZELLE: Many found themselves being held at gunpoint in these Red Cross relief camps, sometimes guarded by National Guardsmen, sometimes guarded by sort of small boys who were given guns by their fathers to guard these individuals. At any given time, if laborers were needed to load sandbags, to lift sandbags, to carry sandbags, these men could be conscripted for labor. And if they refused to do so, then they were subject to violence.

ABDELFATAH: It was the Jim Crow South. The Ku Klux Klan was at its height, and many black people in the delta worked as sharecroppers. They lived and worked on white-owned plantations and paid rent by coughing up a portion of their crop. This created a cycle of seasonal, never-ending debt that the black farmers owed to the plantation owners.

MIZELLE: Because not only would they have to make a profit with the sharecropping system itself, but they would have to pay back the debt on the loans that were provided to them by the landowners. And so this system was inherently flawed. It was unscrupulous, and it was really designed to keep sharecroppers in debt every year.

ABDELFATAH: And white planters had every reason to want to keep the black planters in debt. That debt kept them tied to working their plantations, which was hugely important in 1927 because...

MIZELLE: This was also the moment of the Great Migration, in which African Americans, roughly 3.5 million African Americans, between 1915 and 1970, migrated out of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, other parts of the South to the North - Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia. There was a huge fear on behalf of white planters that many of these sharecroppers and other workers would use this as an opportunity to migrate north, that this was the last straw. This was an opportunity to leave this country for good.

BARRY: There were people in the camps who made efforts to leave the camps and head to Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles. They had lost everything. Why should they stay?

ARABLOUEI: And yet leaving was almost impossible with soldiers guarding the gates. While some black and white refugees were evacuated north, many people were left behind. Some say that black farmers were left behind intentionally so that they couldn't get out of their sharecropping debts. John Barry says that happened in Greenville, Miss.

BARRY: The fact is that there were several dozen steamboats pulling barges who had gathered in Greenville. They could have evacuated the 10 to 15,000 people in a day and taken them to safety.

ARABLOUEI: But that's not what happened.

BARRY: A group of planters pointed out that if that happened, the labor force would go away, and when the water went down, there'd be nobody to work on the plantations. And instead, the steamboats left Greenville empty. That's what happened.


BARRY: You know, there were roughly 150 refugee camps. And this one single camp in Greenville, Miss., developed a reputation as the single worst camp to be an African American.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (As character) Whites were kicking coloreds and beating them and knocking them around like dogs. Hungry people - they wouldn't feed them sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (As character) Just like dogs, I'll tell you. They were treated like dogs.

ABDELFATAH: African American newspapers in the North and Midwest got tipped off about these realities, and journalists like Ida B. Wells started publishing stories about what was going on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (As Ida B. Wells) These people of our race are giving Mr. Hoover a loving cup in appreciation of his good work for them, while their own people are being treated like slaves.

MIZELLE: Herbert Hoover's position was that they were not in a position to go against the local norms and the local customs, that they were just channeling this money into the hands of people who were in need. In the Mississippi Delta, of course, they channeled much of that money through politicians and businesses who were sort of no friends, to put it lightly, to African Americans. And so by remaining neutral, the criticism was that they were essentially allowing this discrimination to occur by their silence.

ABDELFATAH: Hoover was basically saying, look; all we can do is funnel money to local institutions and have them run things on the ground. Problem was, those local institutions were run by people with racist agendas. And instead of pushing back against the local powers, he decided to run some serious damage control.

BARRY: What Hoover did then was contact a man named Robert Moton.

ABDELFATAH: Robert Moton, he was the head of the Tuskegee Institute, which is now Tuskegee University, made famous by Booker T. Washington.

BARRY: And Washington had created what was referred to as the Tuskegee machine, a political machine of African Americans that was important to the Republican Party. At the time, of course, every African American who voted anywhere in America voted Republican. Lincoln, of course, had freed the slaves.

ABDELFATAH: Hoover was a Republican and needed to stay in good graces with the African American base that supported his party, which was more important than ever with his eyes on the presidency. So he got in touch with the most powerful black political leader, Robert Moton, and offered him a newly created position.

BARRY: Hoover decided that he would create, quote, "a colored advisory commission," unquote. And Moton was going to be its head. And he wired Moton to invite him to come to Memphis and, in fact, spelled his name wrong in the wire. But for the opportunity to meet Hoover and be a player, Moton got over the offense.

ARABLOUEI: This Colored Advisory Commission was tasked with investigating the abuses of the refugee camps and compiling a report of the findings. Moton accepted the position and got to work. He formed a group of the nation's top black leaders who set out to visit the camps and document the conditions.

DANIEL: So you have this commission that contains a lot of important African Americans. And, you know, they go to the camps. They do an investigation, and they put it all down in writing. And, well, that's when the s*** hit the fan.

ARABLOUEI: The Colored Advisory Commission delivered its report to Hoover, detailing the discrimination and abuse that was taking place in the camps, particularly in the Mississippi Delta. Hoover was not pleased.

DANIEL: Because Moton's report told exactly what was going on in the camps, and Hoover didn't want that. He wanted praise. And he browbeat Moton. I mean, he really browbeat him to take all that out.

ARABLOUEI: Hoover intimated that he wanted the report to be revised, with all the incriminating findings removed. But such a bold request came with an equally bold offer.

BARRY: He made an extraordinary suggestion to Robert Moton. And that suggestion was since the Delta was underwater, Louisiana was underwater, Arkansas was underwater, all those - most of those plantations had no financial resources and could not recover. And Hoover proposed creating an entity that would allow the transition from sharecropping to ownership so that eventually, tens of thousands of people who were sharecroppers would soon own that land - that Hoover would plan to raise money through the flood effort and use that financial resource to bankroll the beginning of that.

ARABLOUEI: Hoover was insinuating putting an end, in effect, to the sharecropping system in the U.S., and that with his help, the flood could actually turn these black farmers into first-time landowners.

MIZELLE: And he made this case of providing 20 acres to select African Americans to farm in the aftermath of the flood to rehabilitate both laborers and the environmental landscape.

ABDELFATAH: He called it a land resettlement plan. And for the time, it was revolutionary.

DANIEL: This was 1927, so the planters needed this labor, and they didn't want anybody to interfere with their labor. And if you've tried to revise the sharecropping system, you were messing with their labor.

MIZELLE: Politics of the era made it such that most people would not agree to that. Most people sort of did not believe that this was a reality. But nonetheless, Hoover floated that idea past Moton.

BARRY: And Moton told the national black political leadership that this was the most important thing to happen to the race since the slaves were freed, and he believed it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (As Robert Moton) I am not at liberty to give you details, but you will hear about it soon. But the Red Cross fund will doubtless be the instrument for doing something in behalf of the Negro more significant than anything which has happened since emancipation.

ABDELFATAH: Hoover was dangling a carrot, and if Moton played along by revising the report, he would be granted a reward beyond his wildest dreams. So Moton played along and watered down the report.


DANIEL: And so the final report is Pablum. Everything's fine.

ABDELFATAH: Some of Moton's most respected colleagues were skeptical of this offer and skeptical of Moton himself.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: (As W. E. B. Du Bois) We have grave suspicions that the Moton committee will be sorely tempted to whitewash the whole situation, to pat Mr. Hoover loudly on the back, and to make no real effort to investigate the desperate and evil conditions of that section of our country. The one fatal thing for them to do and the thing for which the American Negro will never forgive them is spineless surrender to the administration and flattery for the guilty Red Cross - W. E. B. Du Bois.

ARABLOUEI: Despite such strong disapproval, Moton felt there was no way he could pass something up that could be so groundbreaking for his fellow black Americans.

BARRY: You know, this was an implicit quid pro quo, as most of them are. But clearly, Moton had every reason to do anything he could possibly do to see to it that Hoover was nominated and elected. So he made a point not only of whitewashing the report but working as hard as he possibly could to ensure Hoover's nomination.


ARABLOUEI: When we come back, Hoover continues to rise as the waters recede, and his promise is put to the test.

RYAN: Hi, this is Ryan (ph), and I'm in recovery from an L5-S1 spinal fusion surgery I just had a couple hours ago. You are listening to THROUGHLINE by NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - The Betrayal.

ARABLOUEI: Now, to understand what's going to happen next, we have to talk about the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. By the time of the Mississippi flood, the party had presided over unprecedented economic growth, and their rhetoric emphasized personal responsibility and the power of individualistic American capitalism and, most importantly, small government.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As Herbert Hoover) By adherence to the principles of decentralized self-government, ordered liberty, equal opportunity, and freedom to the individual, our American experiment in human welfare has yielded a degree of well-being unparalleled in the world.

ABDELFATAH: Calvin Coolidge decided not to run again in 1928. And in his stead was Herbert Hoover, and he really wanted to be president.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As Herbert Hoover) It is the American system. It is founded upon the conception that only through ordered liberty, freedom and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise spur on the march of progress.

ABDELFATAH: The Hoover campaign pointed to his self-made success, his sense of rugged individualism, and the swift action he took in response to the Mississippi flood. The campaign even produced a film about Hoover called "Master Of Emergencies." The Republicans were now the party of decentralization, of the free market, and Hoover was the consummate symbol for this corporate future. Calvin Coolidge summed up this philosophy in the simplest way possible when he said, the chief business of the American people is business.

ARABLOUEI: And with a powerful candidate like Hoover, the Republicans saw an opening to steal some Democratic voters in the South, which was a big deal because, back then, Democrats were the party behind many racist Jim Crow policies.

ABDELFATAH: And in the lead up to Election Day, right there in the mix supporting Hoover, was Robert Moton.

BARRY: And he did everything he possibly could do to see that Hoover was nominated and elected.

ABDELFATAH: Moton went to black leaders urging them to publicly back Hoover despite their reservations. After all, Moton believed that he'd potentially secured a game-changing promise from Hoover because remember - the whole ending black sharecropping thing...

BARRY: Was not Moton's idea; it was Hoover's idea. Whether it was a, quote, "quid pro quo" or not, Moton very much expected Hoover as president to move forward on that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: (Reading) Herbert Clark Hoover has been elected president of the United States. His electoral vote now stands at 418 and may reach the unprecedented total of 467.

ARABLOUEI: Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election in a landslide.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: (Reading) He has cut into the Solid South for the first time in 50 years, and latest returns indicate he has carried Virginia and North Carolina and probably Florida. Texas is in the balance. These four states have voted Democratic for 50 years. The Republican has swept the Corn Belt as well as every other Midwest state.

ARABLOUEI: But this was not the way Moton viewed Hoover's election. He saw it as a huge opportunity to end sharecropping in the South through Hoover's land resettlement scheme. And what did Hoover do once he got into office?

BARRY: Nothing.


BARRY: It was as if Hoover had never heard of it, even though it was his own idea.

ARABLOUEI: Hoover delayed meeting with Moton over and over, but Moton didn't stop. He continued to try to push Hoover to act. And even though it was clear Hoover wasn't going to do anything...

ABDELFATAH: Moton didn't give up. He came up with another plan. He tried to raise money to enact the policy privately.

BARRY: Moton began making arrangements with major private donors, like the Rockefellers but not exclusively John D. Rockefeller. There were others as well who were very supportive of Tuskegee and African Americans in the South in general.

ABDELFATAH: He even got an agreement from Hoover to show up and speak to the donors privately.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (As Robert Moton) A word from you, with half a dozen gentlemen, in my opinion, would settle the matter in an hour so far as the financial end of it is concerned.

BARRY: He tried to arrange meetings and had them all set up, and all he was hoping for was for Hoover to show up at the meeting and give the most bland endorsement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (As Robert Moton) You will, I know, forgive me for this seeming persistence in the matter, but if you could make the trip to New York, as you had one time suggested, it would assure success at the start.

BARRY: And Hoover did nothing, kind of reminiscent of Coolidge's refusal to do anything during the flood.

MIZELLE: Moton, as you can imagine, was disappointed, understanding that this was probably not likely in an oppressive era of the Jim Crow South.


ARABLOUEI: The deal Moton thought he had was an illusion, and that leaves us with the obvious question. Why? Why would Hoover so easily turn his back on his own idea?

BARRY: Well, we don't know why he dropped it, you know. There's no smoking gun. There's no written record. It could be that he just was using Moton. It could be that Hoover's landslide election opened up other possibilities, and that was a white Republican Party in the South that might begin to rival the Democrats, and doing something for the African American community would have killed those efforts. Could be that Hoover, after all, just decided it was a bad idea and wouldn't work. We don't really know why. We can only speculate.

ARABLOUEI: Regardless of his motivations, one thing is clear - Hoover's broken promise and inaction as president cooled his relationship with Moton and many in the black political elite.

BARRY: This betrayal, it really snapped the emotional connection between the national African American political leadership and the Republican Party, certainly between them and Hoover.

ARABLOUEI: The Chicago Defender, a major black newspaper, wrote this in 1928.

(Reading) Strange as it may seem, the Democrats are more favorable to the political and social aspirations of the black man than other Republicans.

ABDELFATAH: And by 1932, when Hoover ran against the Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, Moton and many other black leaders didn't come out and publicly endorse Hoover.

BARRY: Which was almost inconceivable given the connections between African Americans and the Republican Party ever since Lincoln. You know, I'm not saying that Hoover's betrayal shifted black voters to the Democratic Party because the average African American voter was unaware of the deal, but it did create certain openings.

ABDELFATAH: Openings that the Democratic Party stepped into. But we don't want to oversimplify too much here. African Americans shifting to the Democratic Party was a long and complicated process that deserves its own episode of the show. But according to John Barry, Hoover's broken promise...

BARRY: It was certainly a starting point.


ARABLOUEI: While all of the politics were playing out at the national level, back along the Mississippi, some people were going back home - or what remained of their homes.

DANIEL: The camps operated till the people could go back home. In some cases, it was weeks; in some cases, months. And what they went back to was, usually, if the house was intact, it stunk. All the river things had passed through it - snakes. Sometimes people found snakes, frogs, whatever, still in the houses. The walls were pretty much destroyed. And it was almost impossible to get the smell out. And then people would go back and their house wouldn't be there anymore.

MIZELLE: Many people described an eeriness to the Mississippi Delta, you know. And so places like Greenville and Cleveland sort of took on this aura of death that lasted for quite a while.

ABDELFATAH: And you can see it in the photos. They're like scenes from war - streets filled with debris, buildings empty, families picking up the pieces of the places they once called home. But as much as things had changed, in a way everything was the same.

MIZELLE: Much of the landscape would come to resemble, you know, pre-1927, in the sense of, you know, sharecroppers were reinscribed to their debt. The racial system was not washed away in the flood, as some people argued and hoped for. It was, in many ways, a status quo in terms of, you know, how African Americans were treated.

ABDELFATAH: Sharecropping continued in the South for decades. The flood had dislodged thousands of people but left the racist system that ruled over them in place.


ARABLOUEI: One witness to the flood named Lucy Summerville called it a great mountain of water that brought death and destruction. Those words, that description is as old as humanity itself. Over and over, throughout our history, our lives have been upended and uprooted by the indifference of nature. This is why the flood myth plays an integral role in our ancient and holy stories. It is a fear that we constantly live with.

MIZELLE: The '27 flood was really the first time we began to really think about, what does it mean to be in this particular space that's vulnerable? What does it mean to be in this particular space where you are vulnerable as a citizen? And what do people try to do after a disaster to better their situation? And I think that's one of the lasting legacies of the 1927 flood.

ABDELFATAH: But what happened in 1927 isn't just an inevitable stop along the path of natural destruction; it's what happened after the levees broke that reminds us how much our response to crises, as individuals and as a society flawed with prejudice and injustice, exacerbates their already tragic impacts.

ARABLOUEI: Today, our country is still shaped in sometimes imperceptible ways by the suffering and broken promises of that terrible year. If we are to draw any lessons from the enormous tragedy, it's that doing nothing will never be enough.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: The episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...






ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Special thanks to Diane Mack.

ARABLOUEI: Alon Shapiro.

ABDELFATAH: Jason Fuller.

ARABLOUEI: Alex Curley.

ABDELFATAH: Steve Tyson.



ARABLOUEI: Avi Wolfman-Arent.


ARABLOUEI: Kia Miakka Natisse.

ABDELFATAH: And Nikolai Hammar for their voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Cara Tallo and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, which includes...

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ABDELFATAH: If you have an idea or like something on the show, please write us at or find us on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.