Devastating floods alter landscapes, ruin lives, and change the course of history. This was true in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889, along the Ohio River in 1937, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016.
These terrible floods bring to mind one of the most destructive floods in U.S. history, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. NMAAHC owns a remarkable set of photographs commissioned by the Illinois Central Railroad documenting the flooding. The railroad ran along the Mississippi River through communities large and small. While the original intent of the photographs was to document the destruction of property, today the photographs are valued more for bearing witness to the flood’s human toll.
The flood started in the summer of 1926 with exceptionally heavy rains in the Mississippi basin but did not peak until April the following year. The waters did not subside until August 1927.
Floods along the Mississippi River and throughout the South were not uncommon as Bessie Smith made heartbreakingly clear in her song Back Water Blues, recorded in March 1927, and inspired by a flood occurring more than a year earlier.
"When it thunders and lightnin’
And the wind begins to blow
There’s thousands of people
Ain’t got no place to go"
BESSIE SMITH Back Water Blues
The lasting impact of the Great Mississippi River Flood, however, places it in its own category. The flood inundated 16 million acres of land, displacing nearly 640,000 people in states from Illinois to Louisiana. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river swelled to 80 miles wide.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 will go down in history as one of America's greatest peacetime disasters.The Final Report of the Colored Advisory Commission Appointed to Cooperate with The American National Red Cross and the President's Committee on Relief Work in the Mississippi Valley Flood Disaster of 1927 The American National Red Cross
The Great Mississippi River Flood disproportionately impacted African Americans, like many other floods in U.S. history. It is estimated that of those who lost their homes, more than half a million were black. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were displaced from their communities and workplaces.
The railroads and plantations affected by the flood feared their laborers, who lost everything when forced from their homes, would never return. In the Delta lowlands, African American families made up 75% of the population and supplied 95% of the agricultural labor force. Many of these laborers were trapped in situations far worse than sharecropping, stuck in a system that bound them perpetually to the plantations.
To keep refugees nearby, the railroads and plantations partnered with the American Red Cross to create a system of refugee camps, steering more than 200,000 African Americans into them. The camps varied in size and also living conditions, ranging from acceptable to deplorable. The Final Report of the Colored Advisory Commission, appointed to cooperate with the American Red Cross and the President’s Committee on Relief Work in the Mississippi Valley Flood Disaster of 1927, noted, "The camps in which we found the most satisfactory conditions were those where the local colored people have had an opportunity to assist in the administration of affairs. The camps which were found to be especially good were: Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Natchez . . . In the camps at Greenville, Sicily Island and Opelousas, the colored people had practically no part in the activities of the colored refugees."
At many camps, including the one at Greenville, Mississippi, National Guard troops prevented refugees from leaving and outsiders from visiting. The Colored Advisory Commission reported that at Greenville, Negro inmates complained whites came and went at will without passes, while colored people were not given similar privileges. There were also complaints of rough treatment of colored people and discrimination regarding labor conditions and the distribution of food. The Guard also unofficially promised to return refugees to their employers after the flood was over. Thousands of African Americans would later leave these refugee camps or bypass them all together to pursue new lives in northern towns and cities, accelerating the Great Migration.
Currently, there are efforts underway in Baton Rouge to help people recover from the latest flood to devastate lives in the American South. But if the past is an indicator, it may be generations before life in these communities’ returns to what it once was.
Written by Laura Coyle, Head of Cataloging and Digitization
Published Sept. 7, 2016; updated Jan. 11, 2019
Stephen Ambrose: “Man vs. Nature: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927”
Footage of 1927 flooding. “Flood Film clip.” PBS.