Many of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who escaped the flood as it spread from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans were left homeless and lived for months in bare-bones refugee camps. The calamity exposed the exploitative practices of many southern landowners: as bad as nature could be, men could be worse. In Greenville, Mississippi, for example, LeRoy Percy, one of the Delta’s “cotton kings,” thwarted efforts to evacuate African-American residents because he was worried about losing his plantation’s labor force. Once the town’s levees were breached, relief rations were distributed on the basis of race, and many black men were held at gunpoint by the National Guard and forced to perform life-threatening repair work on the embankments. Mistreatment of this kind, along with the devastation of the Mississippi Delta sharecropper economy, caused tens of thousands of people to migrate.
Lawrence covers this panel almost entirely in shades of blue and separates sky from water with a thin strip of brown—the shrunken bank of a river so swollen it has submerged the nearby trees. This sliver of dry land suggests a deluge of biblical proportions. Lawrence evokes the series of floods that ravaged several major agricultural regions in the South during the first decades of the twentieth century, especially the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was the most destructive in American history. That spring, after months of heavy rain, the Mississippi River and its tributaries began to break through levees from Illinois to Louisiana; twenty-seven thousand square miles of land were flooded, countless farms and towns were inundated, and as many as one million people, most of them black, were displaced.
Dramatic images of the Great Mississippi Flood were distributed throughout the country in newspapers, newsreels, and picture magazines. These images inspired many songs, including Bessie Smith’s“Empress of the Blues” and one of the biggest musical stars of the 1920s Read more “Homeless Blues,” recorded in 1927:
My ma and pa got drownded, Mississippi you the blame
Mississippi River, I can’t stand to hear your name
Perhaps the most famous blues song about the flood is “When the Levee Breaks,” recorded by husband-and-wife team Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. The narrator sings in a loose ragtime style about what will happen if the levee that protects him is destroyed. This classic record was revived by Led Zeppelin, which released its famous cover version in 1971.
In The Great Flood (2014), filmmaker Bill Morrison combines decaying archival footage of the flood with a soundtrack composed by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to create a haunting portrait of this historic disaster.