Equality, Hoover’s Idea for Land Reform, and the Flood of 1927

Flooding at Guion (Izard County); 1927. Image from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

Flooding at Guion (Izard County); 1927. Image from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

As part of a continuing partnership with the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, this week’s column is a follow up to a recent piece on one of the state’s worst natural disasters, the Flood of 1927. The flood resulted in hundreds of deaths, destroyed crops, and left around 750,000 southerners without food, water, clothing, or a way to generate an income. Regional aid was sent to Arkansas, but many large landowners restricted food rations from the tenant farmers and sharecroppers who needed it the most. The aftermath of the flood created a large shift in Arkansas’s political climate and led many African American sharecroppers to leave the south in search of work and safety in cities like Chicago and Detroit.

During the flood, Herbert Hoover was the Secretary of Commerce under president Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge did not direct any federal aid to the flood victims, instead appointing Hoover to oversee both local and voluntary relief programs. Hoover is quoted as saying, “the disaster felt by Arkansas farmers, planters, and residents of river lowlands was of epic proportions.”  The flood made the already existing divide between rich landowners and poor farm workers increasingly obvious and called national attention to the way African Americans and poor whites were treated in the plantation-based agricultural economy.

Hoover acknowledged this deep divide in wealth and proposed a plan to help poor southerners get on their feet. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Nancy Hendricks states, “Hoover saw the opportunity for land reform to change the plantation system which had been in place since Reconstruction. With some large planters bankrupted by the flood, leaving huge tracks of land without effective ownership, Hoover proposed the idea of dividing the land into smaller holdings and building true ownership for both black and white tenants and sharecroppers.”

Hoover reached out to Harvey Couch, the man who helped bring electricity to Arkansas and who, at the time, was the flood relief director in the state. Hoover suggested putting aside one to two million in flood relief funds to help create resettlement plans. In a radical move for the time period, the proposal included ensuring African American representation in the creation of these plans. It appears the plan did not receive any vocal support from the local or state governments who were in charge of relief efforts and therefore did not move beyond the idea stage. It was around this same time that struggling farms were quickly bought up by corporate ownership. A severe drought would take place a few years later, which would complicate things even more.

You can read more about the Flood of 1927 in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture here.  upcoming columns you can read more about Harvey Couch, the flood relief director in the state and the droughts that came in the 1930s. Do you recall the flood and its aftermath? Did you know of Hoover’s plan to help poor southerners acquire land and economic independence? If so, how did you feel about his ideas at the time? I’d love to hear your stories. Thanks so much for reading.

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.