High Waters and Social Change: The Flood of 1927

Lake Village in Chicot County during Flood of 1927. Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. More images from the flood available at www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net

Lake Village in Chicot County during Flood of 1927. Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. More images from the flood available at www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net

This week’s Seed and the Story column is part of an ongoing partnership with the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.  Be sure and check out this great online resource here. 

Flash floods have wrecked havoc on the state in recent weeks, causing damage to roads and bridges and, in a few cases, leading to casualties.  Floods have long been a problem for the state, especially the infamous flood of 1927 during which floodwaters reached up to thirty feet throughout the state. According to historians, that spring rains were particularity heavy. In April when a record seven inches fell in just a few hours the water ran out of places to go. The Mississippi River backed up into the Arkansas, White, and St. Francis Rivers. It’s reported that the White River even ran backwards for a short while.

The flood affected thirty six out of seventy-five Arkansas counties and covered around 6,600 square miles of land. According to Dr. Diane Gleason’s research in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, the flood was especially destructive to Dardanelle where the river crested at thirty-three feet. Three anchorage towers from the pontoon bridge were swept away by the flood; the town lost both power and phone service and the whole city was surrounded by water. Sharecroppers and farmers from the outlying communities flocked to the town looking for dry land and food.

“The Flood if 1927,” writes Nancy Hendricks in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, had its origins both in nature and man.” Levees had been created to hold back the rivers that had previously overrun their banks. This drainage opened up lands that were once covered with forests but had been converted to farmland in the aftermath of the timber industry. This left the land particularity susceptible to runoff and flooding. Combined with early snowmelts in Canada, this made for a dangerous situation for all states in the Mississippi River Valley. But Arkansas, historians agree, was hit the hardest.  The waters took months to recede and dead animals rotted in the pools of water. Farmers lost their early crops to the flood and weren’t able to do a second planting because of the high waters.

The Flood of 1927 is best remembered for the shift it created in public opinion regarding the role of state and national government aid during natural disasters. Around 750,000 people in the Mississippi River Valley were without shelter or food. Emergency workers flocked to the area but often clashed with local landowners in sharecropping communities where many landowners refuged to allow direct aid to their plantation workers, thus exposing the injustice of the sharecropping system. Many African Americans, writes Hendricks, “were forced at gunpoint by law enforcement officials to survive the levees indefinitely in makeshift tents as water rose around them while would-be rescue boats were left empty.”

Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, played a large role in flood relief operations, which helped set him up for his later presidential win. The flood also created a shift in political alliance for many southerners, especially among African Americans who began to move away from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

Stay tuned for upcoming columns to read more about the political shift, Hoover’s plan for land reform, the role Harvey Couch— flood relief director in Arkansas—played in the relief efforts, and the migration of sharecroppers to the north. You can read more about the Flood of 1927 in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture at www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net.

Have you heard stories of the flood from family members? I’d love to hear about it. Go here to see previous columns written in partnership with the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. 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.