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Noah, Part Two

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You may remember that Noah's flood was brought on by God's displeasure with the social order of the world, with the way his humans were handling things. I can't say for sure that the same thing was on His mind in the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, but the repercussions of that flood did change forever the way Americans went about their business.

The 1927 Mississippi Flood can't compare with Noah's, of course, but it runs a close second. At the height of the flood, the Mississippi carried three million cubic feet of water per second, three times the million feet per second during the more recent 1993 flood. The water which spilled through crevasses in the levees covered an area this size of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. Several thousand people died in the flood waters and nearly a million were made homeless—permanently. There were few homes left to return to.

As it turned out, nearly all of the flooded land had been owned by white Southerners and farmed by poor black tenant farmers—now slaves to a social system rather than to individual owners.

The flood forced hundreds of thousands of black laborers into refugee camps across the South, funded by the Red Cross but operated by National Guardsmen, whose idea of a refugee camp differed little from a slave labor camp. Guardsmen forced many to work at gunpoint. Several former white plantation owners found new income selling Red Cross relief supplies to the refugees.

For many black families, the treatment in the camps and the fact that they had no homes or possessions to return to, made the flood a turning point. Thousands climbed on trains heading north to Chicago, Detroit, and hundreds of other northern cities hoping to better themselves. This great migration changed forever the urban culture of the north, ended the supply of cheap labor for wealthy southerners, and devastated the Delta economy. As a result, New Orleans lost its place as the center of the South's economy, and was soon eclipsed by Houston and Atlanta.

By the time the 1927 flood had receded after several months, an unhealthy social order developed during Reconstruction had been swept away for good.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.