Great flood of '27: Tupelo man recalls childhood disaster in Delta

TUPELO – The plantation’s owner said the levee would hold. He didn’t want his sharecroppers leaving the land.
“Landowners knew if the people left, they wouldn’t come back,” said 95-year-old Billy Grant. “They’d just go someplace else to work and live.”
These days, Grant lives in Tupelo. Recent news reports about the swollen banks of the Mississippi River have been on his mind.
In 1927, he was an 11-year-old boy living in the Delta, between Rosedale and Gunnison, where his family worked someone else’s land for a share of the crop.
He remembers wells along the levee that usually required people to work a metal lever to pump water to the surface. That wasn’t the case in the days before the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
“Water would run from those pumps without any pumping,” Grant said. “The water was so high. The weight, you know.”
The official word at the time from the Army Corps of Engineers was the same as from the plantation owners: The levee will hold.
Some saw through that mistake before history washed over it.
“The engineers, they were walking the levee all the time, telling the folks, ‘There ain’t no way the levee can hold his,’” Grant recalled. “You could see the water lapping over the levee.”
Grant’s father, Valley Grant, sent his wife and son to Furrs. Their car broke down on the way. Grant said it took four to five hours to get the vehicle’s back end fixed, then they drove all night to reach a relative’s house.
“The next morning is when it broke, or the day after,” he said. “It’s hard to remember exactly.”
The Grant family’s shotgun shack was on a hill. The water reached it, but most of their possessions were spared.
Valley Grant and Buster, an African-American who lived with the family, stayed behind to watch after things.
“They helped pick folks up who were stranded,” Grant said. “He told me one time they went up to an attic of an old house. There was an old black man up there.
“(Valley Grant) said, ‘Come on up in the boat, and we’ll take you out.’
“He said, ‘Can I bring my chickens?’
“They said, ‘No, you can’t bring your chickens.’
“So he stayed with his chickens. Don’t know what happened to him.”
According to reports in National Geographic, a crevasse half a mile wide formed in the levee just upriver from Greenville. In 10 days, water covered 1 million acres.
President Calvin Coolidge did nothing. The Red Cross responded, but there was no federal declaration of disaster.
“Back then, they didn’t make no big to-do, like they do now,” Grant said. “People did for themselves.”
He said there’s no way that 2011 will be a repeat of what happened in 1927.
Levees could still fail. But if they do, the water will have to reach higher than it did then.
One of Grant’s many jobs over the years was working on the levee along the Delta.
“It’s 4 to 6 to 8 feet higher now,” he said with a smile. “I helped build it there.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.

M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal