Historical records matching LeRoy Percy, U.S. Senator
About LeRoy Percy, U.S. Senator
LeRoy Percy (November 9, 1860 – December 24, 1929) was a wealthy planter from Greenville, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta. He attended the University of Virginia, where he was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. He served as United States Senator from Mississippi from 1910 to 1913. As a progressive leader, in 1922 he came to national notice by confronting Ku Klux Klan organizers in Greenville and uniting local people against them.
During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, he directed the work of thousands of black laborers on the levees near Greenville, and prevented them from being evacuated when the levee was breached. They were forced to work without pay to unload Red Cross relief supplies, which required the work of volunteers. He was criticized later for these actions, as well as having to defend himself against allegations of peonage at one of his plantations.
Percy became an attorney in Greenville, Mississippi. Some clients paid in horses, others in land, and Percy acquired a total of 20,000 acres. His plantation, called Trail Lake, was worked by black sharecroppers. Percy gave them a better share than many planters, set up schools on the property, allowed them to buy land, and made other changes to build a community.
Marriage and family
Soon after starting his law practice, Percy married Camille, a French Catholic woman. They had a son, William Alexander Percy, born in 1885.
William became a lawyer and poet, serving with distinction in World War I. He is best known for his memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. William Percy took in and adopted his cousin's three sons when they were orphaned as boys (after their father's suicide and mother's death in an auto accident). They included Walker Percy, who became a notable novelist, winning the National Book Award for his first book, The Moviegoer.
United States Senate
Following the vacancy of the seat held by Senator James Gordon, the Mississippi legislature convened to fill it. A plurality of legislators at the time backed the white supremacist James K. Vardaman, but the fractured remainder sought to thwart his extreme racial policies. A majority united behind Percy to block Vardaman's appointment. In 1910 Percy became the last senator chosen by the Mississippi legislature, prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandating popular election of senators.
Percy held office until 1913. In 1912 he was challenged in the Democratic Primary under the new direct elections system by the populist Vardaman, whose campaign Theodore Bilbo managed, stressing class tensions and racial segregation. The tactic resulted in defeat for Percy, who was attacked as a representative of the aristocracy and for taking a progressive stance on race relations; advocating education for blacks; and working to improve race relations by appealing to the planters’ sense of noblesse oblige.
Percy retired from politics to run his model plantation at Trail Lake, and to practice law for railroads and banks. British investors hired him to manage the largest cotton plantation in the country, for which he received 10% of the profits.
Condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan
In 1922 Percy rose to national prominence for confronting the Ku Klux Klan when it attempted to organize members in Washington County during the years of its revival in the South and growth in the Midwest. On March 1, 1922 the Klan attempted to hold a recruiting session at the Greenville courthouse. Percy arrived during a speech by the Klan leader Joseph Camp, who was attacking blacks, Jews, and Catholics. After Camp finished, Percy approached the podium and proceeded to dismantle Camp's speech to thunderous applause, concluding with the plea, "Friends, let this Klan go somewhere else where it will not do the harm that it will in this community. Let them sow dissension in some community less united than is ours."
After Percy stepped down, an ally of his in the audience rose to put forth a resolution, secretly written by Percy, condemning the Klan. The resolution passed, and Camp ceased his efforts to establish the Klan in Washington County. Percy's speech and victory drew praise from newspapers around the nation.
Involvement in the 1927 Flood
During the Mississippi Flood of 1927, Delta residents began frantic efforts to protect their towns and lands, using black workers to raise the levees by stacking sand bags on the top of the established levee walls. Charles Williams, an employee of Percy's on one of the largest cotton plantations in the Delta, set up camps on the levee protecting Greenville. He supplied the camps with field kitchens and tents, as a place for thousands of plantation workers - all African Americans - to live while the men worked on the levee.
When the river broke through the levees on April 21, 1927, it flooded Greenville and millions of acres of land throughout the Delta. Senator Percy appointed his son William Alexander Percy (a World War I hero and a noted poet) to direct the Red Cross relief efforts for the blacks isolated on the intact levee. William Percy's first impulse was to evacuate the workers by steamboats to higher ground upriver. The planters protested to the senator, persuading him to direct his son to leave the blacks on the levee. The planters feared that if the blacks left the Delta, they would never return. Cotton, the commodity crop, required their intensive labor.
On the levee, the blacks filled and stacked sandbags, for which Percy set a pay scale of 75 cents per day. Others were put to unloading and distributing Red Cross food parcels, which were starting to come to Greenville by barge to feed the 180,000 displaced people and thousands of animals.
Percy ordered all Greenville blacks to the levee. The camp stretched seven miles. Percy ordered all the Red Cross work to be done for free; as this was needed to comply with Red Cross requirements that boats be unloaded with volunteer labor. There were too few tents, not enough food, and no eating utensils or mess hall for the blacks. Black men were not allowed to leave--those who tried were driven back at gunpoint by the National Guard. The food they received was inferior to that reserved by the whites. Canned peaches came in, but were not distributed to blacks for fear it would "spoil them". Whites kept the better Red Cross food for themselves. Giving it to the blacks, one white man explained, "would simply teach them a lot of expensive habits".
Soon after the flood emergency months, the blacks started leaving the Delta. With their homes and crops destroyed, the sharecroppers saw little reason to stay. Within a year, 50% of the blacks in the Delta had left as part of the Great Migration to northern industrial cities.
Leroy Percy State Park, a state park in Mississippi, is named after him.