The American Historian

Making Race Visible in the Disaster Archive

Richard M. Mizelle Jr.

The 1927 Mississippi River flood remains one of the most significant disasters in history. Flooding uprooted the lives of thousands of people in the Mississippi Valley region and resulted in billions of dollars of economic and property loss. The 1927 flood was also a window into racial inequality and the ways in which the suffering of black people during the disaster was exacerbated by racism that prevented them from moving freely after the disaster and accessing the federal government through forms of charity in the same way other groups of people could. Yet African Americans also experienced additional suffering well after the flood waters receded in the form of archival absences brought about by the deliberate silencing of their voices and stories. Making visible the stories and experiences of African American and other non-white survivors of environmental disasters has been a significant part of my historical research. My work also confronts the archive for these absences and the difficulties historians encounter attempting to write about race and disasters. This essay highlights the evolution of my thinking regarding disasters and archives, including a family story that in many ways set the stage for my interest in disasters.

Much of what I write and teach, in hindsight, is spurred along by my own family stories and history. There is one story that is foundational to my scholarship and continues to inform how I conceptualize the past. Growing up I always heard of how my maternal Grandmother, Dorothy Brown, survived the great Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus fire of 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut. To this day it remains the worst circus fire in American history.[1] Not long after the lions finished performing on the afternoon of July 6, the several thousand spectators enjoying the circus under the big rooftop tent noticed flames streaking up its side walls and on to the roof. Survivors later recalled that people initially remained calm, but erupted into absolute chaos when the smoke appeared. As the band continued to play spectators jumped from the bleachers and trampled over each other in search of exits. Within a matter of minutes the top of the tent came burning down on spectators. Hundreds of people were injured and the death toll was placed at around 167, but most who have written about this disaster suggest that, when taking into consideration the individual body parts found on the scene, people who might have died from complications of smoke inhalation or burns not officially recorded, and the poor transient population that often frequented these types of events that no one would have claimed, this number is far too low. I would also add that black and non-white victims might have been under-recorded or flat out ignored in the official death toll. The death toll for disasters is an important archive and the official absenting of African Americans from these records is a form of structural violence upon bodies.

Unfortunately, I never asked my grandmother questions about surviving the fire before she passed. Though we can never know if a person wants to talk about an experience like this, I should have gotten a tape-recorder and tried. Maybe she would have loved to talk about this to her grandson who was interested in history. Far too often we do not ask these questions, and, coupled with the fact that past archives were uninterested in documenting these voices for historians and the public, the result is that many of these voices are being lost, making it difficult for historians who write about disasters to find first-hand African American voices in traditional archives.

The story that my mother remembered and passed down to me about that day is telling about race, disasters, and the limitations of the disaster archive, particularly the opportunities that are lost when these voices are not recorded. My grandmother was caring for the young child of a white family in Florida when she accompanied them to Hartford in 1944. Apparently she took the child to the circus alone and was sitting in the bleachers when the fire broke out. Instead of heading for one of the exits, my grandmother opted to dig underneath the tent and, in the process of saving herself, also saved the life of the young child. There are so many questions I would love to ask her about that day: What were you doing when the fire first broke out? What were other people doing? Were other African Americans attending the circus? Were you sitting in a segregated section, or did the fact that you were caring for a white child give you access to other sections? Did anybody help you escape, and if so, how? Were you physically injured that afternoon? What happened after you escaped the flames? Did anybody tend to you? How long did you stay in contact with the family whose child you saved? Did you suffer any lasting psychological trauma from the disaster? I would have so many more questions, though it is certainly difficult to ask these questions of survivors, even family members, who have dealt with such traumatic events. Thinking about these questions led to my own historical interest in showing what these traumatic moments might reveal about American society during the 1927 Mississippi flood, and the ways in which the silences that envelope powerless victims of disasters follow them into the historical archive.

The 1927 Mississippi River flood remains one of the most commemorated disasters in American history. Few other disasters evoked as widespread a political, social, and cultural response. flood led to the massive 1928 Flood Control Act, which significantly altered flood control policy in the United States, and influenced presidential elections. At the same time, blues musicians and novelists like Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, and Richard Wright highlighted the intricacies of black experiences during the disaster. Ordinary citizens throughout the country responded to the disaster in a number of ways, including sending money for relief and writing letters to newspapers to express outrage at the treatment of flood survivors. When researching disasters from the early twentieth century, newspaper coverage (though sensational at times) remains an important window into understanding events and how they were framed for a broader public.

The 1927 Mississippi River flood occurred when excessive amounts of rain in the Mississippi Valley, beginning in the fall of 1926 and did not end until the late spring of 1927. The damage was staggering, as levees buckled up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries, releasing flood waters over roughly 1,100 square miles of landscape in the seven states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Illinois, and Louisiana. Importantly, the disaster revealed racial tensions and anxieties deep within the Mississippi Delta region around questions of citizenship and mobility. Red Cross relief camps were set up in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana that served as both a source of charity and institutional control over black flood sufferers.[2] Black flood survivors were held hostage in these camps for upwards of four months as planters and politicians in the Mississippi Delta region feared the loss of labor.

The writings and correspondence of white planters and politicians in the Delta region clearly revealed their anxieties over African Americans using the flood as an opportunity to migrate out of the flooded region. The 1927 flood occurred in the midst of the Great Migration, a moment when black southerners were already leaving for Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and other cities. Not everyone went to cities, as some migrants left the rural South for the not-so-rural South, going from Virginia farmlands to the industrial center of Norfolk, and from rural Louisiana and Texas to Houston (an important route I was able to track those links the 1927 flood to the Great Migration).[3] When taking into account the broader history of the Great Migration, common sense suggests that migration from the Delta region to Chicago must have also occurred during the 1927 flood. Using the 1927 flood as a window into this larger migration is part of why I am drawn to this disaster. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I became interested in questions displacement as well, particularly regarding how disruptions in a society can influence perceptions of home and place, and feelings of familiarity and belonging. More people stayed than left the Delta region after the flood. Displacement is not always about moving to another place. It can also be about how the world around you changes after an environmental disaster.[4]

White landowners were clearly less concerned about feelings of displacement than with preventing African American sharecroppers from fleeing the region and breaking those unscrupulous contracts that kept them tied mercilessly to the land. They also depended on the labor of African Americans for building and maintaining levees, constructing railroads, working at logging and turpentine camps, and domestic servitude. Historian Talitha L. LeFlouria shows the ways in which the convict-lease system of the early twentieth century was employed in southern states to create financial incentives for the incarceration and criminalization of black men and women, squeezing their ability to move freely across the landscape.[5] It was not simply that white planters prevented the free movement of black flood survivors. African Americans were treated like criminals for no other reason than for being black. Guns pointed, movement restricted, hungry, wet, and forced to work on levees when exhausted: this was, in essence, the convict-lease system shaped by an environmental disaster. One of the ways they attempted to control the movement of African American flood survivors was with the disciplining tool of hunger. Access to food was scarce after the disaster, and fear of debilitating nutritional diseases like pellagra was high. As a result, local white planters restricted access to donated food and resources for African Americans as a way of keeping them in place.

When writing about the 1927, talking explicitly about the absences within the traditional archive serves not simply as a way to justify the sources I employ—blues music and historical fiction are certainly able to stand on their own—but as a way to explain what African Americans during that particular disaster endured.[6] The fact that black survivors could not talk freely or move openly in the aftermath of the 1927 flood was a matter of structural violence then, and continues to be violent today in the ways that historians must piece together into narratives using fragmented source materials. Instead of ignoring the obvious absences within the official record, I made the traditional archive an important part of the disaster narrative by asking why black survivors of the 1927 flood remain so invisible.

There is no body of letters or published (or unpublished) manuscripts of black flood survivors. The violence and surveillance they experienced during the disaster made this difficult and for much of the twentieth century archives were uninterested in cataloguing such narratives. Oral history could have been an important intervention if repositories were interested in recording the stories of black survivors at a time when their memories of the disaster were fresh, but, unfortunately, most were not. As a result, we lack evidentiary first-hand narratives of what black people experienced during the 1927 flood, which the historical record now clearly shows was quite different from the experiences of whites and other groups of people in the Delta. How did they survive the flood? Did they stay inside Red Cross relief camps, and, if so, what were their experiences? What did the food taste like inside these camps? How did they deal with loss if a family member or friend died during the disaster? What feelings of anger did they have or display when dealing with whites or other flood survivors, or if forced into peonage without compensation?

In her book on enslaved women in eighteenth-century Barbados, historian Marisa J. Fuentes defines the concept of “fugitive knowledge” where those enslaved experienced violence during slavery and the historical archive. The absence of enslaved voices in the archive is a form of structural and systematic violence directed once again upon the bodies of those long dead.[7] The theory of “fugitive knowledge” can be applied to the 1927 flood as well. The ways in which the voices and experiences of African Americans during the flood were documented are representative of the ways that suffering during other disasters can make its way into the historical archive.[8] All historians come face to face with dead-ends, absences, fragments, incompletes, utterances that could mean this or that, and silences in the record that blare like loudspeakers when sitting in a dusty archive. In many ways, this is the fun part: following a trail of information and knowledge to reconstruct the past and make readable that which is content to stay hidden. Yet there are moments in which we must confront the archive for what it is, an ideological and social construction that re-inscribes suffering through silences in the record.

These absences can nonetheless make it difficult for disaster historians to write about social history and spectacle. People are oddly fascinated with disasters. Yet, as historian Ted Steinberg wrote many years ago, there is clearly an “unnatural” history of natural disasters that becomes evident through the groups of people suffer the most.[9] Disaster historians are often interested not just showing the carnage and disruptive nature of disasters, but also in the evidentiary knowledge of those who survive. When documenting disasters we want to know, say, what kinds of unusual smells the 1871 Great Chicago Fire unleashed. We want to know what a people were doing when the world began to shake during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The smell of floodwaters and sound of water breaking floodwalls or levees during the 1900 Great Galveston Storm or 1935 Labor Day hurricane are powerful because such descriptions disclose relationships of power along with interactions with the local, state, and the federal government. In other words, these voices are important for developing an understanding the political, social, and cultural history of disasters in particular spaces and moments in time.

Increasingly, historians are thinking about what disasters can tell us about the historical past and the relationships of power between individuals, groups of people, and institutions. Since the late 1970s, monographs and articles on environmental disasters including the Johnstown floods, Buffalo Creek Disaster, 1927 Mississippi River flood, 1871 Great Chicago Fire, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and 1995 Chicago heat wave among others have become made important contributions to United States social, cultural, and environmental history.[10] At the same time, scholars began thinking much more about the role of the federal government in disaster relief and mitigation. One driving question of this research is this: When did the federal government open the doors of the federal bureaucracy to help citizens in need?[11] By the 1990s, scholarly interest in disasters occurred at a time in which environmental history was maturing as a field. Environmental history reified the broader themes of historical inquiry, including questions of race, class, and gender in the construction of knowledge around people’s interactions with the environmental world. Such questions reflected thinking about how individuals and groups of people influenced and were influenced by the environmental world, and how people manipulated and interpreted environmental landscapes for clues to their own desires and well-being.[12]

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, scholars and institutions took it upon themselves to record the stories of survivors, in the process creating rich archives for the public and historians to consider. The same seems to be true in the aftermath of the recent spate of storms during the fall of 2017. In some cases, professors make assignments where students learn about and conduct oral interviews in the community, in the process providing invaluable classroom skills while simultaneously creating a body of knowledge. Public history programs and centers have also taken up the mantle by creating local history projects centered around the survivors of disasters that have impacted the local environment. The result is that, collectively, we have all begun to think more critically about the absences in the historical archive, and about finding ways to address these silences.


[1]Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy  (2000). Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymaker Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman (1995). Karen Sawislak, Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Chicago Fire, 1871-1874 (1995).

[2]Pete Daniel, Deep’n as It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood (1977); John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America (1997); Richard M. Mizelle Jr., Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination (2014).

[3]Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia (1991); Bernadette Pruitt, The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900–1941 (2013).

[4]John R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989).

[5]Talitha L. LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (2015).

6]Mizelle Jr., Backwater Blues.

[7]Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016).

[8]Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2000).


[10]Kai T. Erickson, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (1976); David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America Has Ever Known (1987); Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (2002).

[11]Karen M. O’Neill, Rivers by Design: State Power and the Origins of U.S. Flood Control (2006).

[12]Conevery Bolton Valenčius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (2002).