The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard (1928)

The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard (1928)

There were four refugee camps at Vicksburg: Camp Hayes, Camp Juarez, Camp Louisiana and Camp Fort Hill. The lovely hills of the National Park, where once the Confederate and Union armies were camped, made an ideal location high above the muddy River and the little town of Vicksburg.

In Camp Hayes a spreading magnolia tree opened its waxy blossoms over the Red Cross Headquarters tent, on the top of the hill. On either side in regular rows stretched the brown tents sheltering twelve hundred white refugees: one family to a tent; a cot to each member of the family; and as many blankets as necessary. While among them were a few owners and occasional small merchants or mechanics, the majority of these refugees were tenant-farmers or share-croppers on large plantations, in a state of perpetual indebtedness to the planter. Being white they had recourse to law to defend themselves and were accorded a certain consideration and respect. Economically they were little or no better off than the Negroes on the same plantations, which increased their race hatred, as well as their resentment toward the planters. “They treat us like niggers,” they remarked bitterly, indicating the lowest inhumanity. Many of them were sturdy, hard working citizens, struggling to get ahead enough to buy their few acres. Those who were already owners were burdened by heavy mortgages. Among them were some who were known in their local communities as desperadoes, bragging of the number of murders they had committed. “I killed five before breakfast once,” one of these drawled. “Didn’t hurt my appetite none.” Yes, he was acquitted — the jury valued their own lives.

Side by side with these were the tents of pious members of the Church of Christ, who held religious meetings in a tent on the hill every afternoon and evening for nearly three months. These added much to the enjoyment of these refugees. “I love this place,” one of them said; “it’s just like a camp-meeting.”

About two miles from Camp Hayes on another hill in the same great park, was the colored camp Louisiana, six thousand strong, several families to a tent, cots only for the aged and ill, but as many brown army blankets as needed. Camp Juarez, where four hundred Mexicans found safety, was located at the foot of a hill, just below the National Cemetery, in a convenient rustic pavilion, large enough for the whole camp. Camp Fort Hill numbered at least six thousand colored refugees, and commanded on one side a view of the River, with tree tops rising from it at intervals, on the other the roofs of the town. In this camp eight or nine families to a tent were common and cots were few.

The most impressive thing about these camps was the incredible melancholy of the colored refugees. There was no laughter, no music, no Negro light-heartedness. They sat in silent apathy, or talked in low tones. They had come from scenes of horror, many of them, greater than any white refugees knew, as the helplessness of the Negro in Mississippi exceeds anything known to whites. One woman stood all night waist-deep in rising water. A few rods away, but out of sight, her husband screamed for help. He could not be reached. After a while his screams stopped. In the morning there was no sign of him. Two young girls went to the Red Cross tent day after day to ask for news of their brother who had been taken to work on the levee at Greenville. At last the news came: he had been found drowned near the levee. The girls turned without a word and went in silence to their own tent, tears streaming down their faces. There was no sound of mourning, no lamentation in the camp. The calamity of all was too great for that easy expression.


The refugee camps were maintained by the American National Red Cross. That is, the Red Cross furnished the supplies, paid the bills and decided all matters of policy. The Red Cross nurses and doctors held a daily clinic. One or two Red Cross workers stationed in each camp attended to such matters as registering refugees, issuing passes to leave camp, giving out clothing, blankets, etc., and arranging transportation for refugees leaving to return home. The last item was the most difficult, especially in the colored camps. In the white camps transportation on the river boats was issued io individual refugees at their request. All that was necessary was for the refugee to establish the fact that he had a place to live—that his house was out of the water or that friends or relatives on dry land would take him in. Passes were even issued frequently to men with families to go to their homes in order to find out what conditions were and get their places in order before returning to camp and taking their families back with them. Sometimes they found conditions so hopeless that they returned to camp immediately and waited a few weeks then went back on another scouting trip. But whereas the transportation issued to white refugees, whether owners or sharecroppers, was on an individual basis, with the Negroes the situation was quite different. A very large proportion of the colored refugees were from the big cotton plantations of Washington County, one hundred and fifty miles and more from single plantations. In this case the planter sent or brought in a list of the names of “his niggers” and transportation for them was given to him. These Negroes were given no choice in the matter. When the planter came to take them home with them, home they went. The only way to avoid this was by slipping out of camp at night and taking refuge with colored people in Vicksburg. This they frequently did, as is shown by the fact that, after the camps were closed, the files showed over 3,000 Negroes “registered but not in camp.” Probably the number of “runaways” was much larger, as many of those actually in camp were never registered and their escape was relatively easy. By far the majority of the Negroes were share-croppers, held in perpetual peonage by the planter. The system is to advance credit at the plantation store, the amount of indebtedness to be subtracted from the amount due the tenant when the crop is in. The crop is never large enough to cancel the indebtedness which increases year by year. By Mississippi law, however, any disaster such as a flood which destroys the crop automatically cancels the indebtedness of the tenant to the landlord, so that the planter has no legal right to hold the tenant. Probably most of the tenants do not know of this fact. The objection they had to returning to the home plantation was made clear when the Red Cross announced that on a definite date in June the colored camp would be evacuated, all refugees to be returned to the plantations from which they came. That night the colored refugees took to the hills like frightened rabbits, and, in spite of the best efforts of the National Guard, many of them got safely away.


It should be understood that the enforced return of refugees to the planters against the will of the former was not according to the official Red Cross policy and, as has been stated, was not done in the case of white refugees. Official instructions definitely stated that no refugee was to be forced to return to a planter. However, transportation was only furnished to their homes—that is, to the place where they were living at the time of the flood. After the planter had sent for “his people” the refugees were notified and told to be ready to go on a definite date. If they protested they were asked what alternative plan they could suggest. Usually they had none, or a vague plan to go to some relatives. This was allowed only if they could show letters from the relatives stating that they were able to receive and care for them for an indefinite period. Needless to say, very few of them could produce such letters. The refugee was next told that the Red Cross would not furnish maintenance for him after it was possible for him to return home. Neither would he be allowed to leave camp without a definite destination approved by the Red Cross. If he still remained in camp, as he well knew, he would be “in bad” with the Red Cross and subject to special abuse by the National Guard. The result was that he ended by expressing his willingness to go with his planter; or else ran away from camp at night.

The Red Cross defense is that they did not create the social conditions in the South and it is not their function to reform them. All they can be expected to do is to relieve temporary suffering due to the disaster and leave the victim in the same position in which he was when the flood came. Anything more than this is not only considered beyond the scope of the organization but is held by most Red Cross workers as definitely bad work, almost amounting to mis-use of funds. Anyone familiar with this work has frequently heard the words, “Why, he is better off than he was before the disaster,” in a tone of horror that indicated more than the words just how reprehensible this was. It does not occur to the average Red Cross worker, apparently, that it is impossible to keep hands off from existing social institutions. They must, whether they wish or not, either strengthen or weaken them. Like many family welfare agencies, their instinctive stand is made with the strong, the powerful, rather than on the side of the weak.

Cooperating with the Red Cross were many agencies, the important one in the camps being the National Guard. Their work was to maintain order and sanitation, to police the camps and supervise the actual labor which, except in Camp Hayes, was done by the refugees. In the white camp the kitchen work and rougher tasks were done by Negroes from Camp Louisiana. They were unpaid with the exception of three men who were given fifty cents a day. The Guardsmen assigned all work to refugees at their own discretion and forced them to do it, by any means they saw fit. They also did sentry duty—no one was allowed to enter or leave camp without a pass. They had, in addition, to load the trucks with conscripted Negro labor which was sent out each morning to local enterprises in need of labor. At first this labor was unpaid but on May tenth an order was issued by General Green requiring all agencies desiring labor details from the refugee camps to submit their request twelve hours before the labor was desired, stating the number of Negroes wanted, the time when they were wanted, the time they would be returned to camp, and the rate of pay. After that date the men were paid from a dollar and a quarter to a dollar and a half a day for a ten hour day. They were rounded up early each morning by the Guardsmen assigned to that task. Only a certificate from the doctor stating that a man was too ill to work excused him. Such a certificate could be obtained by going to the clinic, which was held at ten o’clock each morning, for examination by the physician. By ten o’clock practically all the men in camp had gone to work. Those who were on the night shift were able to attend the clinic by sacrificing their sleep. Only the two colored nurses to whom they went for medicine knew the number of men who went to work each morning with temperatures as high as 104 degrees, or gripped by a malarial chill. At the Refuge Ware House, which employed the largest detail of conscripted labor, they were put at the heaviest Lind of work and were brutally ill-treated. “It ain’t the work,” said one of these refugees, “we’s willing to work. It’s the kickin’ and cursin’ makes it so hard.”


One of the hardest tasks of the Guard was that of getting out the labor detail night and morning. In spite of the fact that those who remained in camp were put at work there, cleaning up, putting up or taking down tents, filling in trenches, etc., and that they were paid for outside work, it was increasingly difficult to get the required number. Force had to be resorted to. As the guardsmen were of course armed with guns and pistols which they showed entire willingness to use it should have been comparatively simple, but on numerous occasions Negroes were taken down the hill and beaten into submission before they could be loaded on the truck and sent to their day’s labor. Reports of these beatings were made to General Green by colored citizens in Vicksburg, resulting in the following order to the Captain in charge at Camp Fort Hill:

Headquarters, Relief Expedition, Mississippi National Guard.
  Office of the Commanding General, Vicksburg, Miss.
  May 23rd, 1927.
  Subject: Whipping of Refugees.
  To: Captain F. L. Wright, 106th Eng., Camp Fort Hill.

  1. Report reaching these Headquarters by Attorney Ewing (col.) and Dr. Penson (col.), as follows: L. R. Ruben, Camp Fort Hill, whipped last week; Sheffield Collins, reported whipped on the 19th of May; 25 men whipped on May 20th. Witnesses, Wess Edwards, Mary Cortney, Gertis Simpson, Yerger Cortney, James Loston.
    Another report, one woman whipped last week, taken to hospital, required seven stitches in her head.

  2. You will make an immediate investigation of the above cases and report in writing to this office the results of your investigation.
      For the Commanding General:
      G.B. Egger, Lieut. Col., 155th Inf., Chief of Staff.

In compliance with this order Captain Wright “investigated” the matter. His report to the General is as follows:

Headquarters, Relief Expedition, Mississippi National Guard.
  Office of the Commanding General, Vicksburg, Miss.
  May 30, 1927.
  Subject: Reported Whipping of Refugees in Camp Fort Hill.
  To : The Commanding General, Vicksburg, Miss.

  1. I have investigated the above matter and find that on Friday morning, May 21st, 1927, it having been previously reported that refugees were leaving camp early in the morning in order to avoid being called on the different details necessary about the camp, the enlisted men in charge of details on this morning sent some men out beyond the guard posts for the purpose of catching any refugees leaving without authority, or a pass. On this particular morning they caught in the neighborhood of 25 negro men slipping out of camp; some of the negroes say that they counted 21 in the bunch. I have interviewed some of these negroes and attach hereto their statements, taken on last Monday. Some of the others I have talked to but at the time they were just leaving on the truck with a detail of laborers and I could not reduce their statements to writing and have them sign them. Each of the negroes, however, made practically the same statement.

  2. It would appear from what the negroes say about the matter, that they were slipping out of camp; some admit for the purpose of avoiding the labor details and the work to be done about the camp, and some offering excuses as to why they were leaving through the bushes at 4:30 A. M. It is my opinion, from what the negroes say, that they were caught slipping out of camp, and were taken under the hill and whipped, the men using a strap taken off of one of the rifles.

  3. It must be admitted, of course, that such measures should not be used by the soldiers, and it is my opinion that no such thing will ever occur again, and that had the men taken the time to consider, it would not have happened on this occasion, but if one is familiar with conditions, and considers for a moment what an undertaking it is for thirty odd soldiers to handle some five thousand people, then the enormity of the crime must be diminished, for under all conditions some means of discipline must be provided. No guns were drawn or held on the negroes, and no force was used to intimidate them, or force them to submit to the whipping. It was administered simply as a means of breaking up the practice of leaving camp without passes, and without any criminal intent.

  4. None of the negroes reported the matter, and each of them state that they desire to prefer no charges, but desire that the matter be dropped.

Statement of John Butler,
Greenville, Miss.
On last Friday morning about 8 o’clock I was going down the Hill to Quarter Boat to get some clothes. I met some soldiers and they caught us and carried us up there and whipped us with a gun strap. I had been on night duty and was relieved when caught.
I have not complained to any person about the affair. I did not have a pass to go out of camp and I was not going by the regular road.  
  The morning after this affair another negro was severely beaten. The refugee was from another camp and protested against being sent to work by officers not in charge of his own camp. The matter being reported an investigation was ordered, which resulted in these statements made by the Captain, the Sergeant who administered the beating and the Negro girl who witnessed the alteration:

Investigation reveals that around 5:22 A. M., May 22, 1927, that the men getting out the morning labor detail found the said negro at a refugee negro girl’s tent in area I. The negro was apparently a Ft. Hill refugee attempting to keep from going out to work. He said to Sergeant Hamlin and to negro girl that he wasn’t going out to work, that he didn’t have to work. He was told to get on the truck. He finally gave so much sass and bray talk before the other laborers that he was taken over in the ravine and given a lashing.

This information was obtained from the negro girl and from Sergeant Hamlin.

W. K. McWilliams, Capt., 106th Engrs.


The use of violence on the part of guardsmen toward Negro refugees was thoroughly established in the early days of the disaster. The work on the Vicksburg levee was entirely the enforced labor of Negro refugees, superintended by armed guardsmen. This was done by order of General Green, the labor to be brought from the colored refugee camps. There were many thousands of refugees in the town of Vicksburg who did not go into the camps. The entire colored population of the town lent their homes to the utmost capacity for the use of refugees, so that the tiniest cabin was filled to over-flowing. As long as these people were able to maintain themselves it was difficult to obtain their free labor. However, a way to do so was found.

A cafeteria was maintained for the purpose of feeding the Negro labor brought from camp. Other refugees were not to be allowed to enter. In practice the soldier in charge allowed the town refugees to enter and be fed, then, as they were about to leave, they were seized and forced to join the labor detail. In at least one instance this practice led to shooting the refugee who objected to being coerced. The official report of this shooting is as follows:

Headquarters, Relief Expedition, Mississippi National Guard.
  Vicksburg, Miss.
  May 3, 1927.
Mayor W. J. Hosley, Vicksburg, Miss.
  Dear Sir: In re: Shooting of Dunbar, a negro flood refugee.

This shooting occurred on May 1st, 1927, near A. & V. freight office. Dunbar was shot in the stomach and arm but has good chances for recovery. He was shot by Private Herbert K. Moore, 122nd Motor Transport Corps. Private Moore reported to Police Headquarters and was released on bond. Dunbar was sent to a hospital immediately after being shot.

Private Moore was forced to shoot Dunbar to save his own life. Dunbar attacked him with a tent pin, struck him a severe blow across the face and attempted to take his pistol, threatening to take Private Moore’s life all the time. Private Moore took only such action as was necessary to protect his own life.

The facts of this affair have been given to Judge W. W. Ramsey, Police Justice, in detail. As soon as it is determined whether Dunbar will recover private Moore will be arraigned before Judge Ramsey on a proper charge so that there may be a judicial determination of his guilt or innocence. Of course, this can not be done until it is certain that Dunbar will recover or until he dies.

Judge Ramsey agrees that Private Moore should be allowed to continue at large under bond already given until time for his trial.

Very respectfully yours,
Captain, J. A. G.

It will be noticed that the only man interviewed in this “investigation” was Private Moore. At the time this report was made, although the Captain does not state this, it was uncertain that Dunbar would recover. In case he did not this left nothing to contradict the self-defense story; while if he did recover no serious charge would be brought.


It is doubtful whether a self-defense plea would have served in the case of Matilda Heslip, a colored woman at Camp Fort Hill, had she shot the soldier who struck her with a stick the exact size of the one with which Dunbar struck the guardsman. Her offense was the unforgivable one of impudence. It happened that a soldier was leaving on the noon train and he told Matilda Heslip to wash and iron his clothes before he went. She objected that it would be impossible to get the garments dried and ironed in that time. The man ordered her to dry them in the kitchen before the stove. Her attempt to do this led to a row with the kitchen forces. The sergeant was sent for to settle the dispute. The testimony follows:

On May 12, about 11 A. M., at Fort Hill, a negro woman named Matilda Heslip was raising a disturbance in the kitchen and the negroes working there could not quiet her. Sergeant McIntyre of “C” 106th Engrs. was sent for by the kitchen force to quiet the fuss. He found upon entering that the woman had washed some clothes and was trying to dry them before the stove. This occurred at the time when it was necessary to have room for the preparation of the noon meal. The woman had been asked to move by the kitchen force but would pay no attention to them. Sergeant McIntyre ordered her to move and she refused. He left to get a cot stick with which to protect himself if it became necessary when the woman ran, leaving the clothes scattered about the kitchen. Sergeant McIntyre ordered her to return and get the clothes. She refused and also advised him that no one could make her do it. Her language was so insulting and impudent that it was necessary to use force in order to preserve discipline among the colored refugees so necessary to a successful handling of these camps. The woman was struck about the arm with a cot stick and she was also hit on the head. It was necessary to take three stitches in her head.

Witnesses: Sgt. McIntyre, Sgt. White, Pvt. Waxon.

Impudence is a sin which cannot be forgiven in a Negro. Sheffield Collins, a young colored boy, was so impudent as to refuse to box to amuse the soldiers. He was also accused of stealing the oranges which were sent for free distribution among the refugees. The soldiers, by the way, helped themselves liberally to the oranges which were donated to the refugees, so that if anyone could be said to “steal” it was surely they rather than the refugee. Here is the statement Sheffield Collins is reported to have made:

Statement of Sheffield Collins,
104 Lake Street, Greenville, Miss.

I, the undersigned, a refugee from Greenville, Miss., on last Friday morning was told to box another Negro boy by one of the soldiers on duty at Fort Hill. I replied that I did not want to box because my Mother had told me not to. This soldier told me that he was going to make me box because I had stolen some oranges. I had two oranges in my pocket that I had gotten out of the basket where they had been thrown away. One of the soldiers then said, “Go and get a case of oranges and make him eat them all,” but Col. Tom Shaw pulled the gloves off of me and carried me down the hill, took my belt off and whipped me with it.
I have had the above statement read to me and it is true and correct.

Sheffield Collins.

Statement of Tom Shaw, Guardsman,
Camp Fort Hill,
May 14, 1927.

I put the gloves on him and asked him if he was going to box and he told me “Hell, no,” and he was not going to box anybody. For two or three days he had been refusing to do anything I asked him to do. He was also very impudent about it, so I took him down under the hill and gave him a whipping, not because he would not box but because he was so impudent and had been so for several days. And also because he had been stealing oranges and I took oranges out of his pockets several times. On this occasion he had two in his pocket, and oranges had already been issued to him before this time. His quota for the day was one orange, and he had eaten it. The two he had then was stolen. I hit him about five licks with his belt and he was not in any way injured. It is necessary to use some such means of punishment in order to keep order and discipline in the camp.

Tom Shaw.

In connection with the oranges contributed for the disaster sufferers is an interesting incident. Captain Moser, then the commanding officer at Camp Louisiana, ordered a truckload of these oranges (which were being distributed free) to be dumped into a ravine and buried. Capt. Moser said they were unfit for consumption. This was denied at the time by a number of enlisted men. Capt. Moser was at the time running the canteen at Camp Louisiana, in the success of which he had a personal interest. He sold oranges in this canteen and the enlisted men gossipped about this coincidence.


Under an officer of this type it cannot be wondered at that abuses ot all kinds flourished. Drunkenness on duty was common. Bootleg whiskey was easily obtainable by the simple expedient of trading for it quantities of Red Cross supplies from the kitchens. Guardsmen were accused of having insulted and attempted assault upon colored women. Upon “investigation” these accusations were reported as having no foundation in fact. The stories continued to be whispered and detailed accounts given. Protests were made by private citizens who had their facts from the conversation of the guardsmen themselves. Nothing was established and no action was taken.

Officers such as Capt. Moser seem to have been the rule. An exception was Lieut. May who was placed in charge at Camp Hayes early in June. The change in camp life after he took charge was so instant and complete that everyone who saw it remarked upon it for weeks afterward. Camp was “cleaned up” in every way. Reasonable rules were enforced. Arbitrary and unnecessary rules were changed or abolished. From a noisy, unsanitary confusion camp Hayes became a clean, quiet and pleasant place. Had such an officer as Lieut. May been in charge of the colored camps it is possible that even there the worst abuses would have been discontinued.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1928. “The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard.” The Crisis. 35(1):5–7, 26, 28.