A historian’s perspective on the 2011 Missouri spillway flood by Jarod Roll

Cover for ROLL: Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South. Click for larger imageRight now a man-made flood is inundating part of Missouri after the US Army Corps of Engineers ‘activated’ the Bird’s Point-New Madrid Spillway by dynamiting the riverfront levee guarding parts of Mississippi and New Madrid counties in order to reduce the risk of flood elsewhere along the Mississippi River, particularly at the city of Cairo, Illinois.

The last and only time the Corps of Engineers flooded the spillway–January 1937–it displaced thousands of people, most of whom were poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers, about two-thirds of whom were African American. They were among the poorest people in state, even the nation, at the time and were given refuge in camps set up by the American Red Cross and assisted by the federal Resettlement Administration. Rather than glumly accept their fate, however, those who were displaced transformed their experience of loss and hardship into a protest movement that demanded that the federal government help them rebuild by giving them access to decent housing and health care. One of the most remarkable things about this poor people’s movement, born of federal dynamite in the dead of winter, was that it brought together in common cause poor whites and blacks, many of whom had recently been white supremacists or followers of black nationalist Marcus Garvey.

The movement they built, first in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and then the Congress of Industrial Organizations, resulted in the dramatic January 1939 roadside demonstration in southeast Missouri that ultimately forced the federal government to build rural public housing projects, called the Delmo Homes, and start a government-backed universal health service in the area. As unbelievable as it sounds today, that health service was intended to serve as a model for a national health service. Some of the same family homes in the original Delmo projects built by the government in the early 1940s are presently being swept away by the latest flood.

That’s perhaps a fitting coda to the plight of the rural poor in the Missouri cotton country. The 1937 spillway flood also sped up the restructuring of the local agricultural economy away from tenant farming and toward mechanized plantations worked by small numbers of casual wage workers. Some of the people displaced in 1937 never returned to the spillway. By the mid-1940s, most of them had moved on elsewhere and were replaced by tractors, cultivators and mechanical cotton pickers.

Although impossible to predict, the effects of the 2011 flood will probably not be as dramatic as those that followed the inundation of 1937. It would be difficult to imagine renewed protests for federal housing projects, especially in a section of Missouri that once routinely voted Democratic, but is now a Republican stronghold. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine protestors using the flood to not only call for but actually receive a government health service. Much of the online commentary in response to the flooding of Bird’s Point-New Madrid Spillway has expressed dismay that people who knowingly lived there should complain about having their homes destroyed. They knew it could happen, the argument goes, and so deserve what they got. Many say ‘good riddance’, now as in 1937.

But before we accept the displacement of these people as the just consequence of a moral hazard, let us first remember that many of the problems that affected the flood refugees in 1937—poor housing, bad health and grim struggles to make a living—have not gone away. Rest assured that while the farmland now being flooded is some of the richest in America, the vast majority of the people displaced from it over the past few days are not. Perhaps they, like their predecessors in 1937, will not glumly accept their fate and instead demand something more from their government.


Jarod Roll was born in Missouri and now teaches American history at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. He is the author of Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South and the co-author of The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America, both published by the University of Illinois Press.

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