LeRoy Percy (November 9, 1860 - December 24, 1929) was a wealthy attorney who became a planter in Greenville, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta. His plantation of Trail Lake covered 20,000 acres and was worked by sharecroppers.
Percy attended the University of Virginia, where he was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. He became an attorney and accumulated land, sometimes in payment.
In 1907, a plantation Percy leased in Arkansas was investigated by the US Department of Justice for peonage of Italian immigrant workers after complaints from their consulate. Due to his political influence, the report was buried and no action taken against him. He served as U.S. Senator from Mississippi from 1910 to 1913. As a progressive leader, in 1922 Percy 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 appointed his son, William Alexander Percy, to direct the work of thousands of black laborers on the levees near Greenville. He 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. Both father and son were criticized later for these actions.
2 Marriage and family,
3 United States Senate,
4 Post-Senate career,
5 Condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan,
6 Involvement in the 1927 Flood,
7 Death and legacy,
8 Other Percys,
11 Further reading,
12 External links,
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 for the children, allowed his tenants to buy land, and made other changes to build a community.
Percy also had interests in other plantations, for instance, leasing Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County, Arkansas. Short on labor, in 1895 the county recruited Italian immigrants to work as sharecroppers, but they found the conditions so unfavorable that most moved away to northwest Arkansas. Others stayed but felt trapped by the sharecropper system of accounting and what seemed like perpetual debt, and complained to their consulate. In 1907, under the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the United States Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the plantation. Its investigator Mary Grace Quackenbos found peonage but, because of Percy's influence with the state and president, her report was buried and no action taken against the planter.
Marriage and family:
Soon after starting his law practice, Percy married Camille, a French Catholic woman. They had children, William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), Julia Percy Carter (1888-1973), R. Andrew Percy (1892-1966), and Henry Albert Percy (born 1894), who died in infancy.
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, but he also published poetry. 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, which mandated 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 in the Great Migration to northern industrial cities. Greenville never recovered its former prosperity, nor did most of the river towns.
Death and legacy:
Percy died on Christmas Eve 1929 of a heart attack at the age of 69.
Leroy Percy State Park, a state park in Mississippi, is named after him.
Charles "Don Carlos" Percy (1704-94), Irish adventurer and immigrant ancestor,
Sarah Dorsey (1829-79), historian and novelist,
Kate Ferguson, notorious "southern belle, novelist; daughter of Eleanor Percy Lee,
Eleanor Percy Lee (1819-49),
Thomas George Percy, cotton planter and settler of Alabama; son of Charles "Don Carlos" Percy,
Walker Percy (1916-90), Southern author; nephew of Leroy Percy,
William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), lawyer, planter, and poet; son of Leroy Percy,
Catherine Anne Warfield (1816-77), writer of poetry and fiction; sister of Eleanor Percy Lee,
Baker, Lewis. The Percys of Mississippi: Politics and Literature in the New South. LSU Press, 1983.,
Barry, John. The Rising Tide. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.,
Kirwan, Albert Dennis. The Revolt of the Rednecks. P. Smith, 1964.,
Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. New York, Knopf, 1941. (Reprinted with new introduction by Walker Percy, LSU Press, 1973).,
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license