Sheldon:

Welcome, advocates, to another episode of the "Leading Equity" podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their schools. Today, we have our part two. You know, what's really interesting, again, I know I have my own bias as a former history teacher, so I am really excited to continue on a conversation with Mr. Pete Hill. So without further ado, Pete, thank you so much for joining us.

Pete Hill:

Oh yeah. And thank you for welcoming me back, Sheldon. It was really an honor and a pleasure to be with you on the last podcast.

Sheldon:

Oh yeah. Well, pleasure is mine. I learned so much about the amendments and just, I'm really excited to hear our continuation of this conversation. For those who did not listen to part one, there's definitely a link in the show notes. And there's also some resources available for you in the show notes if you want to follow up with some of the facts that Pete shares with us, but for those who may have forgotten or are not familiar with you, could you share a little bit about yourself and what you currently do?

Pete Hill:

Indeed. As I said before, Sheldon, I'm a 22 year veteran of the United States Army, a citizen of the great state of Mississippi and the father of Emily Hill. But my most important claim to fame is I'm a novice when it comes to history, particularly history that pertains to my peoples, that would be African-American or black people. I don't have any formal degrees behind my name, Sheldon, I want to put that out there as a disclaimer, but what I do have is a passion for understanding how history informs the present and shapes the future.

Sheldon:

All right, well, let's do it. Where do we want to start? Because I believe, I think we, you say your home state is Mississippi and you have some history that you want to share. Again, we want to relate this to how our history teachers out there can teach history and see how things that have happened within our country have impacted a lot of things that we have going on today. Why don't you go ahead and start us off?

Pete Hill:

Indeed. But I'm going to start by saying, Sheldon, this thing here, every atrocity or event that we talk about in African-American history, it plays back to three things, policies, procedures, and common practices. And again, this is without exception, whether we're talking Rosewoods or what we're about to talk about today, which is the Great Flood of 1927. And I say it to you at the outset, I want to call this "A River Runs Through It."

Pete Hill:

And this story begins in 1927 when the National Weather Bureau, now called the Weather Service, issued a weather report in Cairo, Illinois. This is, the Mississippi River is about to flood. Now, here you are in a small town called Greenville, Mississippi, poor and black. The radio has now become a thing, but yet it's not affordable and unacceptable to many black sharecroppers so while the people in Illinois are well aware that the Mississippi River is about to flood, that news hasn't quite made it to black folk in the Delta of Mississippi at this point. This is 1926 when they first get this warning. By 1927, the flood levels have risen up north.

Pete Hill:

And now for context, Sheldon, the Mississippi River is the Western border of Mississippi. It divides Louisiana and Mississippi, but it starts in Minnesota. I want you to imagine all of this water building on itself, about to head south to the Gulf of Mexico. And so what's stopping it are levees. But as levees are breached, the force of the water becomes greater and greater, that by some estimates, by the time it reaches Mississippi, it has a force of a Niagara Falls, volumes of water. Thousands of square miles of land have been turned into an inland sea.

Pete Hill:

And so now there are two people whose names we should remember. One of them is Leroy Percy, and the other is his son, Will Percy. They will make decisions that would change how black folks, listen to me, my friend, how black folks view America and their role in it. These two men, who most people have never heard of, Leroy and Will Percy, Leroy is the father and Will is the son.

Pete Hill:

Let's talk about Leroy because he's important. Leroy is a Southern gentleman by all accounts. When the Ku Klux Klan wants to do horrible things to the black sharecropper, he personally intervenes to stop them, not because he cares about them, but he sees them as cheap labor and people who are dead or in the hospital can't pick cotton. And so for personal invested interests, he protects them from the Klan, but he's no friend of black folks. He wants to keep you in such a position of debt sharecropping that you cannot leave his plantations. And so on the one hand, yes, he's protecting you from the Klan. But on the other hand, he's keeping you tied to the land, no hope of ever, ever getting out of debt. Leroy is a very strong leader.

Pete Hill:

His son, Will, is the exact opposite. By all accounts he's a weak man. In fact, he doesn't like being called a planter, but nepotism becomes a problem in 1927. Here's why. When Leroy hears on the radio that there's a flood headed his way, he immediately formed a levee commission and appoints his son, Will, as the person in charge of making sure the levees are being reinforced, kind of reminds us of Donald Trump and his son-in-law right? But it's worse because Will is a benevolent guy, unlike his father.

Pete Hill:

Will finds out that the federal government is sending rescue ships, or boats in this case, to get people out of the flood plain and get them to safety. Leroy tells his son, Will, "You will not remove any of my black sharecroppers. I don't want to lose my labor like we did at the end of World War I." Lots of people migrated out to go to the factory and he remembered that and he tells Will, his son, "Don't even think about it. You will evacuate white citizens. Not one Negro will be evacuated." This is no joke. It got so bad, at one point that the National Guard is called out to stop anyone who looks like you and I from leaving Greenville, Mississippi.

Pete Hill:

I've linked the information in your show notes where people can read about that. 2000 Negro males who were placed on the levees to continue to sandbag it all night in the rain, trying to get the levee higher and somewhere in the middle of the night, the sirens sounded indicating the levees had burst. My friend, 2000 plus people were swept to their death, bodies never recovered, their deaths never recorded. But we know that they were missing because articles were written about them. 2000 gone in a split-second. Niagara Falls headed towards you in the middle of the night and you don't even know it's coming. Indeed, have National Guardsmen pointing weapons at you and if you attempted to escape, they would shoot you. This is the flood of 1927.

Sheldon:

Question. Were these men employed by the government? Why were they there sandbagging?

Pete Hill:

Good question. Remember I talked about the rescue boats that showed up, only took out the white citizens. These were the black citizens of the same town, Greenville, Mississippi. White people were evacuated. All of the black men and their families were forced at gunpoint to remain. In the middle of the night their land became an inland sea, according to newspaper articles. Flood state had reached 30 feet in some areas and up to nine to 10 feet in Greenville alone, nine to 10 feet. They had to follow power lines to white people houses just to find out where people were, that's how high the water was. They followed power lines to get from house to house.

Pete Hill:

If you were poor and black, you, again, were forced to stay. So the city of Greenville doubled in size overnight because over 10,000 black refugees were forced to come to Greenville to sit on eggs. Let me look at this number to make sure I say them correctly, because I couldn't believe it when I read it. An eight feet wide piece of land, eight feet, not miles, wide, and miles long, this is the amount of land that black people were forced to stay on for two months in the rain and the soggy mud, no wood on the floor, Army tents, two months.

Pete Hill:

This is after the flood has come, 10 to 11 feet of water surrounding you. You are on a eight foot wide piece of land that's miles long. You are there with chickens, pigs, anything that was on your farm that you could say is on the same small piece of land with you. Okay? You imagine these sanitary conditions. Imagine what's going to happen to them when the sun comes back out and you got dead animals floating in the water, you have no place to use the bathroom except where you are, dysentery and all kinds of other diseases are going to come, which they did, and they begin to kill people.

Pete Hill:

The next sad part of this story becomes the Red Cross. Now today we think of the Red Cross as we donate our money for hurricanes, floods, et cetera, right? Most Americans have a great image of the Red Cross, unless you are a Negro in 1927 in Greenville, Mississippi. Segregation was the law of the land and floods and disasters did not change that. So in 1927, it was the first time since the Civil War than white Americans in the north and the south agreed on something. They agree that we should use our personal wealth as individuals to send money down south. Northern whites assume that when their money was sent down south, all citizens were being taken care of. But once that money reached Mississippi, it went to white citizens, but not one black person got anything from the Red Cross except leftovers. But here's the irony, the supplies that came in were unloaded on boats by the very black people that would be denied the use of the products that they just downloaded from the ships or the boats.

Pete Hill:

Now what happened, Sheldon, and this is very important, there's a presidential candidate at the time by the name of Herbert Hoover. Herbert Hoover at the time was the Vice President of the United States working for Calvin Coolidge. And as Vice President, he was using the radio to become a super candidate. He was one of those people that loved to hear themself on the radio. And so he was bragging about the great work he was doing with the Red Cross. Yet black people knew that they were not being taken, this became a scandal, long story short.

Pete Hill:

It was investigated by black people. And our, there was a guy by the name of Moton, if I'm not mistaken, African-American gentleman, he did a report and he and Hoover got together and they suppressed the report because they didn't want to make Hoover look bad. So Hoover won the presidency for what he claimed he was doing in Mississippi, but it would come back to haunt him because that would be the last time that black people en masse voted for the Republican party. He was the last Republican to get 90 plus percent of the black vote.

Sheldon:

Is this when things started to shift, as far as the political parties that we have today?

Pete Hill:

That's exactly right. It can all be traced back to the 1927 flood of Mississippi, because now what's happening, Sheldon, these people in Mississippi are moving to the urban areas of America, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, DC. And they're bringing with them the memory of how mistreated they were in the Mississippi Delta. And so they began to change their party allegiance, which was speeded up by the next thing that happened, the Great Depression.

Pete Hill:

When the Great Depression happened, Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes in as a Democrat, but he's a new type of Democrat. And he realizes black people are disinfected with the Republican party so he begins to appeal to them, even though he still understands segregation is an issue down south. So where he could, he tried to help black people using the Civilian Conservation Corps. Well, even though it was segregated, they still put black people to work building highways and bridges, et cetera. And so from that standpoint, black people appreciated Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Pete Hill:

So now that shift comes that you just talked about. The next thing that happens, again, as we're moving forward, thanks to the Mississippi River flood, today, the federal government is responsible for flood. Back then it was local. Remember what I told you about those two Percys, Leroy and Will. Thanks to those two individuals we now have a national flood policy like when Katrina happened. The federal government had to step in after the flood was over. Now, some would still argued that there's still racism built into that as well, but this is why I mentioned policies, procedures, and common ground.

Pete Hill:

So what happens now, we're in the 1930s. This is when that Great Migration number two begins. Here's why. Cotton was overproduced thanks to World War I, to produce uniforms and other things. Now you've got all of this extra cotton laying around, so it depresses the price of cotton so that hurts the Southern economy. You have all of these nations in Europe who are trying to rebuild after World War I and so their economies are being depressed. And then you have all of this concentrated wealth in America that when the banks had a run on their money, we get the Great Depression. And so now black people are fleeing the South because they have nothing to do there. There's no cotton to pick. They're starting to invent mechanical tractors. And so even plantation owners, were seeing, what do we need black folk for? Yet northerners were inviting them up north to work in factories.

Pete Hill:

So this is what that political shift begins to expand even more because once they reached Northern cities, they had the right to vote that they didn't have down south. And they were voting for the people who they now saw as their new saviors, Democrats. Just keep it in mind this Northern Democratic party was different than the Southern Democratic party, which is what we would call Republicans [crosstalk 00:16:12]. Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Sheldon:

I've always struggled with the whole subject of the Great Depression and the reason why I've always struggled with that term, "the Great Depression" was because, like you mentioned before, our folks have already been dealing with economic strife and issues already. And then it's like, once the stock market crashes and all these other things, then we label it as "the Great Depression." But we have to keep in mind that a lot of folks of color, especially our black communities, were already dealing with a lot of economic issues before they put the term, the label on the Great Depression. I just wanted to throw that out there. I don't know if you have any thoughts on that, but I always struggle with that term.

Pete Hill:

No, no worries. I agree. So just remember, "great" means bigger than, right? And so when it was us, it was just depressing. We were depressed mentally. We were depressed financially, but when it started to hit them, it was greater than what happened to us. Now it's a "Great Depression." We read that as, "Oh, it's not just impacting people of color. It is now impacting those with white privilege."

Pete Hill:

But I would argue if you read "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, when you read that, and he does such a great job of painting that narrative, those poor white people were no different than the poor black people I just described in Mississippi. They just happened to be in Oklahoma, "Sooners" that they called them in Arkansas. But they were as poor as the black folks in the Mississippi Delta. But because of racism, they would never see themselves the same as the black folks in the Mississippi Delta, because their attitude was, "At least I ain't black." And so they, too, were already suffering before the so-called "Great Depression."

Pete Hill:

And what we really need to define here is when we say "great," what we really mean, white men with privilege have now been impacted by their own behavior. Everybody else had been suffering from their behavior, with monetary policy, union policies, et cetera. Now, and Malcolm X once said, "The chickens have come home to roost," so now it's a great depression because white men with power are now being impacted by their own disastrous policies, procedures and common practices, inescapable.

Pete Hill:

So that's where we are, my friend, as we continue to move into today's society. I always say to people, "If you don't know where you came from, then you have no idea where you're going." Why should you care about the flood of 1927? That's over like 90 something years ago. Because the policies, procedures, and common practices have a legacy. Even though they stopped red lining way back in the forties and fifties, allegedly, the legacy of those policies still permeate throughout our society today.

Pete Hill:

And so the same mentality that gave us a racist Red Cross give us a racist police force today. It's the mentality, not the people. Now you can kill a person, but you can't kill an idea. And so I can pass it on two ways, direct instructions, "Here's how you do this step-by-step," or by modeling behavior, which you would just pick up instinctively. I'm a Christian, but nobody ever sat me down and said, "Step-by-step, this is how you become a Christian." They just modeled the behavior, go to church on Sundays, ask for forgiveness when you sin, make sure you're providing 10% of your wealth as tithes. They modeled that behavior. Now I teach that to my child. But there's no, step-by-step, she's now mimicking Daddy.

Pete Hill:

Same thing happens then with racism. There's nobody going, "Step-by-step, this is how you suppress the black man or the black woman." They just model the behavior [inaudible 00:20:21] then a police officer would just do the same thing because, "Hey, that's how we do stuff." Imagine a banker, the military officer, the educator, all of this is the same thing, but the key here is the demographic shifts from 1927 to the political shifts, all of it can be traced back to policies, procedures and common practices.

Pete Hill:

The national policy on floods caused that disaster. Racism known as Jim Crow caused the refugee camps. The attitude of white people who were in charge of the Red Cross crossed into their so-called benevolence towards their fellow humans. And because they saw black and white humans, they treated white refugees with great care and black refugee with great malice. Yet they got the same donation from their fellow citizens to include black citizens, so bad, Sheldon, that the Chicago Defender, the nation's black newspaper of records, warned his readers to no longer send money to the Red Cross once they found out what was going on, keeping mind when black people were escaping Mississippi, they were mainly and largely headed to Chicago. In fact, so many people that went to Chicago from Mississippi at one point, they had neighborhoods they referred to as "Little Mississippi," and literally entire towns would get on a train and move with their preacher and everything to parts of Chicago. Can you imagine that? The entire city moves at once? That's literally what was happening in the Great Migrations.

Sheldon:

Detroit as well. Right? We had a lot of folks that moved up to Detroit?

Pete Hill:

We got Detroit, so that they show maps, Sheldon, of the migration path. If you were on the east coast, you largely followed what is now known as the I-95 corridor. If you were from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, you ended up in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York. If you were in Mississippi, you followed the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, so you ended up in Chicago, Indiana, Kansas. If you were from Louisiana and Texas, you mainly ended up in California, so depending on where you were graphically would dictate where you went to as part of the Great Migration.

Sheldon:

We don't talk about that a lot in our schools. I live in Idaho. We talk about the Oregon Trail. We talk about things like that, but things like the Trail of Tears, things like the Great Migration, those aren't covered as much in our classrooms. Why do you think that is?

Pete Hill:

Three words, policy, procedure, and common practice. It was a policy called Indian Removal. And we began to send Indians from Alabamas and Mississippis of the world to the Oklahomas and the Kansases of the world. And so that policy consequently became the Trail of Tears. We don't want to tell that story as the predominant race, because it makes us look bad all of the years later.

Pete Hill:

We don't want to talk about the Japanese internment after World, or during World War II, because it makes us look bad. But we are gleeful to talk about the Nazis' atrocities, and rightfully so, we should be educated about that so that it can never happen again. In fact, the mantra of the Jewish community is, "Never forget." They don't want you to forget about those concentration camps or how the Germans systematically rounded them up and put them in concentration camps and exterminated them.

Pete Hill:

But if I'm a native American, I don't want you to forget that you did the exact same thing to me. And to this very day, we still have concentration camps for Native Americans. We just called them a fancy name, "reservations," but you are concentrated in a camp, in a singular place. Now we don't want to look at it that way because, "Oh my God, Pete, I can't believe you're comparing a Native American reservation to a Nazi concentration camp." I'm only confirmed, comparing the word "concentration." What happens in the camp may be different depending on the period of American history. It is a fact, policy, we gave Army blankets to Native Americans that we intentionally contaminated with smallpox, germ warfare, so that we wouldn't, allow them to die and they were on the Trail of Tears. This is policy.

Pete Hill:

Procedures, Jim Crow is a procedure. It was never legitimate law, but it became a procedure for government officials. It became a practice for everyday citizens who were non people of color...

Sheldon:

We can't forget about the boarding schools that happened to our Native American community so it's on the system level as well, just trying to assimilate a group of people and not allowing them to speak their language and cutting their hair. And just going against all of their traditional practices, again, as a way, and that's very systemic in their approach, too, as well.

Pete Hill:

How about weaponizing the healthcare system? And let's talk mental health in this case. I've been reading an article that evidently came out in 2017, again, about the great state of Mississippi. They were getting ready to expand the campus, the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. They discovered 7,000 bodies on the campus that nobody knew about because the campus previously had been an insane asylum where they had evidently killed, or allowed to die, 7,000 people. The question becomes how many of them were African-Americans?

Pete Hill:

We've often used mental health to label Negros as crazy. The first black man to attend the University of Mississippi is James Meredith. He was not the first to apply. The first to apply was a Reverend whose last name escapes me at the moment, but they labeled him crazy, insane because they said, and I quote, "That N- I-G-G-E-R must be crazy if he thinks he can attend the University of Mississippi." This was right after Brown v. Board of Education. He thought he could use that to attend a school that he was paying taxes for, state sponsored schools. They labeled him insane so that he could not attend that university. This is how they weaponized mental health. That's one story, Sheldon. It makes you wonder what were they doing to other people that weren't simply trying to attend school? What if they were arguing for equal rights or better pay? Were they, too, labeled insane and taken off the grid?

Pete Hill:

This is how white power works. If they don't like what you're saying or doing, whether you're white or black, Jew or Gentile. See the three boys that were killed in Mississippi, two white, one black, what would their crimes? Registering people to vote, the very issue we got going on right now in 2021, but we have weaponized, once again, something that should be a constitutional right. But because the Founding Fathers never took the time to say that the right to vote is a constitutional right, we have the 15th amendment and the 19th amendment that simply says, "You can't discriminate based solely on race," 15th amendment, "You can't discriminate based solely on gender," the 19th amendment; but there is no amendment to say of all Americans, irrespective of you name it, have a right to vote. Yet you have a right to carry a gun, Sheldon, and people will kill you over that right. They will use that right, I might add, to say, "You don't have a right to vote." There are actually legislatures who are giving people with guns the ability to 'poll watch,' a form of intimidation.

Pete Hill:

Sheldon, when people hear me talk, they often think to themselves, "Man, this guy is radical. He probably doesn't love his country." I will remind those naysayers, number one, I spent 22 years in uniform, defending with my life your right to be lost. That's what I do. I have traveled all around the world, Sheldon, and I came back to the United States every time, I never went AWOL because I understand that as an African-American the safest place on this earth for me with my attitude is America. It's not Africa. It is not any Caribbean, no country on Earth would allow a Malcolm X or a Martin Luther King, Jr. to do the things they did and get the change that they were able to accomplish. I don't care whether you're talking the African continent or the European continent. Only in America are these things possible.

Pete Hill:

The fact that you and I are having this conversation and not looking over our shoulders is Testament in why I love this country. But I do not allow my love for this country to blind me to what my country has done. We must be aware that while you are a citizen, there are those who don't believe you are. And from time to time, we have to remind him. See Plessy versus Ferguson, that a reminder. See Brown v. Board of Education, that's a reminder. '64 Civil Rights Act, '65 Voting Rights Act, '68 Fair Housing Act, all of these things are reminders that we are citizens, too.

Sheldon:

I like that. Well, Pete, I definitely appreciate you coming back for part two and for sharing the story of the Mississippi flood. Is there anything else that you wanted to add to the conversation before we wrap things up?

Pete Hill:

I always like to leave people with a thought. Here's the thought I want to leave your audience with. "If you stay in darkness or historical ignorance, you will deny yourself the sunshine of enlightenment." And I want to repeat that because it's just that important. "If you stay in the darkness of historical ignorance, you will deny yourself the sunshine of enlightenment." History is important.

Sheldon:

Yeah. We have some folks that want to connect with you and reach out, what's the best way to find you online?

Pete Hill:

The best way to catch me online, because I'm old fashioned, I haven't quite got caught up in social media yet, Sheldon, [email protected] If you all want to reach out to me, have me come to a lecture for your organization, send me an email, leave me a phone number and I'll return your call.

Sheldon:

All right. Once again, I'm here with Pete Hill. Thank you again. It's been a pleasure.

Pete Hill:

It's been my pleasure as well, Sheldon.

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