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Dayhoff: Mississippi flood connects Robert Moton, FDR, Carroll County and Led Zeppelin

The second historic Robert Moton School was built in 1949 on S. Center Street in Westminster to replace the first structure built in 1930. It served grades 1 through 12 as a segregated school until 1965 in Westminster. Today it serves as a satellite county office building.
The second historic Robert Moton School was built in 1949 on S. Center Street in Westminster to replace the first structure built in 1930. It served grades 1 through 12 as a segregated school until 1965 in Westminster. Today it serves as a satellite county office building. (Kevin Dayhoff Photo)

What do Carroll County, Led Zeppelin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Robert Moton School, and one of the worst natural disasters in American history all have in common?

A flood in Mississippi in 1927 had a profound socio-political effect on American history and has a Carroll County connection; a great American for whom a local school built in 1930 just outside of Westminster was named.

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The aftermath of events of the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood propelled this American leader, the president of a small college, into the national spotlight. This same prominent political leader also helped Roosevelt’s Democratic Party win the 1932 presidential election.

In 1927, the Mississippi River broke “out of its levee system in 145 places and flooded” an area the size of four New England States, according to a documentary by PBS. The flood remains in history “a dramatic story of politics, race, [the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semitism, police brutality…] that marks the end of an era and the beginning of another…

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“On April 21, 1927, the levee broke near Mounds Landing (Mississippi), releasing a deluge through the cotton fields of Washington County. Within hours the cascade had reached Greenville, inundating the city…” The PBS account of the flood reports that “[in] the days that followed, racial tensions in Greenville reached (a) boiling point. When relief supplies finally reached the city, they were distributed on the basis of race. Frequently African Americans were left with nothing.”

According to numerous accounts, 330,000 African Americans [had been] moved to 154 relief camps. Over 13,000 “refugees” near Greenville, Mississippi were evacuated to … an unbroken levee, and stranded there for days without food or clean water, while boats arrived to evacuate white women and children.

PBS reports that the National Guard was called in to patrol the “refugee camps” and robbed, assaulted, raped, and murdered Black Americans held on the levee.

Meanwhile, the administration of President Calvin Coolidge “placed Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in command of all flood relief operations.” Hoover, who harbored presidential hopes, swept into action and as a result was praised by the national press. There was only one thing that could tarnish Hoover’s glowing image — the treatment of Black Americans in the Washington County levee camps.

Hoover turned to Robert Russa Moton, who had replaced founder Booker T. Washington as the head of the Tuskegee Institute. Hoover asked Moton, who was considered a prominent Black American leader in the Republican Party, to form the “Colored Advisory Commission” and investigate.

“The commission … presented the findings to Hoover, and advocated immediate improvements to aid the flood’s neediest victims. But the information was never made public. Hoover had asked the Tuskegee president to keep a tight lid on his investigation.”

In return, Hoover implied that if he was successful in his bid for the presidency, the Tuskegee president and [African-Americans] “would play a role in his administration unprecedented in the nation’s history.” Motivated by Hoover’s promises, “the president of Tuskegee championed Hoover’s candidacy to the African American population.”

However, once elected in 1928, “Hoover ignored … the promises he had made to his black constituency.” In the following election of 1932, the Tuskegee president withdrew his support for Hoover and switched to the Democratic Party. In an historic shift, Black Americans began to abandon the Republicans … and turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party instead.”

Meanwhile, Dr. George M. Crawford became principal of the only Carroll County high school to educate Black Americans in 1931; and was instrumental in the school being named after Robert Moton.

Before 1930, Carroll’s African American population usually got their education in someone’s home or in the quintessential one-room schoolhouse. In a Jan. 29, 2008 interview with the late Bill Dixon, the “mayor” of Charles Street; he said that in 1930, two large “structures” were located in Westminster for the purpose of educating all African American students in Carroll County from grades 1 through 11. (Remember it was only after 1950 that Maryland schools went 12 years.)

By the late 1940s, the “school” had grown to a series of eight “structures.” In 1948-1949 a new facility was built on Center Street which at the time was extended — and stopped at the school building.

Robert Moton School quickly developed a reputation for excellence — a point of which is frequently mentioned by former students — who later formed the “Former Students and Friends of Robert Moton School, Inc.,” according to Dixon.

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A graduate of Moton, Dixon went on to make a living as a virologist and microbiologist. He was the son of a well-respected community leader, Maymie Dixon. He attended Robert Moton for all 12 of his school years — from 1946 until he graduated in 1958. Of the “new” school he noted with a wry laugh, “We had toilets in the new building and we were excited about that.”

And oh, for heavy metal fans, as a result of the 1927 Mississippi Flood, we got the Nov. 8, 1971 Led Zeppelin remake of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie's June 18, 1929 blues recording of "If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break…"

I have written about the history of the Robert Moton School on a number of occasions in the past. Portions of this discussion have been published before.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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