LeRoy Percy

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LeRoy Percy
LeRoy Percy, bw photo portrait, circa 1910.jpg
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
February 23, 1910 – March 4, 1913
Preceded by James Gordon
Succeeded by James K. Vardaman
Personal details
Born (1860-11-09)November 9, 1860
Greenville, Mississippi, Mississippi
Died December 24, 1929(1929-12-24) (aged 69)
Memphis, Tennessee
Political party Democratic

LeRoy Percy (November 9, 1860 – December 24, 1929) was an attorney, planter and politician in Mississippi. In 1910 he was elected to the United States Senate, serving until 1913.

Percy had attended the University of Virginia, where he was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. He achieved wealth as an attorney. Often being paid in land, he became a major planter in Greenville, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta. His plantation of Trail Lake eventually covered 20,000 acres and was worked by African-American sharecroppers. He also leased land in the Arkansas Delta. That plantation recruited Italian immigrants as sharecroppers. In 1907 conditions were investigated by the US Department of Justice, due to Italian complaints to their consulate. The investigator found it constituted peonage, but Percy's political influence led to the report being buried and neither he nor his overseers were prosecuted.

Due to his influence, Percy became active in politics; he was elected by the Mississippi state legislature to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1910 to 1913. He was defeated in 1912 by a populist Democrat in the first popular election of US Senators. 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.

Planter[edit]

Percy became an attorney in Greenville, Mississippi, the county seat of Washington County, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta. In his early years, 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 African-American sharecroppers. They provided most of the labor on all the plantations in the area and had constituted a majority of the population in the county since before the American Civil War. 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.

Marriage and family[edit]

Soon after starting his law practice, Percy married Camille, a French Catholic woman. They had four 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 followed his father into law. He served 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. Never married, 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). The boys included Walker Percy, who became a notable novelist, winning the National Book Award for his first book, The Moviegoer.

Peonage and Jim Crow[edit]

Percy also had interests in other plantations, for instance, leasing Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County, Arkansas on the other side of the Mississippi River. Short on labor, in 1895 the county recruited Italian immigrants to work as sharecroppers. 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 to be perpetual debt, and complained to their consulate. In 1907, under the President Theodore Roosevelt administration, the United States Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the plantation. Its investigator Mary Grace Quackenbos concluded the conditions constituted peonage but, because of Percy's influence with the state government and president, her report was buried and no action taken against the planter.[1]

In this period, white Democrats had continued to work to suppress African-American voting, reacting to prevent another biracial coalition with Populists. In 1890 the white-dominated state legislature passed a new state constitution that included provisions that effectively disenfranchised most African Americans, through use of such devices as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses. They did not regain full ability to vote until after 1965 and Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act.

United States Senate[edit]

Following the vacancy of the seat held by Senator James Gordon, the Mississippi legislature convened to fill it. A plurality of legislators (by then only white) 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. The populist campaign was managed by 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. He advocated education for blacks; and working to improve race relations by appealing to the planters’ sense of noblesse oblige. Due to disenfranchisement of African Americans, the Democratic primary became the deciding competitive race for state and local offices.

Post-Senate career[edit]

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[citation needed], for which he received 10% of the profits.

Condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan[edit]

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 planned a recruiting session at the Greenville county 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."[2]

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.

Battling the 1927 Flood[edit]

During the devastating Mississippi Flood of 1927, which overwhelmed millions of acres of plantations, Delta residents began frantic efforts to protect their towns and lands, using the many black workers to raise the levees along the river by stacking sand bags on the top of the established levee walls. The former senator appointed his son, William Alexander Percy, to direct the work of the thousands of black laborers on the levees near Greenville.

He kept them in the area, isolated on top of levees, when the levee was breached. In addition, the African Americans were forced to work without pay to unload Red Cross relief supplies, as the organization required work to be done by "volunteers." The men were never compensated for all their labor. Both father and son were criticized later for their treatment of the African Americans in conditions of forced labor.[3]

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 the many African-American families to live while the men worked on the levee.

Death and legacy[edit]

Percy died on Christmas Eve 1929 of a heart attack at the age of 69.[4]

LeRoy Percy State Park, a state park in Mississippi, is named after him.

Other Percys[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • 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.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Peonage", Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, accessed 27 August 2012
  2. ^ Barry, John. Rising Tide. Retrieved 2012-05-22. 
  3. ^ Barry, John. The Rising Tide. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
  4. ^ [1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Whayne, Jeannie M., ed. Shadows over Sunnyside: An Arkansas Plantation in Transition, 1830–1945, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
  • Woodruff, Nan Elizabeth. American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

External links[edit]