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Corps of Engineers Shares Historic Flood of '27 Photos Online

Two years after the Great Flood of 1927 devastated the lower Mississippi River Valley, blues singers Kansas Joe McCoy and Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas shared the pain in their classic “When The Levee Breaks:”

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break

And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay ...

The lyrics came to mind when we saw these historic photographs of the natural disaster taken by Marshall Gray, an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (To hear the song, go to the end of this story.) The photographs were recently cleaned and scanned by St. Louis veterans participating in the Veterans Curation Program. The program, now in its fifth year, offers temporary employment for veterans and helps them transition to the civilian workforce.

Gray’s photographs document the magnitude of the flood that inundated about 26,000 square miles. Following months of heavy rain, the Mississippi River burst through a levee south of Cairo, Ill., on April 16, 1927. The entire levee system eventually collapsed.

More than 200 people died and more than a half-million people lost their homes. The majority of the displaced were African Americans who faced deplorable conditions in temporary relief camps. The flood contributed to The Great Migration of southern African Americans to northern cities.

To learn more about the Great Flood of 1927:

To learn more about the Veterans Curation Program:
Working With Historic Artifacts Offers Vets A Bridge From The Battlefield To Civilian Jobs

Listen to "When the Levee Breaks"

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.