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
DiedDecember 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 by the Mississippi state legislature 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 Chicot County 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 worker 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.

University of Virginia University in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

The University of Virginia is a public research university in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was founded in 1819 by Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson. It is the flagship university of Virginia and home to Jefferson's Academical Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UVA is known for its historic foundations, student-run honor code, and secret societies.

Greenville, Mississippi City in Mississippi, United States

Greenville is a city in, and the county seat of, Washington County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 34,400 at the 2010 census. It is located in the area of historic cotton plantations and culture known as the Mississippi Delta.

Mississippi Delta northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers

The Mississippi Delta, also known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi which lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The region has been called "The Most Southern Place on Earth", because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history. It is 200 miles (320 km) long and 87 miles (140 km) across at its widest point, encompassing about 4,415,000 acres (17,870 km2), or, almost 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain. Originally covered in hardwood forest across the bottomlands, it was developed as one of the richest cotton-growing areas in the nation before the American Civil War (1861–1865). The region attracted many speculators who developed land along the riverfronts for cotton plantations; they became wealthy planters dependent on the labor of black slaves, who comprised the vast majority of the population in these counties well before the Civil War, often twice the number of whites.

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 populist James K. Vardaman, a white supremacist, 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.

James K. Vardaman American politician

James Kimble Vardaman was an American politician from the U.S. state of Mississippi and was the Governor of Mississippi from 1904 to 1908. A Democrat, Vardaman was elected in 1912 to the United States Senate in the first popular vote for the office, following adoption of the 17th Amendment. He defeated incumbent LeRoy Percy, a member of the planter elite. Vardaman served from 1913 to 1919.

White supremacy or white supremacism is the racist belief that white people are superior to people of other races and therefore should be dominant over them. White supremacy has roots in scientific racism, and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose members of other races as well as Jews.

Progressivism is the support for or advocacy of social reform. As a philosophy, it is based on the idea of progress, which asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.

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.

Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 1927 flood of the Mississippi River

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, with 27,000 square miles (70,000 km2) inundated up to a depth of 30 feet (9 m). To try to prevent future floods, the federal government built the world's longest system of levees and floodways.

William Alexander Percy, was a lawyer, planter, and poet from Greenville, Mississippi. His autobiography Lanterns on the Levee became a bestseller. His father LeRoy Percy was the last United States Senator from Mississippi elected by the legislature. In a largely Protestant state, the younger Percy championed the Roman Catholicism of his French mother.


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, and allowed his tenants to buy land. He worked to build a community on the plantation.

Washington County, Mississippi U.S. county in Mississippi

Washington County is a county located in the U.S. state of Mississippi. As of the 2010 census, the population was 51,137. Its county seat is Greenville. The county is named in honor of the first President of the United States, George Washington.

Plantations in the American South large farms in the antebellum southern US, farmed by large numbers of enslaved Africans, typically growing cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, or rice

Plantations are an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum era. The mild subtropical climate, plentiful rainfall, fertile soils of the southeastern United States, and Native American genocide allowed the flourishing of large plantations, where large numbers of enslaved Africans were held captive as slave labor and forced to produce crops to create wealth for a white elite.

Sharecropping form of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on their portion of land

Sharecropping is a form of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on their portion of land. Sharecropping has a long history and there are a wide range of different situations and types of agreements that have used a form of the system. Some are governed by tradition, and others by law. Legal contract systems such as the Italian mezzadria, the French métayage, the Spanish mediero, the Slavic połowcy,издoльщина or the Islamic system of muqasat, occur widely.

Marriage and family

Soon after starting his law practice, Percy married Camille, a French Catholic woman. They had two sons, of whom only one survived to adulthood: William Alexander Percy (1885-1942).

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 .

World War I 1914–1918 global war starting in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the resulting 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Suicide Intentional act of causing ones own death

Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Mental disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse—including alcoholism and the use of benzodiazepines—are risk factors. Some suicides are impulsive acts due to stress, such as from financial difficulties, relationship problems such as breakups, or bullying. Those who have previously attempted suicide are at a higher risk for future attempts. Effective suicide prevention efforts include limiting access to methods of suicide—such as firearms, drugs, and poisons; treating mental disorders and substance misuse; careful media reporting about suicide; and improving economic conditions. Even though crisis hotlines are common, there is little evidence for their effectiveness.

Walker Percy Southern philosophical novelist

Walker Percy, Obl.S.B. was an American writer, whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. Trained as a physician at Columbia University, Percy decided to instead become a writer following a bout of tuberculosis. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age." His work displays a combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith. He had a lifelong friendship with author and historian Shelby Foote. Percy spent much of his life in Covington, Louisiana, where he died of prostate cancer in 1990.

Peonage and Jim Crow

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. They 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 Republicans and Populists, as had occurred in the 1880s. In 1890 the white-dominated state legislature passed a new state constitution that included provisions that disenfranchised most African Americans, through use of such devices as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses. African Americans did not regain full ability to vote until after 1965 and Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act.

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 (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. This was 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, who emphasized class tensions and racial segregation. The tactic resulted in defeat for Percy, who was attacked as a representative of the aristocracy of the state 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 in Mississippi.

Post-Senate career

After his defeat, 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

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

During the devastating Mississippi Flood of 1927, which covered millions of acres of plantations and caused extensive damage, Delta residents began frantic efforts to protect their towns and lands. They used 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.

Percy kept the black workers 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 these 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

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


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

Further reading

United States Congress. "PERCY, Le Roy (id: P000223)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress .

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
James Gordon
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Mississippi
February 23, 1910 March 3, 1913
Served alongside: Hernando Money, John Sharp Williams
Succeeded by
James K. Vardaman