In 1900 most Black Americans were “trapped” in a southern caste system. According to historian Lerone Bennett Jr., the former confederate states had “become a prison.” Sharecropping re-enslaved many Black farmers, condemning them to debt peonage. The arbitrary and deadly vigilante violence kept disenfranchised Black citizens “in their place.”
So, first a few, but soon thereafter a torrent of Black southerners flooded north and west, becoming “The Great Migration.” One reporter described it as “an evacuation.” Scholar Emmett J. Scott wrote that “[t]hey left as though they were fleeing some curse.” White employers, determined to retain the services of the people their forebears had chained, resented this exodus. So, they arrested “disloyal” Black travelers for “vagrancy” and placed them in chain gangs. Those fleeing kept their escape plans secret and left in the dead of night, often not saying goodbye to loved ones. In his poem “One-Way Ticket,” Langston Hughes explained that they sought “any place that is North and West.”
This greatest internal domestic migration in history involved 6 million Black people. In 1900, 90% of Black citizens lived in the south; by 1940 that number plunged to 53%. For those millions, however, past traumas traveled with them. As author Richard Wright explained, “We cannot shake off three hundred years of fear in three hours.” And, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed of America, “Let’s not fool ourselves, we are far from the Promised Land, both north and south.”
Northern housing discrimination funneled new Black arrivals into overpriced, crowded apartments. Poverty, drugs, crime, and prostitution pressed an unfamiliar form of racism down on new arrivals. Diseases, like tuberculosis, took their toll. New arrivals were mocked by northern Black city-dwellers and attacked by foreign immigrants who resented this new source of competition for jobs.
As I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, I was struck by the poignant loneliness of so many who fled the south. They didn’t know if they would ever return home, and they missed the supportive Black communities and extended families they left behind. Though there’s no geographic cure for racism, a new life for Black Americans emerged. Despite the hardships that comes with massive dislocation, the explosion of artistic expression during the Harlem Renaissance, along with the slow rise of Black entrepreneurial and political power, built a new Black America.
- Lesson #237: To keep southern Black farmers working the fields, white bosses would charge them for everything they needed to farm, and for some items or food they were never given. Without recourse to legal defense, Black farmers owed land owners so much that they could never escape their debts. That was the intent- “sharecropping” was slavery by another name.
- Lesson #238: As Isabel Wilkerson described it, George Swanson Starling had no time to say goodbye. He had to flee due to his participation in labor organizing. To stay one step ahead of the grove owners, he travelled “fast and light” with only a few books, some papers, and a change of clothes. Once he had established a new life in the north, he would experience his traumatic exploitation over and over again as a railway porter.
- Lesson #239: For the Pulitzer Prize winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson interviewed 1200 people over 18 months. She admitted that, “[i]n a just world, they shouldn’t have had to uproot themselves to experience the full rights of citizenship.” Her detailed narratives about the migration stories of three people – George Starling, Robert Pershing Foster, and Ida Mae Brandon Gladny – paint portraits of resilience and perseverance.
- Lesson #240: As Robert Pershing Foster escaped the south and headed west he knew that no hotel would admit a Black man in Texas. When he finally got to Arizona, nearly delirious from lack of sleep, he was chagrined to find that motel after motel had mysteriously just rented their last room. Unlike whites in the south, the western motel managers were all polite. But segregation had a longer reach than Foster had anticipated. It was a bittersweet escape to a new life in California.
- Lesson #241: Literature and art are valuable ways to appreciate the experience of those many individuals who fled the south in the Great Immigration. The Works Progress Administration of the New Deal provided opportunities for Black artists to document history in prose and image. Jacob Lawrence’s collection of paintings titled The Migration Series documents all phases of the migration story.
- Lesson #242: A fictional, yet realistic, account of one experience of the Great Migration can be found in Black Boy by Richard Wright. One eerie passage tempers any temptation to frame the Great Migration optimistically. The protagonist wondered, “Should I have come here? But going back was impossible…. Wherever my eyes turned, they saw stricken, frightened black faces trying vainly to cope with a civilization that they did not understand. I felt lonely. I had fled one insecurity and embraced another.”