the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century -- 6/19/17

Today's selection -- from The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the plight of blacks in America got decidedly worse, with voting rights effectively removed and economic opportunities vastly curtailed. Then came the First World War, which brought accelerated demand for industrial production in the factories of the northern United States, and an opportunity for "escape" for Southern blacks:

"[Blacks] fled as if under a spell or a high fever. 'They left as though they were fleeing some curse,' wrote the scholar Emmett J. Scott. 'They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket, and they left with the intention of staying.' ... They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. ...

"It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage took its first steps within the borders of this country. The fever rose without warning or notice or much in the way of understanding by those outside its reach. It would not end until the 1970s and would set into motion changes in the North and South that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined at the start of it or dreamed would take nearly a lifetime to play out.

Panel 1 from Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (1940-41)

"Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would be­come perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of cur­rents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was under way.

"Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an un­certain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.

The Great Migration shown through changes in African-Americans share of population in major

US cities, 1910–1940 and 1940–1970

"During this time, a good portion of all black Americans alive picked up and left the tobacco farms of Virginia, the rice plantations of South Carolina, cotton fields in east Texas and Mississippi, and the villages and backwoods of the remaining southern states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and, by some measures, Oklahoma. They set out for cities they had whispered of among themselves or had seen in a mail-order catalogue. Some came straight from the field with their King James Bibles and old twelve-string guitars. Still more were townspeople looking to be their fuller selves, tradesmen following their customers, pastors trailing their flocks. ...

"The places they went were big, frightening, and already crowded -- New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and smaller, equally foreign cities -- Syracuse, Oakland, Milwaukee, Newark, Gary. Each turned into a 'receiving sta­tion and port of refuge,' wrote the poet Carl Sandburg, then a Chicago newspaper reporter documenting the unfolding migration there. ...

"Over time, this mass relocation would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California in the 1930s. But more remark­ably, it was the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been free.

" 'The story of the Great Migration is among the most dramatic and compelling in all chapters of American history,' the Mississippi histo­rian Neil McMillen wrote toward the end of the twentieth century. 'So far reaching are its effects even now that we scarcely understand its meaning.'

"Its imprint is everywhere in urban life. The configuration of the cities as we know them, the social geography of black and white neighbor­hoods, the spread of the housing projects as well as the rise of a well­-scrubbed black middle class, along with the alternating waves of white flight and suburbanization -- all of these grew, directly or indirectly, from the response of everyone touched by the Great Migration."

With thanks to LS



Isabel Wilkerson


The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration




Copyright 2010 by Isabel Wilkerson


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