By George E. Hardin | Published 11/24/2010
George E. Hardin
The Great Migration, the exodus of almost six million blacks from the South to the North, East and West, variously described as taking place between 1915 and 1970, brought significant changes to the lives of those who relocated as well as the course of events in the United States. New interest is rising in the Great Migration partly as a result of two new books on the subject: “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “The Grace of Silence: A Memoir” by Michele Norris. Wilkerson writes that those who left the South were linked together by “their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future.”
One of the central figures who added to the impetus of the Great Migration was Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, parent publication of the Tri-State Defender. From the Chicago Defender’s beginning in 1905, Abbott persistently urged blacks to leave the South. The Defender wrote blistering stories against racism, listed jobs that were available in the North, and printed train schedules from various southern towns to Chicago. It ran huge headlines over stories about lynchings and other atrocities committed against blacks. Abbott believed in fighting back against mistreatment by whites and used such slogans as, “If you must die, take at least one with you.”
As a result, many Southern cities tried to ban the Chicago Defender and confiscated copies when they arrived in town. But a distribution network was organized by railroad porters, who bought quantities of the paper in Chicago and sold them on trips to the South. Also, barnstorming athletes in the Negro Leagues and Chicago visitors brought back copies. The Encyclopedia Britannica said the Chicago Defender became “one of the most powerful organs of social action in America.” Abbott, who was born the son of former slaves 140 years ago this week, Nov. 24, 1870, started the newspaper with 25 cents and became a millionaire.
Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people and chose three – a sharecropper, a physician and a farm worker – who migrated in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, for detailed exposition. Her subjects found that leaving the South meant leaving some problems but newer ones were present in the places to which they relocated. The North was better but it was not the Promised Land.
The title of Wilkerson’s book is from a poem by former Memphian Richard Wright, who wrote about leaving the South to “Respond to the warmth of other suns/And, perhaps, to bloom.”
“At the beginning of the 20th century,” Wilkerson says, “before the migration began, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of them were living outside the South in the great cities of the North and West.”
Michele Norris’ book originally was intended to focus on “America’s hidden conversation about race,” but when she learned that her father, just out of the Navy, had left Birmingham for Minneapolis after being shot by a police officer she turned her attention to the “profound secrets” that exist in many families. Her father never mentioned the shooting and Norris learned about it from an uncle after her father’s death. Norris’ well-educated grandmother worked as a traveling Aunt Jemima, showing white housewives how to make pancakes – a story that was kept secret. Norris said she discovered her elders “wanted their children to soar, so they chose not to weigh down their pockets with personal tales of woe.”
Many blacks who moved away from the Bible Belt, in the manner of the early European migrants, referred to the South they left behind – with both loathing and longing – as “the Old Country.” It was a daring act to leave everything behind.
Not all heroes do spectacular things that attract wide attention. Sometimes the sacrificial attention to the everyday details of ensuring a family – especially the children – is well cared for can be a supreme act of heroism.