As we are winding down Black History Month I am enjoying the events brought to campus to honor the black experience in America. Although I find myself in high demand this month, almost as if some folks are sitting around pondering black history month and then have an epiphany “Let’s call Cookie, she is black!”, I do enjoy the month because as an historian ( I still like the an, even though a historian seems to be more common usage these days) I like it when anyone talks about the past.
Not surprisingly since it is Black HISTORY month, most of the lectures, panels, talks, films, etc. deal with the past. This also defuses at least a little bit, some of the tension involved in talking about race. No one, or at least no one I have ever run into personally, is going to defend either slavery or Jim Crow, at least not openly. We do have, of course, those Neo-Confederates who try to claim that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Yeah, it was, over the southern states’ rights to keep slaves, or those modern apologists who try to sanitize the evils of slavery and Jim Crow by claiming blacks should be grateful their ancestors were kidnapped because, hey, America is better than Africa!!
But generally, in polite company people are not going to offer the opinion that the men, women and children who were raped, beaten, murdered–by being worked to death, malnourished or outright shot, deserved it.
This provides a fairly unique opportunity for all of us ( except those few toothless denizens of places like Possum Trot, Mississippi ) to be on the same side of the race question for a minute. It was bad, it was wrong, but it is over and we can all rejoice in our progress, hold hands and sing “We HAVE overcome.”
Friday I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the author of the book “The warmth of other suns.” The book chronicles the experiences of three black folks who fled the Jim Crow South to make a life in other parts of the country. They were not alone. Six million blacks left the South between WWI and the 1960s, my parents among them.
Let me say that again, 6 MILLION people pulled up stakes and moved. The basic facts she shared were not new to me, that WWI left the factories of the North short of labor and they began casting around for new workers. At the time 90% of blacks lived in the South and almost all worked at low wage or no wage ( sharecroppers) jobs. The North was not particularly fond of black people, but they needed hands and legs and backs to do the work of industry.
Blacks saw the opportunity to get away from an environment where they swore in people in court on two different bibles, the regular one and the “colored” one–same text, just that they did not want to chance having a white person, particularly a white woman, touch a book a black person had touched. Seeing the opportunity, they took it. Some of my far rightie friends–okay I lied, I do not have any far rightie friends, have tried to sell the idea that blacks streamed north and west because they wanted to get on welfare and it as easier in cities.Makes great sense, these people were obviously lazy since they had done virtually all of the manual labor work in the South for generations.
The info the author shared that was new to me was that there were three streams of migration. People from east coast states like NC, GA, SC, FL tended to flow to DC, NY, NJ, etc. She told a funny story about how many blacks ended up in Newark, NJ. The black migrants had been told to listen for “Penn Station, New York” as the place that would be the terminus of their journey. Considering the accents it is not surprising that a lot of them heard ” Penn Station, Newark” and exited the train.
The second stream from the middle southern states went to the midwest, Chicago, Detroit, and the third stream from Louisiana and Texas went west to California.My own family did not follow the pattern, darn it. DC is my favorite city, but my parents, although they were from Virginia and North Carolina, went first to Kentucky, where my father had a job teaching at a trade school and then to Ohio where he was able to open his own tailor shop in Fairborn, Ohio. We could not live there, of course, because blacks were not allowed in that era to live in Fairborn, so they settled in Xenia.
Another fascinating fact she shared was the talent pool that poured out of the South to the North, not only bringing facets of southern culture to the North, but allowing opportunities for such disparate talents as Coltrane, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, etc. Many of the black famous American luminaries of the last century were children of the Disapora. Their parents, or they themselves fled the Jim Crow South where they could not have developed their talents due to lack of opportunity to gain wealth, education and something as simple as music lessons or to be able to check out a library book, and we all would have been far poorer as a result.
At one point all of the black mayors of major cities, Bradley, Dinkins, etc. were children of the Diaspora, all of their families had left the South looking for a better life.
Imagine what it would take to pack up all of your belongings you could take– you would be riding a bus or a train–the back of it until you crossed the Mason Dixon line–and what little money you had and starting off for someplace with a different climate, different language ( English is not the same in the Mississippi Delta as in NYC even now, imagine the difference then) and with different customs. Leaving family and friends, perhaps never to see them again. The courage it took is almost incomprehensible.
And, their need for courage was not over when they reached the north. The urban centers where most of them settled were not welcoming. Many immigrant populations from other areas of the world, Eastern Europe, Ireland, were not happy to see what they viewed not only as members of a lower caste, but competition for jobs, and as a corollary, perhaps additions to the labor force that would drive wages down. Race riots were not uncommon and blacks were often the targets of beatings, lynchings, and having their home destroyed by fire.
And, the South, realizing what was happening, they were evil when it came to race, but not stupid, began to try to make it as hard to leave as possible. Having depended on black labor for hundreds of years they were not going to let them go easily. They arrested people on train platforms attempting to board trains for the North–no reason, just to make them miss the train and confiscate their money so they could not buy another ticket.
Some towns even waved trains on through, leaving blacks standing on the platform clutching what were now worthless tickets for a train disappearing in the distance.
In Xenia the Keys family had to walk out of Mississippi with the clothes on their backs. They had fallen victim to one of the primary tactics of the Southern landowners. They simply cooked the books kept for sharecroppers so that at the end of the growing season they tenant owed more than he earned. Local governments passed laws making it illegal to leave the county owing money, that meant the Sheriff would arrest you if you tried to move. Many people, like the Keys had to sneak out under cover of darkness to escape this modern version of slavery.
So, as the shortest month of the year winds down, I invite all of you to join me in celebrating the strength, courage, talent, accomplishments and spirit of black folks. What we have endured and how we have continued to rise is truly inspiring. We have our issues like all groups, but on the whole we are a fantastic people. I am both pleased and proud to be black, I only hope I can hold up the standard!.