The Great Migration occurred in the 20th century when millions of African Americans left the South seeking better futures for themselves and their children in the cities of the North and the West. This migration is typically recorded in history as occurring during World War I and into the 1920s, but Wilkerson recognizes that the migration actually continued and increased in numbers into the 1970s.
The reasons for leaving the South are clear. Many Black Americans worked as sharecroppers where their labor was exploited and what little income they took in was taken away again in payments to the landowners leaving them in a state of debt peonage. The system of segregation, formalized under the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s, prevented Southern Blacks from seeking to improve their station in life through education, jobs, or political action. Intimidation and lynching forestalled attempts to challenge segregation. Starting in World War I, recruiters from Northern factories began to travel South to encourage African Americans to come North to work (often risking beatings or death from Southern Whites).
The promise of jobs and an escape from the segregated South encouraged many Blacks to make the journey North. In addition to facing the challenges of finding the money and resources to leave their homes and families for the unknown, these migrants also risked threats from Southern Whites who, despite their prejudices, did not want their source of cheap labor to leave. In addition to lynchings and beatings, Southern Whites would prevent Blacks from migrating by exaggerating or making up entirely criminal charges and debts to keep them tied to the South. The railroads were the main route of migration and the cities African American migrants ended up in were often the ones served by railroad routes that connected to their Southern communities. In many cases, people from the same Southern towns and counties would end up living in the same neighborhoods in their Northern and Western cities.
Moving to the big cities provided African Americans with numerous opportunities – good jobs that paid well, better education, the opportunity to own property, the right to vote, and an escape from the strict caste system. Nevertheless, these migrants found that the North and the South often had their own systems of segregation, a more genteel, unwritten code they referred to as “James Crow.” Seeking places to live, Black renters found themselves restricted to certain areas of the city and forced to pay higher rents than white people would pay for similar properties. Immigrants from Europe resented that Black workers would take lower wages. On the other hand, they showed little solidarity, and restricted Blacks from joining their unions.
African American migrants kept close ties to the South, acting as resources for future migrants, and helping newcomers get settled. They also kept an eye on the growing Civil Rights Movement, supporting it from afar. By the mid-1970s, the flow of the Great Migration ceased. The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s began taking effect, meaning there were more opportunities for those remaining in the South. At the same time, the fiscal decline of the big cities meant that good-paying jobs were no longer available and crime was on the rise.
Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three main characters who make their journey in three different decades. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her husband George are sharecroppers in Mississippi who move to Chicago in the 1930s. There she becomes a pillar of the working class African American community for several decades, yet never loses here Southern accent. George Swanson Starling is forced to leave college early to find work picking fruit in Florida. During the labor shortages of WWII, George begins organizing the pickers for better pay and conditions, but eventually the threat of lynching forces him to flee to New York. He spends 35 years working as a porter on the trains connecting Florida to New York. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is a highly-skilled physician and veteran who marries into one of the most prosperous and influential African American families of Atlanta. Nevertheless, he feels that he will never achieve his potential in the segregated South, so in the 1950s he makes the journey to Los Angeles. There he indeed becomes a wildly successful and prosperous physician (even mentioned in a song by one of his patients, Ray Charles). But success comes at the cost of strained family relationships, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling.
Wilkerson tells the stories of her three main characters in a novelistic style. Interweaved with these personal histories are more general demographic trends and anecdotes of other migrants’ experiences. The style is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – itself a story about migrants – where the narrative of the Joad family alternates with vignettes of other people’s experiences. This is an important book about an under-recognized phenomenon in American history written in an engaging literary style.
The Great Migration would not end until the 1970s, when the South began finally to change—the whites-only signs came down, the all-white schools opened up, and everyone could vote. By then nearly half of all black Americans—some forty-seven percent—would be living outside the South, compared to ten percent when the Migration began. “Oftentimes, just to go away,” wrote John Dollard, a Yale scholar studying the South in the 1930s, “is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put.”
What few people seemed to realize or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.
The arbitrary nature of grown people’s wrath gave colored children practice for life in the caste system, which is why parents, forced to train their children in the ways of subservience, treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.
The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.
The people who lived in the cabins gave the best hours of their days to cotton, working until the sun went behind the trees and they couldn’t see their hands anymore.
On Wall Street, there were futures and commodities traders wagering on what the cotton she had yet to pick might go for next October. There were businessmen in Chicago needing oxford shirts, socialites in New York and Philadelphia wanting lace curtains and organdy evening gowns. Closer to home, closer than one dared to contemplate, there were Klansmen needing their white cotton robes and hoods.
Many years later, the people would stand up to water hoses and sheriffs’ dogs to be treated as equal. But for now the people resisted in silent, everyday rebellions that would build up to a storm at midcentury. Rocks stuffed into cotton sacks in Mississippi at weighing time. The COLORED ONLY signs pulled from the seat backs of public buses and converted into dartboards in dorm rooms in Georgia. Teenagers sneaking into coffee shops and swiveling on the soda fountain stools forbidden to colored people in Florida and then running out as fast as they’d come in before anybody could catch them. Each one fought in isolation and unbeknownst to the others, long before the marches and boycotts that were decades away.
Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns. This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run-down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.
The pickers had more money in their pockets than they were raised to think they had a right to, and times were the best they had ever been, which said more about how meager the past had been than how great the present was. There was a war going on, after all. They hated that there was a war, but they knew that it made them indispensable for once, and deep inside they wished it would never end.
The Great Migration in particular was not a seasonal, contained, or singular event. It was a statistically measurable demographic phenomenon marked by unabated outflows of black émigrés that lasted roughly from 1915 to 1975. It peaked during the war years, swept a good portion of all the black people alive in the United States at the time into a river that carried them to all points north and west.
Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.
The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream, the one George Starling was about to embark upon, carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia up the eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and their satellites. A second current, Ida Mae’s, traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people like Pershing from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.
For a time in the 1920s, the ride to Chicago was interrupted after the train crossed the Ohio River into Cairo, as if the train were passing from Poland into the old Soviet Union during the Cold War. Once over the river and officially in the North, the colored cars had to be removed in a noisy and cumbersome uncoupling and the integrated cars attached in their place to adhere to the laws of Illinois. Colored passengers had to move, wait, reshuffle themselves, and haul their bags to the newly attached integrated cars. Going south, the ritual was reversed.
He had learned that fear when he was little and once passed the white people’s church. The kids came out of the church when they saw him. They threw rocks and bricks and called him the vilest names that could spring from a southern tongue. And he asked his grandparents, “What kind of god they got up inside that church?”
Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States—from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later—riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition. Nearly every big northern city experienced one or more during the twentieth century. Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.
By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census (the last census after the close of the Great Migration, which statistically ended in the 1970s) were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least: (1) Chicago, (2) Detroit, (3) Cleveland, (4) Milwaukee, (5) Newark, (6) Gary, Indiana, (7) Philadelphia, (8) Los Angeles, (9) Baltimore, and (10) St. Louis—all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration.
Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense
of the quiet, obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.
The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went. They incited greater fear and resentment in part because there was no ocean between them and the North as there was with many other immigrant groups. There was no way to stem the flow of blacks from the South, as the
authorities could and did by blocking immigration from China and Japan, for instance. Thus, blacks confronted hostilities more severe than most any other group (except perhaps Mexicans, who could also cross over by land), as it could not be known how many thousands more might come and pose a further threat to the preexisting world of the North.