The Great Migration
“Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance…. Both races need to understand that their rights and duties are mutual and equal and their interests in the common good are idential…. There is no help or healing in apparaising past responsibilities or in present apportioning of praise or blame. The past is of value only as it aids in understanding the present; and an understanding of the facts of the problem–a magnanimous understanding by both races–is the first step toward its solution.”
― Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
After the Civil War ended, slaves were freed in several states with literally nowhere to go. While there were institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau and various Christian groups that attempted to help the newly freed, unemployed, poor former slaves with little inkling of how to make a fresh start. The newly implement “Black Codes” required that blacks be contractually employed at substandard wages, not congregate except for religious purposes without white people present, not vote, not own land in most cases and in most cases still denied a good education. Many followed the call to head North, or West in search of better opportunities. It was only later that they discovered that free blacks were as unwelcome elsewhere in America as they were at home. As always it was an economic need that caused change, in this case, World War One.
Blacks have served in some capacity in all America’s wars including on both sides in the Revolutionary War, the Indian Wars, and the Civil War. In all cases, their service was related to shortages and need as they were hardly welcome members of any force. Although there were over 300,000 black volunteers that served in World War One. Most blacks did not serve and as a result of shortages of white males in Northern industrial cities. Blacks were for the first time actively recruited to move North and receive wages often three times or more than their wages in the South. Often transportation costs were paid and the choice didn’t seem hard whether to stay under purposely slave-like conditions or go to what not long ago had been referred to as “the promised land”.
Between 1915 and 1960 between five and six million blacks moved out of the South to the North and West. The North represented a more predictable opportunity, the West the promise of more freedom and land in some cases. There were black sections within large Northern cities where there were some of the indicators of self-government although that claim would be too strong. Black churches and black schools provided the next generation of black leaders. Black cities sprung up in Kansas, New York, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Some flourished for a time until they were no longer permitted to do so.
Not only did the great migration change forever the landscape of Northern cities. The South lost millions of low paid workers not easily replaced. The South experienced higher wages and therefore lower profit margins and the South which once was the engine of the U.S. economy, was solidly entrenched in the North’s rear. In the West, white and black migrants left Arkansas and Oklahoma for the fields of California. Some Mexicans came north to work the fields to work some of what had once been Mexico but were met with the same fear and resistance then that they are today. It was World War Two that created a shortage of white males and an additional need for laborers. Over four million Mexican migrants were invited to the U.S. under the Bracero Program with the hopes they would go home after the crops were harvested. As you might imagine, many of the Mexican migrant workers had children while in America who were automatically American citizens with no obligation to go with their families to Mexico. Of course, they like other migrant workers and minorities in general, had unequal access to education, health care, were paid poor wages and couldn’t vote.
Migration did not mean acceptance. I don’t know what period Donald Trump has in mind when he says, “Make America Great Again” but there was almost no time in our whole history without race riots. That term is somewhat misleading as one might think it meant racial minorities rising up against their local communities. It more likely meant their communities turning on them. Go to any major city and the dividing line between the black and white sections of town were railroad tracks. This is not a coincidence, but by design so that the army or National Guard could have easy access to the community to quickly blockade the black sections and secondarily protect white property.
If you look at the locations of race riots since the Civil War, it shouldn’t be surprising that they migrated North as well. The first riots even before the war were in Detroit and New York as white people took out their resentment on free black men in retaliation for the implementation of the draft of white men in preparation for the Civil War. After war’s end violence was seen first in Southern cities like Memphis, New Orleans and Pulaski, TN where the KKK was founded. Called riots by those who wrote the history, they were attacks on black citizens for sometimes desiring the right to vote and sometimes protesting the murder of unarmed black citizens. Black lives didn’t matter then either.
Besides the “riots” in larger cities. There were events like the Opelousas Massacre where a dozen blacks in Opelousas, LA tried to leave the Republican Party and become Democrats. It was the Democrats and the Knights of the White Camellia met black protesters with gunfire (blacks were not allowed to own guns). Republicans estimated the number of blacks killed at between 200-300 while Democrats insist it was “only” 25-35. There was general agreement that between 30-50 white people were killed. An investigation by the Freedmen’s Bureau placed the numbed of black people killed at 5.
In 1876, almost the entire state of South Carolina was involved in unrest related to efforts of the Democratic Party to keep blacks from voting. What they couldn’t accomplish through lynching and fear tactics they accomplished by outright fraud. To be fair, race-based attacks were not limited to attacks on black people but also included the Chinese, Irish, and Greek. By naming some of the “race riots” I do a disservice by not mentioning the literally hundreds of race-based mass murders not mentioned, not even considering individual lynching.
After the great migration, riots moved to Philadelphia and Houston and E. St Louis. A movie was made about the destruction of Rosewood, FL. No movie has yet been made about the bombing, machine gun fire, and air attacks that destroyed “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, OK. 10,000 black people left homeless. 35 blocks destroyed by fire, 1,256 residences destroyed. Hundreds murdered and dumped into mass graves and as usual… no justice.
Harlem, Detroit, Harlem again. All these before the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voter Rights Act of 1965, much of which has been undone by the Roberts Court. Going North and West was not the path to the promised land but the realization that for black people in America. Life would be no crystal stair.