28.1942.20
“The Migrants Arrived in Great Numbers,” Jacob Lawrence
Image credit:  Museum of Modern Art


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“…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” — W.E.B. duBois

The Civil War was supposed to mean the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom, franchise, and full citizenship for African Americans. And in the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains.  But as we learned in the first episode of American Epistles, many more formerly enslaved people and their children faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.

With the outbreak of World War I, immigration to the United States decreased and production demands increased.   Low unemployment in the North meant that African Americans had a new opportunity to escape life in the South.

Men and women, the young and the older, regardless of education level, wrote letters to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Chicago Urban League, and other organizations.  The following letter was one of many that expressed their desperation:

Macon, GA
April 1, 1917

Dear Sir:
I am writing you for information. I want to come north east, but I have not sufficient funds, and I am writing you to see if there is any way that you can help me by giving me the names of some of the firms that will send me a transportation, as we are down here where we have to be shot down here like rabbits for every little [offense], as I seen an [occurrence] [happen] down here this after noon when three [deputies] from the [sheriff’s] office [and] one Negro spotter come out and found some of our [race men] in a crap game. And it makes me want to leave the south worse than I ever did when such things hapen right at my door, hopeing to have a reply soon and will in close a stamp from the same.

This was the first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration.

Recommended Reading
The Warmth of Other Suns:  Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow:  Richard Wormser covers a lot of ground in a relative few pages.  It opens with Reconstruction and ends at 1954.

I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” Carole Marks

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

The Civil War:  The Senate’s History

The Great Black Migration:  A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration,” James R. Grossman

The Other Black Wall Streets

Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, Brian Kelly

Separate is Not Equal:  Brown v. Board of Education

Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon

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