“We have to be shot down here like rabbits.” (The Great Migration: Part 1)

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


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

Initiated before the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction held the promise of freedom, full citizenship, and (for men) the franchise for African Americans. But even before the Federal troops that were enforcing Reconstruction withdrew from the former Confederate States, Southern communities and legislatures set about to return the freed men and women to their former condition. Despite the guarantees of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, blacks were denied their new rights through legal and extra-legal means.

In the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains.  However, many more faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.

Seeking information about opportunities in the North, 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 written by a 17-year-old girl from Selma, Alabama:

Dear Sir:

I am a reader of the Chicago Defender I think it is one of the Most Wonderful Papers of our race printed. Sirs I am writeing to see if You all will please get me a job. And Sir I can wash dishes, wash, iron, nursing, work in groceries and dry good stores. Just any of these I can do. Sir, whosoever you get the job from, please tell them to send me a ticket and I will pay them when I get their, as I have not got enough money to pay my way. I am a girl of 17 years old and in the 8 grade at Knox Academy School. But on account of not having money enough I had to stop school. Sir I will thank you all with all my heart. May God Bless you all. Please answer in return mail.

In this first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration, we will see what changed–and what didn’t change–for African Americans in the South after the Civil War.

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

Welcome to American Epistles!

Image credit:  Public Doman

Where does “history” come from? How do we know, for example, what words didn’t make it into the Declaration of Independence?  Or what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued about before the final document was signed on September 17, 1787?

To a great degree, our history textbooks started with the diaries that the Founding Fathers kept, and the letters they wrote to one another.

But there is more to history than Founding Fathers and famous generals. There are millions of names that we’ll never know, of soldiers who fought in American wars, and families who waited for their return. People who hoped and waited for change, but may not have lived to enjoy the rights that the law would eventually grant them. People who weren’t trying to make history, but were just living their lives.

On American Epistles, we will hear from these “ordinary” people, through their journals, diaries, and personal letters. Each episode will focus on a different time period or event, and feature the words of some Americans who lived through it.

Please come back on Saturday, January 5, for the first episode, about the Great Migration. We will hear letters from a few of the millions of African Americans who left the Jim Crow South in search of a better life. Letters like this one:

East Chicago, Indiana

June 10, 1917

Dear Old Friend:
These moments I thought I would write you a few true facts of the present condition of the north. Certainly I am trying to take a close observation–now it is tru the (col) men are making good. Never pay less than $3.00 per day or (10) hours–this is not promise. I do not see how they pay such wages the way they work labors. They do not hurry or drive you. Remember this is the very lowest wages. Piece work men can make from $6 to $8 per day. They receive their pay every two weeks. This city I am living in, the population [is] 30,000 (20) miles from Big Chicago, Ill. Doctor I am some what impress. My family also. They are doing nicely. I have no right to complain what ever … People are coming here every day and are finding employment. Nothing here but money and it is not hard to get. Remember me to your dear Family. Oh, I have children in school every day with the white children. I will write you more next time. How is the lodge?

Your friend,

New episodes will post the first and third Saturday of every month … hopefully. 🙂  Thank you all for your support and see you next year!


The letter from Sgt. Ann Burchard is the property of the State Historical Society of Missouri. Browse their full collection of WWII correspondence.

The letter by the migrant to Indiana was originally printed in the Chicago Defender Newspaper, and reprinted in the Journal of Negro History, which is in the public domain and available at Gutenberg.org.

Sources cited:
Chernow, Ron. Washington: a Life. Penguin Books, 2010