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

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“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

“His Intelligence from the Enemy’s Camp were Industriously Collected…” (Mini Episode: James Armistead Lafayette)

 

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James Armistead Lafayette (image credit:  Virginia Historical Society)


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“This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” — Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1784

In the spring of 1781, General George Washington sent the French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia to thwart the advancing British army.   An enslaved man by the name of James Armistead responded to the marquis’s call for spies.  Serving at the table of British General Charles Cornwallis, Armistead overheard valuable information that helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War.  Armistead was eventually granted his freedom for his service.  Once a free man, he added “Lafayette” to his name.

This episode is dedicated to Belmont Station Elementary’s fourth grade classes, who studied Virginia history this year.  You are STARS!

Recommended Reading

Young listeners to today’s episode might enjoy Black Heroes of the American Revolution.

“The more I read, the more I fought against slavery.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy, Part 3)

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William Grimes authored the first book-form slave narrative printed in the United States.  (Image credit:  New Georgia Encyclopedia)


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“It was my great desire to read easily this book. I thought it was written by the Almighty himself. I loved this book, and prayed over it and labored until I could read it. I used to go to the church to hear the white preacher. When I heard him read his text, I would read mine when I got home. This is the way, my readers, I learned to read the Word of God when I was a slave. Thus did I labor eleven years under the impression that I was called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ever-blessed God.” — Rev. Peter Randolph, 1855

For enslaved Americans, literacy was a path to freedom.

Those who could write forged the “tickets” that both enslaved and free blacks needed to move about.  Some of these tickets took enslaved people all the way to free states, and even to Canada.

Literacy provided spiritual freedom.  It enabled people in bondage to read the whole Bible, and not just the sections that enslavers quoted.  The Bible represented liberation, both on earth and in eternity.  Enslaved Christians identified with the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

And in sharing their stories, people who had escaped slavery hoped to awaken sympathy in their fellow Americans and achieve freedom for all enslaved people.

This is the final episode in a three-part series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Bly, Antonio T. “Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 24 Jun. 2019.

Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read:’ Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 44, no. 3, 1983, pp. 171–186. JSTOR.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer, “Reading for the Enslaved, Writing for the Free: Reflections on Liberty and Literacy,” American Antiquarian Society, 2000.

Williams, Heather Andrea. “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom,” University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Additional Sources:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives Collection