THE THINGS THEY LEFT BEHIND

There were no Chinaberry trees.11 No pecan trees.… 

Never again would I pick dew berries

or hear the familiar laughter from the field truck.

This was my world now, this strange new family

and their cramped quarters over the tiny grocery store

they grandly called the “confectionery.

—CLIFTON TAULBERT, The Last Train North

IN THE NORTH AND WEST, 1915–2000

WHEN THEY FLED, there were things they left behind. There were people they might not see again. They would now find out through letters and telegrams that a baby had been born or that a parent had taken ill or passed away. There were things they might not ever taste or touch or share in again because they were hundreds of miles from all that they had known. From this moment forward, it would take great effort and resources merely to sit and chat over salt pork and grits with a beloved mother or sister who had chosen not to go. Perhaps the greatest single act of family disruption and heartbreak among black Americans in the twentieth century was the result of the hard choices made by those on either side of the Great Migration.

The South was still deep within those who left, and the sight of some insignificant thing would take them back and remind them of what they once were. For my mother, a vase of Casablanca lilies far from home took her back to the memory of this:

Once a year on a midsummer night that could not be foretold, a curious plant called the night-blooming cereus would decide to undrape its petals. It was said, among the colored people in the small-town South who followed such things and made a ritual of its arrival, that if you looked hard enough, you could see the face of the baby Jesus in the folds of the bloom.

My mother’s mother, who sang to her camellias and made showpieces of the most recalcitrant and unlovable of plants—the African violets and Boston ferns that died when other people just looked at them—did not want to leave the land of her ancestors, the drawl of small-town convention, the hard soil she had willed into a cutting garden. There was chaos in the Jim Crow world outside her picket fence. But inside, there was peace and beauty, and she insulated herself in her perennial beds.

She grew a night-blooming cereus on the front porch of her yellow bungalow. Its gangly branches coiled out of its pot and snaked along the porch planks. It was an unpleasant-looking orphan of a plant that was only worth growing for the one night in the year when its white, lily-like petals managed to open for a few hours when nobody would be up to see it.

My mother’s mother tended its homely stalks all through the year. She watched it close and made note when the buds were plump and ready to unfurl. As soon as she was certain, she alerted the neighbors as they passed her front yard with its roses the size of saucers, which she sold after some cajoling for a dollar apiece, and its crape myrtles the color of cotton candy.

“My night-blooming cereus is going to open tonight,” she told them.

Amanda Poindexter, Miss Lilybell Nelson, who lived up the hill and sang like a bird, Mrs. Jacobs next door, and a few other neighbor ladies on Gibbon Street would arrive at my grandmother’s front porch at around midnight. They drank sweet tea and ate freshly churned vanilla ice cream. They rocked in the porch swing, which creaked as they rocked, and they waited. As a young girl, my mother sat watching on the porch steps, mystified by the grown people’s patience and devotion.

The opening took hours. Sometime around three in the morning, the white petals spread open, and the women set down their sweet tea to crane their necks over the blossom. They inhaled its sugary scent and tried to find the baby Jesus in the cradle in the folds. Most exclaimed that they saw it; my mother said she never did. But she would remember the wait for the night-blooming cereus, the Georgia heat stifling and heavy, and take the memory with her when she left, though she would never share in the mystery of that Gibbon Street ritual again.

As best they could, the people brought the Old Country with them—a taste for hominy grits and pole beans cooking in salt pork, the “sure enoughs” and “I reckons” and the superstitions of new moons and itchy palms that had seeped into their very being.

In the New World, they surrounded themselves with the people they knew from the next farm over or their Daily Vacation Bible School, from their clapboard Holiness churches, from the colored high schools or the corner store back home, and they would keep those ties for as long as they lived. The ones from the country fired their shotguns into the night air on New Year’s Eve like they did back home in Georgia and Mississippi and ate black-eyed peas and rice for good luck on New Year’s Day. The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went. Even now, with barbecues and red soda pop, they celebrate June 19, 1865, the day Union soldiers rode into Galveston, announced that the Civil War was over, and released the quarter-million slaves in Texas who, not knowing they had been freed, had toiled for two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.12

Whole churches and social rituals in the North and West would be built around certain southern towns or entire states. Well into the 1990s, at the Bridge Street Church in Brooklyn, for instance, when people from South Carolina were asked to stand and make themselves known, half the flock would rise to its feet. To this day, people still wear sequins and bow ties to the annual Charleston Ball in Washington, where a good portion of the Carolinas went.

It turned out they were not so different from Sicilians settling in Little Italy or Swedes in Minnesota.

In the New World, colonies organized themselves into Mississippi and Arkansas Clubs in Chicago; Florida Clubs in Harlem; Carolina Clubs in Brooklyn and Philadelphia; and numerous Texas Clubs, general Louisiana Clubs, several New Orleans Clubs, and, among others, a Monroe, Louisiana, Club and a Lake Charles, Louisiana, Club in Los Angeles.

They met over oxtails and collard greens well into the turn of the new century or for as long as the original migrants lived to recall among their dwindling membership the things they’d left behind: the ailing parents and scuffling siblings and sometimes even their own children; the courtly tipping of one’s hat to a stranger; the screech owls and whippoorwills wailing outside their windows foretelling an imminent death; paper-shell pecans falling to the ground; mimosa trees, locust trees, dogwood trees, and chinaberries; the one-room churches where the people fanned themselves through parching revivals and knelt by the ancestors buried beside the sanctuary light. These things stayed with them even though they left, because a crying part of them had not wanted to leave.

“If I were half as well treated home as here,” a migrant in Pittsburgh told the economist Abraham Epstein early in the Migration, “I would rather stay there.”13

They wired money back home, as expected, and sent a larger share of their straining paychecks than they could truly afford to the people they left behind. In his study of the Migration, Epstein found that eighty percent of the married migrants and nearly half of the single ones were sending money home, most sending five dollars per week and some sending ten or more dollars per week out of weekly wages of fifteen dollars back then for unskilled laborers, as many of them would have been.14

There was something earnest and true-hearted about them. They greeted people on northern sidewalks a little too quickly and too excitedly for the local people’s liking and to the stricken embarrassment of their more seasoned cousins and northern-born children. They talked of a lush, hot-blooded land to children growing up fast and indifferent in a cold place too busy to stop and visit.

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