Because we have tasted
the bitter swill
of civil war and segregation,
and emerged from that dark chapter
stronger and more united,
we cannot help but believe
that the old hatreds shall someday pass;
that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve;
that, as the world grows smaller,
our common humanity
shall reveal itself.…
PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURAL ADDRESS,
JANUARY 20, 2009
By the time the Great Migration was over, few Americans had not been touched by it. The descendants of those who left the South were raised in a world their ancestors could not have comprehended. Those who stayed had relatives up north or out west that they could boast about and options they had not had before if they, too, wanted to leave. In parts of old Abbeville County, South Carolina, for instance, “there is not one family that does not have close relatives in Philadelphia,” wrote the scholar Allen B.22 Ballard. “It’s always Philadelphia.” Their world—the former Confederacy—was made better in part because of the pressures put upon it by those who made the sacrifice to leave it. The blacks who arrived from Africa and the Caribbean entered a country where people of African descent could breathe freer for all that had come before them. They lived next to and did business with the great mass of people who had migrated from the South. So, too, did other immigrants and native whites who employed the migrants and their children, rented to them, sold goods to them, fled from them, or befriended them. And people the world over were enriched by the music the migrants carried north with them and, through translation, became—from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis to Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones to Tupac Shakur, and many others—essentially the soundtrack of the twentieth century.
With all that grew out of this mass movement of people, did the Great Migration achieve the aim of those who willed it? Were the people who left the South—and their families—better off for having done so? Was the loss of what they left behind worth what confronted them in the anonymous cities they fled to?
Throughout the Migration, social scientists all but concluded that the answer to those questions was no, that the Migration had led to the troubles of the urban North and West, most scholars blaming the dysfunction of the inner cities on the migrants themselves. The migrants were cast as poor illiterates who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness, and welfare dependency wherever they went.
“Masses of ignorant, uncouth, and impoverished migrants flooded the city,” the sociologist E.23 Franklin Frazier wrote of the migration to Chicago, “and changed the whole structure of the Negro community.”
The presence of the migrants “in such large numbers crushed and stagnated the progress of Negro life,” the economist Sadie Mossell wrote early in the migration to Philadelphia.24
Newly available census records suggest the opposite to be true. According to a growing body of research, the migrants were, it turns out, better educated than those they left behind in the South and, on the whole, had nearly as many years of schooling as those they encountered in the North.25 Compared to the northern blacks already there, the migrants were more likely to be married and remain married, more likely to raise their children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed. The migrants, as a group, managed to earn higher incomes than northern-born blacks even though they were relegated to the lowest-paying positions. They were less likely to be on welfare than the blacks they encountered in the North, partly because they had come so far, had experienced such hard times, and were willing to work longer hours or second jobs in positions that few northern blacks, or hardly anyone else for that matter, wanted, as was the case with Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, Robert Foster, and millions of others like them.
“The Southerners had their eye out for something,” an old settler, Arthur Fauset, was quoted as saying in a book on the migration to Philadelphia.26 “These shrewd South Carolinians came here as if they knew there was something they could get and they went after it.”
It could not have been imagined in the early decades of the Great Migration that some of those unwashed masses yearning to breathe free would end up leading the very cities that had rejected them upon arrival.
The first black mayors in each of the major receiving cities of the North and West were not longtime northern native blacks or those having arrived from the Caribbean but participants or sons of the Great Migration. Carl Stokes, whose parents migrated from Georgia to Ohio during World War I, would be elected, in 1967, mayor of Cleveland, the first black to hold that office in any major American city. Tom Bradley, the son of sharecroppers, whose family fled central Texas for California when he was six years old, would become, in 1973, the first black mayor of Los Angeles. Coleman Young, whose parents brought him north from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, would become, in 1974, mayor of Detroit. Harold Washington, whose father migrated from Kentucky to Illinois, would, in 1983, be elected, contentiously so, mayor of Chicago. Wilson Goode, the son of sharecroppers from North Carolina, would become, in 1984, the mayor of Philadelphia. David Dinkins, the son of a barber who migrated from Newport News, Virginia, to Trenton, New Jersey, would, in 1990, become mayor of New York. And Willie Brown, a onetime farmhand who left the cotton fields of east Texas for northern California, would become mayor of San Francisco in 1996, after having served as the Speaker of the California Assembly, the first black to do so. Many of these men would serve multiple, if often difficult, terms in office, but each had exceeded anything their origins would have foretold.
Over time, the Migration would transform American music as we know it. The three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration. Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. John Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina, for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen.27 Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used one once he got north. “He would just sit there all the time and practice and smoke cigarettes,” a friend said. The neighbors complained, and a minister decided to give Coltrane the key to a Philadelphia church where he could play his sax whenever he wanted, which was often enough that his friends thought it bordered on the maniacal.
Such may be the sheer force of determination of any emigrant leaving one repressive place for something he or she hopes will be better. But for many of the migrants from the South, the stakes were especially high—there was no place left to go, no other refuge or other suns to search for, in their own country if they failed. Things had to work out, whatever it took, and that determination showed up in the statistics.
“Upon their arrival in northern cities, the recent southern migrants actually enjoyed greater family stability than their northern-born neighbors,” the sociologists Stewart Tolnay and Kyle Crowder wrote in 1999.28
“Compared with northern-born blacks,” Tolnay wrote in 2003 as a result of his continuing research, “southern migrants had higher rates of participation in the labor force, lower levels of unemployment, higher incomes, lower levels of poverty and welfare dependency.”29
Something deep inside helped push them past the improbability of survival in a strange land and even past many people already there.30 “Whether one considers poverty status, earnings, or total income,” the census analysts Larry H. Long and Lynne R. Heltman wrote, “independent studies are in unanimous agreement with the present finding that southern-born blacks are more economically successful in the North than northern born blacks.”
In cases where things went awry, it turned out that the longer the migrants were exposed to the northern cities, the more vulnerable some became to the troubles of the preexisting world they had entered. If anything, the scholars found, the migrants who stumbled were brought down by the conditions of the northern cities, not the other way around.
“Instead of thinking of southern migrants as the ‘culprits’ in changes that have occurred in the urban black family during this century,” Tolnay and Crowder wrote, “it may be more accurate to think of them as the ‘victims’ of their new residential milieu.”31
Just to leave, the migrants had to draw upon their inner reserves, transcend the limits of caste and geography and the station to which they had been assigned. The beneficiaries, despite the casualties, were many. The migrants would seem to be the prime beneficiaries of their actions. But they were the ones who had to face the unsettled in-betweenness of their emigrant status. Their individual actions, added together, benefited their children, their grandchildren, and even those they left behind in the South as much as if not more than themselves.
The Migration helped other people of color—the later arrivals from Asia, South and Central America, and the Middle East—whose worlds opened up further as the country liberalized its views of diversity. The Migration exposed white Americans outside the South to black culture and created an opportunity—much of it missed—to bridge the races in the New World. The Migration changed American culture as we know it. The migrants brought the blues and birthed whole genres of music—jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, hip-hop. The Migration would influence the language, food, dance, and dress we take for granted. The Migration “led to higher earnings, an influential black electorate and a black middle class,” wrote the preeminent sociologist Reynolds Farley.32
Regardless of their formal education, those who persevered in the New World, on the whole, enjoyed greater economic success than they would have otherwise. “Black migrants who left the South and did not return had higher incomes than those who never left or those who returned,” the census analysts Larry H.33 Long and Kristin A. Hansen wrote. And, as the Migration spread the issue of race relations across the United States, forcing the entire country to face its centuries-old demons, it also helped inspire and pressure other racial regimes such as that of South Africa and, thus, was a gift to other parts of the world.
In their own lives, whatever individual success each migrant found was in part a function of how he or she adapted to the New World and made peace, or not, with the Old. Each of the three people in this book represented some aspect of the emigrant psyche, of the patterns of adjustment facing anyone who has ever left one place for another, desperate to make a go of it.
Robert Foster found financial success and walked taller in a land more suited to him. But he turned his back on the South and the culture he sprang from. He rarely went back. He plunged himself fully into an alien world that only partly accepted him and went so far as to change his name and assume a different persona to fit in. It left him a rootless soul, cut off from the good things about the place he had left. He put distance between himself and his own children, hiding his southern, perhaps truest, self. He sought to overcome his emigrant insecurities by trying to prove himself at the casinos, proving instead how much one could lose in so short a time. In later life, he hungered for any news or reminder of home, like many an exile. He became as obsessed with outward appearances as the city he fled to and nursed ancient wounds until the day he died. But he would have had it no other way.
George Starling succeeded merely by not being lynched. Just living was an achievement. He managed to reach a level of material solvency he might never have known in the South, assuming he had survived. He paid a price. He enjoyed the fruits of the North and the South but grieved over how he had to leave and what might have been. He was as northern as he was southern, biregional, one might say, not fully one or the other. His ultimate success was psychological freedom from the bonds of his origins. Leaving the South and working the railroads gave him a view of the world he might otherwise never have had. He became a master observer of people and events. And in the end, the thing he wanted most of all, the education denied him early in life, came to him perhaps without his realizing it. He got an education, not the formal one of his dreams, but one he could not have imagined, a fuller one, perhaps, for having left the limited world of his birth.
Ida Mae Gladney had the humblest trappings but was the richest of them all. She had lived the hardest life, been given the least education, seen the worst the South could hurl at her people, and did not let it break her. She lived longer in the North than in the South but never forsook her origins, never changed the person she was deep inside, never changed her accent, speaking as thick a Mississippi drawl in her nineties as the day she caught the train out of Okolona sixty-odd years before. She was surrounded by the clipped speech of the North, the crime on the streets, the flight of the white people from her neighborhood, but it was as if she were immune to it all. She took the best of what she saw in the North and the South and interwove them in the way she saw fit. She followed every jump shot of the Chicago Bulls and knew how to make sweet potato pie like the best of them in the Delta. She lived in the moment, surrendered to whatever the day presented, and remained her true, original self. Her success was spiritual, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve. And because of that, she was the happiest and lived the longest of them all.
From the moment the first migrants set foot in the North during World War I, scholars began weighing in on the motivations of people like Ida Mae, George, and Robert—whether it was the pull of the North or the push of the South, whether they were driven by economics or by injustice and persecution, whether changes in cotton production started the Migration or merely hastened what was already under way, and whether the Migration would end, as some wrongly anticipated, with World War I.
Scholars widely disagreed over the role of lynchings in sparking a particular wave of migration. Some scholars saw no connection between lynching and an exodus of blacks from a given community, suggesting that the people might have been too afraid to leave or had simply accepted violence as a part of life in the South. Others found evidence that blacks did, in fact, leave as might be expected after those public executions. Given the enormity of the Migration, it is quite possible that both observations could have been true, that blacks might have found it more daunting or were not in a position to leave in the immediate aftermath of a lynching but that such violence might have planted the seeds of a departure that may have taken months to actually pull off, as in the case of Ida Mae Gladney.
In any case, the turmoil in the South could be felt in the North. “Black school principals in Philadelphia,” wrote the scholar Allen B.34 Ballard, could tell that “something had happened in a particular section of the South by the concentration of refugees from a certain place.”
At the same time, the exodus forced change in the South, albeit a slow and fitful one, almost from the start: the number of lynchings in the South declined in each successive decade of the Great Migration as the number of black departures went up. Though the violence would continue into the 1960s and there were many factors that figured into that form of vigilantism, it took less than a decade of migration to begin making a difference. “Since 1924”—some eight years into the Great Migration—“lynchings have been on a marked decline,” The Montgomery Advertiser of Alabama observed in 1959, four decades after the Migration began.35 “Lynchings have reached a vanishing point in recent years.”
For decades, it was argued that the Great Migration was triggered by changes in cotton farming: the boll weevil infestation of the 1920s and the early mechanical cotton harvester unveiled in the 1940s. But whatever cotton’s role in the Migration, it could, at best, account for only the subset of migrants who were picking cotton in the first place. Changes in cotton farming could not account for the Great Migration as a whole or for the motivations of the people who came from Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, western Texas, and Florida, for instance, where cotton was not the main industry, or for those in the cotton states who happened to be doing work other than picking cotton. Nor could it account for those who were in the industry but left for other reasons.
The timing of the Great Migration alone raises questions as to whether changes in cotton harvesting caused the Migration or whether it was the Migration that in fact set off changes in cotton production. The mechanical cotton picker did not exist when the exodus began.36 The Migration had been under way for some thirty years before the first viable prototypes were actually in use in the fields.
The Migration had siphoned off half a million black workers by 1920 alone. Not all of them were cotton pickers, but there was enough fretting over the loss of labor that the South began searching for a mechanical replacement for the workers the plantations were losing. The exodus of black southerners accelerated the drive toward finding a machine that could do what the pickers did. In the race toward an alternative, inventors registered nearly five hundred patents between 1901 and 1931, the early decades of the Migration, for some version of a hoped-for machine to pick cotton. That amounted to more than all the patents that had been issued in the entire second half of the nineteenth century, when the South did not have to worry about blacks leaving en masse.
Still, many planters were slow to accept the idea of such a machine or the implications of the growing black exodus.37 Nor did they welcome the sizable investment the new machines would require. Into the mid-1940s, the machines were plagued by imprecision, pulling up the stalks and all, and were seen as producing an inferior grade of cotton than what came from human hands. Thus, many planters did not then consider the machines a viable alternative.
It took World War II and the even bigger outflow of blacks to awaken them to what some agricultural engineers working on a mechanical harvester already knew: “Much of this labor is not returning to the farm,” Harris P.38 Smith, the chief of agricultural engineering at Texas A&M University, wrote in 1946. “Therefore, the cotton farmer is forced to mechanize.” As for the connection between the Migration and the machine, Smith concluded that “instead of the machines displacing labor, they were used to replace the labor that had left the farm.”
It was not until the 1950s—close to two generations after the Great Migration began—that cotton harvesters were in wide enough use to do what human hands had done for centuries. But by then, some four million black people had already left.
In interviews with more than twelve hundred migrants across the country about their decisions to migrate, none mentioned the boll weevil or the economics of cotton. This in itself does not mean these things were not unseen forces in their lives, only that they were not thinking of them as they made their decision, or in hindsight. It appeared that when it came to a life-altering change of such gravity, it was not one thing; it was many things, some weighing more heavily in one migrant’s heart than another but all very likely figuring into the calculus of departure.
All told, perhaps the most significant measure of the Great Migration was the act of leaving itself, regardless of the individual outcome. Despite the private disappointments and triumphs of any individual migrant, the Migration, in some ways, was its own point. The achievement was in making the decision to be free and acting on that decision, wherever that journey led them.
“If all of their dream does not come true,” the Chicago Defender wrote at the start of the Great Migration, “enough will come to pass to justify their actions.”39
Many black parents who left the South got the one thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy (who founded Motown and signed children of the Migration to sing for it), the astronaut Mae Jemison, the artist Romare Bearden, the performers Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Prince, Sean “P.40 Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, the director Spike Lee, the playwright August Wilson, and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks in this country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet, everyday ways that few people will ever hear about.
Most of these children would attend better schools than those in the South and, as a whole, outperform their southern white counterparts and nearly match the scores of northern-born blacks within a few years of arrival. Studies conducted in the early 1930s found that, after four years in the North, the children of black migrants to New York were scoring nearly as well as northern-born blacks who were “almost exactly at the norm for white children,” wrote Otto Klineberg, a leading psychologist of the era at Columbia University.41
“The evidence for an environmental effect is unmistakable,” he reported. He found that the longer the southern-born children were in the North, the higher they scored. The results “suggest that the New York environment is capable of raising the intellectual level of the Negro children to a point equal to that of the Whites.” Klineberg’s studies of the children of the Great Migration would later become the scientific foundation of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the school desegregation case, Brown v.42 the Board of Education, a turning point in the drive toward equal rights in this country.
In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get. They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not. It was a seemingly simple thing that the majority of Americans could take for granted but that the migrants and their forebears never had a right to in the world they had fled.
A central argument of this book has been that the Great Migration was an unrecognized immigration within this country. The participants bore the marks of immigrant behavior. They plotted a course to places in the North and West that had some connection to their homes of origin. They created colonies of the villages they came from, imported the food and folkways of the Old Country, and built their lives around the people and churches they knew from back home. They took work the people already there considered beneath them. They doubled up and took in roomers to make ends meet. They tried to instill in their children the values of the Old Country while pressing them to succeed by the standards of the New World they were in.
As with immigrant parents, a generational divide arose between the migrants and their children. The migrants couldn’t understand their impatient, northern-bred sons and daughters—why the children who had been spared the heartache of a racial caste system were not more grateful to have been delivered from the South. The children couldn’t relate to the stories of southern persecution when they were facing gangs and drive-by shootings, or, in the more elite circles, the embarrassment of southern parents with accents and peasant food when the children were trying to fit into the middle-class enclaves of the North.
And though this immigration theory may be structurally sound, with sociologists even calling them immigrants in the early years of the Migration, nearly every black migrant I interviewed vehemently resisted the immigrant label. They did not see themselves as immigrants under any circumstances, their behavior notwithstanding. The idea conjured up the deepest pains of centuries of rejection by their own country. They had been forced to become immigrants in their own land just to secure their freedom. But they were not immigrants and had never been actual immigrants. The South may have acted like a different country and been proud of it, but it was a part of the United States, and anyone born there was born an American.
The black people who left were citizens, and many of their forebears had been in this land before the country was founded. They were among the first nonnative people to set foot in the New World, brought by the Europeans to build it from wilderness and doing so without pay and by force from the time of the first arrivals in 1619 to their emancipation 246 years later. For twelve generations, their ancestors had worked the land and helped build the country. Into the twentieth century, their fourth century in America, they still had had to step aside and fall further down the economic ladder with each new wave of immigrants from all over the world, after generations as burden bearers.
It is one of those circular facts of history that, in the three great receiving cities to which southern blacks fled—the cities that drew Ida Mae, George, and Robert—blacks had been among the first nonnatives to set foot on the soil and to establish settlements centuries before. Black mestizoswere among the forty-four Mexican settlers arriving in 1781 at the pueblo that would become Los Angeles. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a fur trader born of an African slave woman in Haiti, built, in 1779, the first permanent settlement in what is now known as Chicago.43 Jan Rodrigues, a sailor of African descent working for and later abandoned by Dutch merchants on an untamed island in the New World, created the first trading post on what is now known as Manhattan, in 1613.44
And so when blacks who had migrated north and west showed resentment at being considered immigrants, it was perhaps because they knew in their bones that their ancestors had been here before there was a United States of America and that it took their leaving the South to achieve the citizenship they deserved by their ancestry and labors alone. That freedom and those rights had not come automatically, as they should have, but centuries late and of the migrants’ own accord.
With the benefit of hindsight, the century between Reconstruction and the end of the Great Migration perhaps may be seen as a necessary stage of upheaval. It was a transition from an era when one race owned another; to an era when the dominant class gave up ownership but kept control over the people it once had owned, at all costs, using violence even; to the eventual acceptance of the servant caste into the mainstream.
The Great Migration was the final break from an abusive union with the South. It was a step in freeing not just the people who fled, but the country whose mountains they crossed. Their exodus left a still imperfect but far different landscape than before the Migration began.
It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface. “In the simple process of walking away one by one,” wrote the scholar Lawrence R.45 Rodgers, “millions of African-American southerners have altered the course of their own, and all of America’s, history.”
Over the decades, perhaps the wrong questions have been asked about the Great Migration. Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long. By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.
NOTES ON METHODOLOGY
I began this work because of what I saw as incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened, particularly through the eyes of those who experienced it. Because it was so unwieldy and lasted for so long, the movement did not appear to rise to the level of public consciousness that, by any measure, it seemed to deserve.
The first question, in my view, had to do with its time frame: what was it, and when precisely did it occur? The Great Migration is often described as a jobs-driven, World War I movement, despite decades of demographic evidence and real-world indicators that it not only continued well into the 1960s but gathered steam with each decade, not ending until the social, political, and economic reasons for the Migration began truly to be addressed in the South in the dragged-out, belated response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The second question had to do with where it occurred. The migration from Mississippi to Chicago has been the subject of the most research through the years and has dominated discussion of the phenomenon, in part because of the sheer size of the black influx there and because of the great scholarly interest taken in it by a cadre of social scientists working in Chicago at the start of the Migration. However, from my years as a national correspondent at The New York Times and my early experiences growing up in a world surrounded by people who had come to the mid-Atlantic region during the latter half of the migration from all over the southeastern seaboard, I knew it to be a farther-reaching national resettlement than had been described by most studies of it.
Third, as most studies of the Migration focused on the important questions of demographics, politics, economics, and sociology, I wanted to convey the intimate stories of people who had dared to make the crossing. I wanted to capture the enormity of the phenomenon by tracking unrelated people who had followed the multiple streams of the Great Migration over the course of the decades it unfolded. I wanted to reach as many as I could of this dwindling generation in the spirit of the oral history projects with the last surviving slaves back in the 1930s.
Therefore, in the mid-1990s, I set out on a search for people who had migrated from the South to the North and West during the Great Migration. That search led me to Mississippi Clubs, Masonic lodges, class reunions, and union meetings of retired postal workers, bus drivers, transit workers, and other retirees on the South Side of Chicago; to quilting clubs, Baptist churches, and senior centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn; to Louisiana Clubs, Texas Clubs, Sunday Masses, Creole luncheons, and Juneteenth Day celebrations (commemorating the day the last slaves in Texas learned they were free, two years after Emancipation) in Los Angeles; to senior centers, libraries, and community meetings in Oakland; and to funerals and family reunions in Milwaukee. In these and dozens of other places frequented by seniors in these cities, I collected names and stories, interviewing more than twelve hundred people who shared with me preliminary versions of their experiences. I conducted follow-up interviews with three dozen of the most promising former migrants and settled on three complementary subjects through whose lives I hoped to re-create the broad sweep of the movement.
The book is essentially three projects in one. The first was a collection of oral histories from around the country. The second was the distillation of those oral histories into a narrative of three protagonists, each of whom led a sufficiently full life to merit a book in his or her own right and was thus researched and reported as such. The third was an examination of newspaper accounts and scholarly and literary works of the era and more recent analyses of the Migration to recount the motivations, circumstances, and perceptions of the Migration as it was in progress and to put the subjects’ actions into historical context.
As might be expected, the participants in the Migration had keener memories of their formative years and of the high and low points of their lives—the basis of this book—than of the more mundane and less relevant aspects of their retirement years. Some subjects recalled certain moments of their lives with greater detail than did other subjects recounting the same point in their own trajectory, which is reflected in the text. Furthermore, in their wisdom and commitment to an accurate rendering of events, they frequently declined to speculate or press beyond what they recollected. Where possible, I confirmed or clarified their accounts through interviews with the dwindling circle of surviving witnesses, cohorts, and family members; through newspaper accounts in the South and North dating back to 1900; and through census, military, railroad, school, state, and municipal records.
The primary subjects and many of the secondary informants were interviewed for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours, most of the interviews tape-recorded and transcribed. I returned to their counties of origin to interview the surviving people who knew them and to retrace their lives in the South. I then reenacted all or part of each subject’s migration route, devoting most of my time to the migration of Robert Foster, which meant driving from Monroe, Louisiana, to Houston and Laredo, Texas, to Lordsburg, New Mexico, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and on to Oakland, as Dr. Foster described in bitter detail, with my parents as generational tour guides for most of the journey. My father took notes and my mother offered commentary as I tried to re-create the experience of one person driving the entire distance through the desert night.
“You know he must have been ready to cry right about in here,” my mother said as the car I had rented, a new Buick as was his when he made the crossing, hurtled into hairpin curves in total darkness with hundreds of miles yet to go. As it turned out, I was not able to reenact to the letter one of the most painful aspects of the drive. I was nearly ready to fall asleep at the wheel by the time we reached Yuma, Arizona. My parents insisted that we stop. We got a hotel room with, of course, no trouble at all, the one thing he had been so desperate for all those decades ago but that was denied him over and over again that long night in 1953.
The seeds of this project were sown within me years ago, growing up with parents who had migrated from the South and who sent me to an affluent white grade school that they themselves could never have dreamed of attending. There, classmates told of ancestors coming from Ireland or Scandinavia with little in their pockets and making something of themselves in the New World. Over time, I came to realize that the same could be said of my family and of millions of other black Americans who had journeyed north during the Great Migration.
I gravitated to the children of recent immigrants from Argentina, Nepal, Ecuador, El Salvador, with whom I had so much in common as the children of newcomers: the accents and folkways of overprotective parents suspicious of the libertine mores of the New World and our childish embarrassment at their nervous hovering; the exotic, out-of-step delicacies from the Old Country that our mothers lovingly prepared for our lunchboxes; the visits to my parents’ fellow “immigrant” friends—all just happening to be from the South and exchanging the latest about the people from back home; the gentle attempts at instilling Old World values from their homelands, my father going so far as to nudge me away from city boys and toward potential suitors whose parents he knew from back home in Petersburg, Virginia, who were, to him, upstanding boys by definition and who would make a fine match in his view, which all but guaranteed that I’d have little interest in them.
Thus I grew up the daughter of immigrants, “a southerner once removed,” as the Mississippi-born poet Natasha Trethewey once called me. My parents bore the subtle hallmarks of the immigrant psyche, except they were Americans who had taken part in an internal migration whose reach and nuances are still little understood.
The research into the world of the Great Migration required wading through dozens of scholarly works of the era, which were a revealing commentary on the attitudes and conditions the migrants lived under before and after their departures. Some of the works were benignly patronizing. Many betrayed such unquestioning bigotry as to be nearly unreadable. All were useful in some way or another. Yet, throughout my research, I was at times struck by the wisdom and compassion of otherwise detached social scientists, many of them white, privileged, and exhibiting unavoidable prejudices of the day but still often rendering prescient and even-handed conclusions. At the start of its 672-page report on the 1919 Chicago Riots, the sober, white-led Chicago Commission on Race Relations, presaging the sentiments of a yet-to-be-born African-American president, whose rise would have been beyond imagination at the time, admonished in 1922:
It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded and maintained by the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation.1
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 identical.… There is no help or healing in appraising 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.
Ida Mae Gladney died peacefully in her sleep after a brief onset of leukemia in September 2004. Her family was so distraught that her children and grandchildren kept her room precisely as it was for years. The door remained closed in memoriam to her, and no one had the heart or strength to touch it.