BREAKING AWAY

I was leaving without a qualm,

without a single backward glance.
141

The face of the South that I had known

was hostile and forbidding,

and yet out of all the conflicts

and the curses …,

the tension and the terror,

I had somehow gotten the idea

that life could be different.… 

I was now running more away

from something than toward something.… 

My mood was:

I’ve got to get away;

I can’t stay here
.

—RICHARD WRIGHT, Black Boy

CHICKASAW COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, OCTOBER 1937

IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY

IN A DAY, the world had changed. Everything was in a commotion, but George and Ida Mae could not let it show. Joe Lee had been beaten half dead over a false accusation about some turkeys that had run off. He had been left in a jail cell, barely conscious, his clothes sticking to his bloodied skin, and nothing was done about it. Ida Mae and George bent their heads and prayed for light. Then they went out in the field the next day. They picked long and hard and more urgently than before. They decided they would leave as soon as they got the cotton out of the ground. They would give Mr. Edd no cause to suspect their intentions or to withhold their pay. They needed whatever was due at settlement to get out of Mississippi.

They could not risk telling anyone but Saint and Miss Theenie and the one or two other relatives they needed to help them get out. And so they continued to gather the cotton. The land went from white to brown as they made their way across it. They began selling off their possessions, one by one, so as not to attract attention. The cows. The hogs. The chickens. The feather beds and quilts. The tin tub. The wash pots. The rusted old Model T Ford. The double-blade axes Ida Mae used to chop wood and kill snakes with. They went into town and sold what livestock was theirs and not Mr. Edd’s. What they didn’t sell they gave away or left with Saint to dispense with.

And if anybody asked what was going on, they knew to say, “We just running out of room.”

For some reason, Ida Mae was dragging more than usual. But there was so much to do and so little time, there was no point in mentioning it. They needed to get out before people started speculating about what it was they were doing. The way people talked, it wouldn’t take long to get back to Mr. Edd. Someone would love to curry favor, alert him to a sharecropper trying to leave. There were spies and Toms all over the place, setting up fellow colored men and sending them to their deaths for an extra privilege or two. Planters did not like to lose good help. They had ways of keeping sharecroppers under them, claimed they owed money when they didn’t, that they had to work off the debt, which meant they were working for free and made fugitives of them if they left. The planters kept the books, and, even if a sharecropper had the nerve to keep his own, a colored man’s numbers didn’t count.

If George and Ida Mae didn’t get out, life could be harder than it already was. The quicker they got the cotton out of the ground, the better off they would be.

It was already late in the season, and before long they had picked their last bale. George had to figure out how best to leave. He decided first to get off Mr. Edd’s land. They quietly gathered up what little they were taking and carried it over to Miss Theenie’s after the cotton was picked. They would leave from the house where George had courted Ida Mae.

George wanted to settle with Mr. Edd as soon as possible and prepared to go see him. After what happened to Joe Lee, Ida Mae worried whenever George went out.

“George, be careful,” she said.

“I ain’t gon’ be careful. I ain’t done nothing to him.”

George went up to Mr. Edd like it was any other end-of-the-season settlement. He gave no indication that it was his fervent hope never to see him again in life or ever again to set foot in the state of Mississippi.

He looked over the list of credits and debits Mr. Edd had tallied—the bales of cotton he and Ida Mae had gathered, the seed and cornmeal they had consumed. It didn’t matter what he thought of it. He couldn’t dispute it no matter what it said. At the bottom of the page was a figure that showed he had a few dollars coming to him for a year’s worth of labor.

It was not much, but it was more than many sharecroppers got. Fewer than one out of five sharecroppers ever saw a profit at the end of the year. Of the few who got anything, their pay came to between $30 and $150 in the 1930s for a year of hard toil in the field, according to a leading Yale anthropologist of the era, or between nine and forty-eight cents a day.142 The remaining eighty percent either broke even, meaning they got nothing, or stayed in debt, which meant they were as bound to the planter as a slave was to his master.

There was no place to appeal. “How a man treats his tenants is not felt to be a matter of public concern,” the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker wrote, “but is as much his private affair as what brand of toothpaste he uses.”143

George did the math in his head and saw that, along with what he had managed to save up to this day, it was enough for four tickets north on the Illinois Central Railroad.

Mr. Edd handed him the bills, and George completed the transaction without so much as a smile, which was his way. He tucked the money in his pocket and thought about what next to say. There before him stood his boss man and overseer of close to ten years. Mr. Edd was a man a full head taller than George and partial to ten-gallon hats. Whatever he may have done to other colored people in the name of the white man’s law, Mr. Edd had been honorable in his dealings with him. He had never raised a hand to him or Ida Mae, and George gave him no cause to do so.

George could have left after settlement without saying a word. It was a risk to say too much. The planter could rescind the settlement, say he misfigured, turn a credit into a debit, take back the money, evict the family or whip the sharecropper on the spot, or worse. Some sharecroppers, knowing they might not get paid anyway, fled from the field, right in midhoe, on the first thing going north.

The planters could not conceive of why their sharecroppers would want to leave. The dance of the compliant sharecropper conceding to the big planter year in and year out made it seem as if the ritual actually made sense, that the sharecropper, having been given no choice, actually saw the tilted scales as fair. The sharecropper’s forced silence was part of the collusion that fed the mythology.

And so it came as a shock to many planters when their trusted sharecroppers expressed a desire to leave. Like one planter in Florence, Alabama.144 Year after year, he would go down the list of staples he said his sharecropper, Jack Fowler, owed:

1 LB FLOUR

1 LB RICE

1 LB CORN MEAL

1 LB COFFEE

The planter scanned the page and decided to add a few more pounds of coffee, increasing Fowler’s debt to him. One year, the sharecropper finally spoke up, careful not to suggest the planter was a liar or an outright cheat.

“Mr. Perry, you know I don’t drink coffee.”

With that, the planter added another pound of coffee to the list. The sharecropper could do nothing but watch.

One year, the planter’s son happened to come in during settlement and spoke up himself.

“Pa, you know Jack don’t drink coffee.”

And, for once, the sharecropper didn’t have to pay for something he had never consumed in the first place.

Sometime after settlement, he went to tell his boss man he was leaving for a place called Lake Forest, Illinois. The planter had already settled with Jack Fowler and had no rational excuse to keep the sharecropper on his plantation, which didn’t mean he couldn’t have if he wanted to. Instead, the planter tried to scare the sharecropper out of leaving.

“Jack, you gonna go up there and freeze your brains,” the planter told his sharecropper. “And who is going to handle my horses when you leave?”

Knowing the dangerous and arbitrary rules of the world he was in, George stood before Mr. Edd and weighed what he should say. Mr. Edd had already paid him, so George thought he was safe. They had agreed that George did not owe him and was not in the planter’s debt. Mr. Edd had always been a man of his word, and George trusted him to keep it now. George made the calculation that the truth would serve him better than if he were later caught in a knowing omission. He prayed and breathed deep before speaking.

“Well, this’ll be my last crop with you, Mr. Edd,” George said. He told him he and Ida Mae were moving to Milwaukee.

Mr. Edd did not see it coming.

“Oh, you ain’t gon’ leave, George,” Mr. Edd said.

George was a quiet man who could pick a whole field by himself without complaint. He took whatever was given him and knew not to question. Yet he had a way of walling off his family that even a segregationist could respect. George was the kind of sharecropper a planter could depend on, and Mr. Edd showed his appreciation by letting him clear a few dollars most years. Mr. Edd didn’t want to lose George. He wanted to know what he was leaving for. George told him he didn’t like what happened to Joe Lee.

“Oh, you ain’t gon’ leave for that,” Mr. Edd said. “It wasn’t none a you.”

“I know,” George said. “It wouldn’t been me.”

Ida Mae was gathering their belongings while George settled with Mr. Edd. She lumbered as she went about her packing. Miss Theenie looked at her hard. She saw something that nobody else would notice, how Ida Mae loped now, the way the burlap tugged across the front of her.

“Look to me like you pregnant,” she said.

“Oh, no, I ain’t.”

“What you goin’ up there for pregnant?”

“I ain’t pregnant.”

She was a couple of months along now and had kept it to herself. George might tell her to stay in Mississippi, leave her and the children with Miss Theenie, say he would send for her like the other men who say they’re going to send for their wives and don’t, get up to the big city and forget all about what they left. If Miss Theenie knew, she would kick up a fuss and scare George into leaving Ida Mae there. So she lied to Miss Theenie, denied up and down that she was expecting, and Miss Theenie couldn’t prove it but knew that time would tell and prove her right.

There was no way for Ida Mae to know what was transpiring between her husband and Mr. Edd at settlement. George had prayed over it and had hoped Mr. Edd would remain a man of his word. If all went well, George told Ida Mae, he would go to the train station in Okolona ahead of them. He wanted to get the tickets right away. He had arranged in advance for one of his brothers to take Ida Mae and the children to the station to meet him. The plan was for them to leave that night.

EUSTIS, FLORIDA, APRIL 1945

GEORGE SWANSON STARLING

LIL GEORGE BROKE THE NEWS to Inez that he was getting out of Eustis on the next train out of Wildwood. The grove owners had it in for him because he had roused up the pickers. The pickers had turned on him out of fear for themselves. He had no choice but to get out. He told Inez he was going up to Harlem, where his aunts were.

He started gathering his things right away. There was no time to waste. The yard boy who warned him about the grove owners’ meeting didn’t seem to know any more than what he’d happened to overhear—that the grove owners were plotting to take George and Mud and Sam out to the cypress swamps over at Blackwater Creek and hang them at “a necktie party,” that the owners were bent on teaching them a lesson for stepping out of their place, demanding an extra dime for the fruit they picked, and turning the heads of the faithful other pickers who had been content with whatever the owners gave them.

There was no telling whom the grove owners might have enlisted, when or how they might round the boys up, whether it would be the new big-hat sheriff, some crew foremen, or Klansmen currying favor, whether it might be somebody George would recognize right away after all these years or not know at all. He went about his last-minute arrangements, watchful of everybody and careful to mind his steps.

He could not be seen anywhere near the groves again. It was dangerous enough just being in Eustis during the hours it took to get out. There were so many things he wanted or needed to do—he was leaving forever, after all—but he was running out of time.

He dashed off a letter to his aunts, Annie and Lavata, to alert them to his situation. They would need to know to expect him.

He tried to reassure Inez that everything would work out, but she was still seething over the fact that he had turned their lives upside down and put all of them in danger. She hadn’t approved of what he had been doing anyway and didn’t know why he couldn’t make himself satisfied like everybody else.

“What did you expect from a bunch of handkerchief heads?” she asked him. “What do you expect?”

“I guess I expect the unexpectable,” he said, “because they don’t look at things like the way I do.”

Here he was running for his life, and the two of them were arguing over what couldn’t be undone. George didn’t ask Inez what he should do. He didn’t consult her as to where he should go or whether she would join him. He just told her he was going up to where his aunts were.

“I’m going to New York and get situated,” he said. “And when I get situated, I’ll send for you.”

Their anniversary, April 19, was coming up in a few days, but if everything worked according to plan, he would be gone by then. He felt there was no time for debating and thought he should be the judge of what would happen to him. “After all,” he would say years later, “it was my neck on the block.”

Inez heard the magic words—“I’ll send for you”—and did not put up much more of a fuss. He had not taken her to Detroit, but he would bring her to New York, and that was good enough for now. She warmed to the idea and felt better and better about it. She thought less now of the danger of the circumstances than of their new life up north. A chance to start over in a new place together.

He told Mud and Sam he was leaving. They were leaving, too. Sam was talking Washington, D.C., where he had a brother. Mud was talking about a place he had heard of called Rochester, New York. Then Lil George said good-bye to Inez and good-bye to his father, who, if he was worried, kept it to himself.

“Yeah, well,” Big George said, “I think this will be the best. I guess if you gonna still act that way, it’s best for you to go.”

MONROE, LOUISIANA, MARCH 1953

ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER

PERSHING WAS WORKING AT FORT POLK, an hour’s drive from Monroe, for the singular purpose of saving up the money to go to California.145 His heart was already gone. His mother had died. His widowed father, Professor Foster, had been forced out as principal of the school to which he had devoted his life, by one of his own teachers. The coup left Professor Foster a leader in exile. He watched the new colored high school he had always dreamed of rise up under the name of his rival. Pershing grieved for his father and all that had happened in a caste system that seemed to rely on pitting the lowliest people against one another.

He drove between Monroe and Fort Polk at the edge of spring, blind to the wild grasses that blushed on either side of the Bayou Desiard. The bayou cut through town and bent toward the west, and the land was thick with crimson clover crawling up the folds in the land.

It was beautiful, but it didn’t matter. Pershing was thirty-four years old. His life was in front of him, and he was not going to live it out in a one-stoplight town in the South.

On that, he and Alice had agreed, and she would wait for him to send for her and the girls once he got situated. Still, his brother Madison tried to get him to stay, reclaim the family’s former glory. Madison had a small practice there and was ready to etch Pershing’s name beside his on the door. The two of them could work out of Madison’s second-floor office on Desiard. They could travel the parish in their portable hospital and tend to the colored schoolteachers and the women who took in washing, the athletes out at Grambling and the sharecroppers who might pay with buttermilk or the side of a freshly killed hog.

But Pershing did not want to be paid with buttermilk or the side of a freshly killed hog and did not want to deliver babies in somebody’s kitchen.

There was a respectable hospital in town. St. Francis. It was a brick building that stood with the color and trim efficiency of a manila folder. It had white beds in one wing and colored beds in another and was closed to colored doctors. Pershing put St. Francis out of his mind and figured he would work at Fort Polk until he had the money to leave.

One day he went into town and walked into the old clothing shop of a white storekeeper. He had known the man since he was a little boy picking up clothes for his father.

I’m M. J. Foster’s boy. I think you have a suit for him,” he used to go in and say.

Pershing was grown up now. He was in uniform with his captain’s bars and medical caduceus. The storekeeper noticed and asked what he was going to do when he got out of the army.

“Well, I’m going to go into practice, private practice,” Pershing said.

“Are you gonna come here with your brother?”

“No, I’m going to California and start my practice there when I get out of Fort Polk. And this is what I plan to do.”

“What’s wrong with St. Francis?”

Pershing shook his head. The man had lived there since before Pershing was born, and a central fact of colored people’s existence hadn’t registered after all these years.

“You know that colored surgeons can’t operate at St. Francis, Mr. Massur.”

The man looked startled and caught himself. White-only and colored-only signs were all over town, but the storekeeper had not thought about how segregation applied to the hospital. The storekeeper had watched Pershing grow into an upstanding young man and had known the Fosters for years. For a split second, the storekeeper seemed to see Pershing as no different than any other bright young physician. But Pershing’s words brought him back to reality: the rest of the white world did not see Pershing the way the storekeeper did, and that gave the storekeeper an uncomfortable glimpse of the burdens on one of his best customers.

There was a moment of awkwardness between the two men. And as the realization hit the storekeeper, the truth hit Pershing, too. He stepped outside himself and considered the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own hometown.

The man tried to recover, offer advice and encouragement. “Well, why don’t you all build a hospital, you and your brother?”

“Mr. Massur, do you realize that we are doctors and not businessmen? The cost of building a hospital and operating one would be astronomical.”

There was very little to say after that. Even the storekeeper could see the impossibility of the situation. He wished Pershing well in whatever he did, and Pershing went on his way.

Mr. Massur had meant well. Still it made no sense to Pershing that one set of people could be in a cage, and the people outside couldn’t see the bars. But he told himself it didn’t matter anyway because he was through with Monroe, through with small towns and small minds and particularly small-minded small towns in the South.

He didn’t like how you couldn’t get your teeth cleaned without everybody knowing it. He didn’t like how the white people couldn’t quite manage to call him “Dr. Foster” but spat out “Doc” as if they were addressing the cook. He didn’t like how his brother Madison denied himself certain twentieth-century conveniences to avoid submitting to the indignities of Jim Crow.

Madison never went to the side window of a white restaurant, never sat in the back of the Paramount Theater like other colored people. Because he never went. He drove his son, little Madison James, to the theater and watched the colored people climb the back stairs and pack the balcony to see whatever was playing. But he never went inside himself.

In the 1940s, Madison had petitioned St. Francis Hospital for a position on staff. The hospital rejected him. But he refused to leave town, and he didn’t let it stop him from working. If he couldn’t practice at a hospital, he would carry a hospital in his trunk. He had a portable operating table built especially for his patients and lugged it into their shotgun houses when it was time to do surgery or deliver their babies.

He didn’t suffer the humiliation of seeing a suit he wanted to try on in a store but couldn’t because colored people weren’t allowed that courtesy. He just never went. He sent his wife, Harriet, instead. The two of them would drive up and down Desiard Street from Hanes to the Palace, the finest men’s stores in town. Madison sat in the car and waited while Harriet went from store to store and came out with an armload of clothes. She held up each suit on its hanger. He inspected the weave and the cut from the car window and told her which ones to buy. And that is how Madison got his wardrobe.

Pershing wouldn’t stand for that. Pershing wanted to walk right into the Palace and try on a suit if he pleased and sit in a corner booth at The Lounge if he wanted. He was restless for a basic kind of freedom that was crazy at best and arrogant at worst for a colored man in that place at that time, and the two brothers knew it.

One last time, each made his pitch to the other. Pershing tried to get Madison to go with him to California, set up practice there. After all, they practically had a clientele waiting for them. Half of colored Monroe was already out there. Madison tried to get Pershing to stay. Louisiana was home, and things would never change if everyone gave up and left. What did Pershing know about starting a practice in California? He had never set foot in California. Running away meant Jim Crow had won, and Madison wasn’t going to give the rascals that. And besides, there was no guarantee Jim Crow wasn’t out in California.

It was getting to be early April. The brothers made a necessary peace. Pershing decided to leave the day after Easter with Madison’s blessing, if not approval, and readied for the round of formal good-byes.

The Covingtons, who lived down the street from Madison, heard Pershing was leaving and planned the going-away party for the Saturday night before Easter. The Hills, the Browns, January the Tailor, and all the better-off colored people in New Town gathered at the Covingtons’ white frame bungalow with the azaleas out front at the corner of Eleventh and Louise Anne Avenue.

Ivorye Covington cooked all day for the Fosters—fried chicken and waffles and collard greens and corn bread. The place was prim with white tablecloths and upholstery and smoky from the Camels and Chesterfields.

Pershing, the bon vivant in sport coat and ruler-creased trousers, made the rounds through the dining room and living room and Ivorye’s yellow kitchen with a shot of bourbon in his hand. He was leaving first thing Monday morning, he told everyone, heading southwest to Houston on his way west to first stop by and see a Dr. Anthony Beale—you remember Anthony Beale, who used to go out with my sister, Gold; he’s practicing in Houston now, and he said he could help me get started there, but I said thank you very much, but I’m set on California.

Late into the evening, Ivorye’s husband, N.E., turned down the record player in the front room, clearing the haze of chatter and bebop. The dancing by the credenza came to a stop. And Napoleon Brown and Pless Hill, Big Madison and Harriet and the rest raised their glasses to Pershing, who was joining the Migration without them.

Pershing looked out into the faces and could not for the life of him figure out why these people were frittering away their lives in a place like this.

“How in the world can you stay in Monroe,” he finally said, “and live in this Jim Crow situation?”

It was pompous, as he was at times known to be, and perhaps out of place at so well meaning a send-off. But he had convinced himself it was crazy to stay and wrong if he left without coming right out and saying it.

“How can you stay here and take the crumbs?” he said. “Come go to Heaven with me. To California.”

He knew no more about California than they did, and he won no immediate converts that night. But he had planted the seed and would follow up once he had seen the state for himself.

I pick up my life

And take it with me

And I put it down in

Chicago, Detroit,

Buffalo, Scranton …

I pick up my life

And take it on the train

To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,

Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,

Any place that is

North and West—

And not South
.146

—LANGSTON HUGHES,

“ONE-WAY TICKET”

AMERICA, 1915–1975

AS THEY SUMMONED THE WILL TO LEAVE, it would never have occurred to Ida Mae, George, and Pershing, or the millions of others who continued to flee the South over the decades of the Great Migration, that it was supposed to have ended in World War I, when they were just coming into the world. They joined a flight already in progress when the narrow straits of their lives compelled them to do so. Theirs is a kind of living testimony that migrations fed by the human heart do not begin and end as neatly as statisticians might like.

The Great Migration in particular was not a seasonal, contained, or singular event. It was a statistically measurable demographic phenomenon marked by unabated outflows of black émigrés that lasted roughly from 1915 to 1975. It peaked during the war years, swept a good portion of all the black people alive in the United States at the time into a river that carried them to all points north and west.

Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.

“Migratory currents flow along certain well-defined geographical channels,” wrote E.147 G. Ravenstein, a British historian, in his landmark 1885 study of human migration. “They are like mighty rivers, which flow along slowly at the outset and after depositing most of the human beings whom they hold in suspension, sweep along more impetuously, until they enter one of the great … reservoirs.”148

The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream, the one George Starling was about to embark upon, carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia up the eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and their satellites. A second current, Ida Mae’s, traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people like Pershing from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.

The chronology of this Great Migration, as is the case in many immigrant experiences, was sometimes a more circuitous affair than might be expected and has at times been reported. Some participants of the Great Migration made trips outside the South before their actual and final leaving, which suggests that a great deal of ambivalent churning preceded a fair number of departures.149 Many served overseas during wartime, in the First and Second World Wars and in the conflict in Korea. Some managed to visit relatives up north; some tried to make a go of it in one city before trying out another. These trips often exposed them to the freedoms they were denied back home, served as way stations where they could earn enough money for the next leg of their journey, or otherwise emboldened them and fed their desire to migrate. Thus, leaving the South was not always a direct path but one of testing and checking of facts with those who had left ahead of them, before making the great leap themselves.

Yet the hardened and peculiar institution of Jim Crow made the Great Migration different from ordinary human migrations. In their desperation to escape what might be considered a man-made pestilence, southern blacks challenged some scholarly assumptions about human migration. One theory has it that, due to human pragmatism and inertia, migrating people tend to “go no further from their homes in search of work than is absolutely necessary,” Ravenstein observed.150

“The bulk of migrants prefers a short journey to a long one,” he wrote. “The more enterprising long-journey migrants are the exceptions and not the rule.”151 Southern blacks were the exception. They traveled deep into far-flung regions of their own country and in some cases clear across the continent. Thus the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, deserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.

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