I was familiar with the concept of the Great Migration (the movement of African Americans from the South to the North throughout much of the 1900s), but I didn’t know much about the particulars until I picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s most excellent book, The Warmth of Other Suns. All in all, about 6 million blacks left the South in the Great Migration—spanning from about 1915 to 1970. They left the South for nearly every corner of the United States (and perhaps beyond). The migration didn’t end until the 1970s. By then nearly half of the country’s African Americans lived outside the South. Prior to the migration, 90% of blacks resided in the South.
In 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave who had a job making coffins for victims of lynching, led 6,000 ex-slaves to Kansas after years of far-too-steady work. A steady trickle continued over the next decades. “The trickle became a stream after Jim Crow laws closed in on blacks in the South in the 1890s.” But the precipitating event that triggered seriously large numbers of migrants was World War I:
[T]he masses did not pour out of the South until they had something to go to. They got their chance when the North began courting them, hard and in secret, in the face of southern hostility, during the labor crisis of World War I. Word had spread like wildfire that the North was finally “opening up.”
More than half a million blacks left the South during the decade of World War I. At first the South didn’t seem to care. But when the fields were increasingly empty, they began to panic. There was a huge labor shortage what with so many white men gone to war, and they were increasingly dependent on black people who were increasingly moving north. I often forget that Florida is also part of the deep South, but I have learned that all those oranges, those grapefruit, and those most-difficult-to-pick tangerines, were picked by black people. And with a labor shortage, the whites in charge were desperate:
From the panhandle to the Everglades, Florida authorities were now arresting colored men off the street and in their homes if they were caught not working. Charged with vagrancy, the men were assessed fines of several weeks’ pay and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane to work off the debt if they did not have the money, which few of them did as the authorities fully anticipated. Those captured were hauled to remote plantations or turpentine camps, held by force, and beaten or shot if they tried to escape.
As you might expect, this made anyplace-but-the-South look increasingly attractive. As blacks continued leaving after the war, some states tried a different tack:
In the 1920s, the Tennessee Association of Commerce, the Department of Immigration of Louisiana, the Mississippi Welfare League, and the Southern Alluvial Land Association all sent representatives north to try to bring colored workers back. They offered free train tickets and promised better wages and living conditions. They returned empty handed.
I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown….
I was taking a part of the South
To transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom.