Thursday, April 16, 2015

Black Migration to the North

Sometimes it is important to address basic questions about our society today--things we tend to take for granted. Isn't that one of the points of studying history, after all? To illuminate how we got to be what we are?

Growing up in the Chicago area, I have always known that Chicago was racially divided and that blacks lived predominately on the west and south sides of the cities. The city has changed in dramatic ways since I was a child (most notably with the rise of a large Latino community throughout the greater Chicago area) but there are still sharp racial boundaries in Chicago. (Check out this AMAZING map --also below--for details. And see the list at the end of the post* for similar information for the rest of the country and other U.S. cities.) How did this happen? And why?

As I mentioned back in October in this post, students should know that slavery existed in the North as well as the South. So there have been African Americans in the North from the beginning. But the numbers grew dramatically beginning in the 1910s with what has become known as, "The Great Migration." The movement of black Americans between 1910 and 1930 from the rural South to Northern cities represented the largest movement of black people since the slave trade.  Approximately 1.5 million blacks made this move. And between 1940 and 1960, there were another 3 million who did so.  Just as slavery created a unique African American culture, the Great Migration created a new urban black culture.

The decision to leave the South was influenced--just like immigration--by what historians sometimes refer to as push and pull factors. Push factors were those that tended to support leaving the South; pull factors were those that attracted blacks to come to the North. The Chicago Defender, a newspaper for African Americans, highlighted stories of blacks who had "made it" in Chicago, inspiring greater numbers to leave the South. The Defender was founded in 1905 and is still published today. Lots of blacks wrote in to the Defender to get advice and assistance. You can use some of these letters with your students to illustrate the kinds of issues migrants faced. See Letters to the Chicago Defender - from History Matters. I have also a few on this handout, which I put together originally to go along with a lecture.  You can also use the sources on that handout as an in-class activity. For example, ask students to read them and consider questions such as the following:

  • What does the writing tell you about the level of education of the writers? (interestingly, while there are clearly some grammatical and spelling errors, there is also a certain kind of eloquence that I don't always find in student papers!)
  • What do the letters to the Defender suggest about work ethic? about Blacks willingness to work hard in a system in which the traditional paths to success had so often been denied?
  • What do the quotations from Richard Wright and from Lucy Jefferson suggest about race relations in the North? And for Jefferson, what do they say about how those relations changed over time?
See also these sources:


Once they arrived in the North, the experiences that greeted a rural southern people could be daunting. The noise, hustle and bustle, the smokestacks of the urban industries, the big buildings--and the weather! If you were lucky, you arrived in good weather. But even a late spring arrival (as those of us living in Northern cities know all too well) can mean winter jacket weather. Which of course, the migrants did not have.

I like to use the paintings by Jacob Lawrence as a way to "tell the story" of the Great Migration or--how it was sometimes referred to at the time: the 2nd Emancipation or the journey to the promised land.  Jacob Lawrence is an African American painter.  He was 23 years old when he painted the first panel of what became a series of 60 paintings, known as the "Migration Series." They are marvelous to see in person, (which I did when they were first shown together in 2008). Normally, half of them are at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the other half at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Currently, they are being shown all together in New York, so if you are anywhere near there check it out. Fortunately, you can see all of them online at the Phillips Collection website or the MOMA site wherever you might be. There is also a youtube video:
Alternatively--and this is what I like to do--is assign students to read the captions that Lawrence wrote for each panel. The captions and paintings are excellent tools to describe not just the who, what, when, where and why of the Migration, but the feelings and emotions as well.

For biographical information about Jacob Lawrence, see the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence virtual resource center. And see this story from NPR on the current exhibit on Lawrence's migration series in its historical context.

The other reason I like to use these paintings is because they create a perfect segue into a discussion of the creation of the urban African American culture I mentioned above. Though Lawrence painted his series in 1940-1941, he grew up in Harlem during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. (He was born in 1917, so he was a little young). His paintings were said to be inspired by the poem of Langston Hughes, "One-Way Ticket."(See here for the poem, and also a link to a larger collection from Chicago's Newberry Library about the Great Migration. You can also link here to download a recording of Hughes himself reading the poem.) Or I also like to use one of Hughes's other poems, "The South." 

I probably don't say it often enough in this blog, so I'll say it now: history is one of the humanities. And the humanities include art, literature, and music. Teaching about the Harlem Renaissance is one of the great opportunities to connect with your Language Arts teachers down the hall. (It is also one of the topics that turned me from an English major in college to a focus on history, ultimately majoring in American Culture!)

One of my non-teaching passions is music, so I'm always looking for excuses to expose students to music they likely don't know and that has historical significance. One of my favorites for this topic, "Down in Mississippi." I post the lyrics up on the screen while playing it.


Here are just a few more references for you to expand your lesson on the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance:


With the events of Ferguson this year, and the Black Lives Matter movement (see yesterday's article from the Huffington Post) it is especially poignant to me that I feel the need to follow a lesson on the Great Migration with a lesson on race riots. The Chicago race riot of 1919, the East St. Louis riot of 1917, the Tulsa riot of 1921.... I used to conclude my lesson on migration with just a brief lecture about the Chicago riot of 1919, and conclude by suggesting that while such riots eroded the "myth of the Promised Land" by demonstrating that life did not become automatically better by moving to the North. And it is a critical point to come back to when you get to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as race riots will once again rattle across Northern cities. Today, I'd be inclined to develop this into a lesson of its own. See here for a good starting place, from the SHEG (Stanford History Education Group).

In order that this blogpost doesn't go on too much longer (and because my kids will be wondering soon what is for dinner!) I will leave you with this parting question about the intersection of history and the present: recently, there has been a reverse migration of African Americans from Northern cities "back" to the South-- what does this tell us race and American today? Here are a few articles to give you the background on that trend (remember, whites are moving out of the cold, snowy North, too!):



* From the beginning of this post, here are the websites where you can find racial maps of other regions:

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