Felicia R. McKinnon
I have been teaching at L. W. Beecher School for four years. My students are regular education second graders. They are inquisitive, easily motivated, and interested in expanding their conceptual knowledge. The ethnic make-up of my class is a majority African-American with approximately two percent Hispanic.
In the past, I have had great success with utilizing a variety of educational media to meet goals and objectives; I therefore decided to take the seminar titled “Use and Abuse of History in Film” in order to learn more about incorporating film into the content areas. Additionally, I am a member of the L.W. Beecher team of the Teacher’s Institute whose emphasis this year is the exploration of major movements in United States history. As a team, we will create an historical timeline with our units which will include such themes as Westward Expansion, the Civil Rights Movement, and the role and influence of Women in American history. My unit will cover the Black Migration from the 1870’s through the 1940’s, in effect spanning that period of time which is formative for not only understanding the modern Civil Rights movement and present day race relations, but also the integral dynamics of the urban landscape of America’s cities.
Since living and teaching in New Haven, I have encountered people with strong ties to the South; many African-Americans have relatives residing in the Southern states. I began to explore the concept of migration based partly upon my personal interest in African-American history, and also because my students have often questioned why and when most African-Americans left the South and moved to the Northern cities. More to the point, they wonder why some of their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents live in New Haven while other family members live far away in the South. Our discussion began when a student keenly pointed out that some Black people escaped from slavery and moved north -an observation based in part upon his knowledge of the Underground Railroad. Because of this and other discussions about why and when African-Americans left the South, I determined that my students needed to extend their knowledge beyond what is normally taught concerning the escape from slavery and the conditions in the South and focus instead on the mass migration of African-Americans from the 1870’s through the 1940’s.
This migration occurred in several phases. While it is true that many people escaped slavery and fled the South before and during the Civil War, the vast majority of African-Americans in the North descend from those people who migrated north after the war, beginning with Reconstruction and reaching its greatest extent in the first half of the Twentieth century. Specifically, it reached its peak during the period between World War One and Two. By this time, most of these young emigrants were second and third generations removed from slavery. They were leaving the land which their ancestors toiled as slaves, many of the sharecroppers leaving the very plantations where their families had worked for generations. Although this new wave of emigrants were not fleeing slavery, they were reacting to the dire circumstances which plagued African-Americans in the South as a result of what can arguably be termed the failure of Reconstruction. The conditions of poverty, the limitations of sharecropping, and the charged racial tensions which remained in the South combined with a Biblical faith in the promised land of the North to promote the large-scale movement of African-Americans to the North, and in some cases, the West as well.
My research into the literature on the subject has led me to several specific reasons why large numbers of African-Americans migrated at this time. First, the work in the cotton fields which occupied many African-American workers failed to produce a sufficient living wage. Through sharecropping, the small farmer was promised a fraction of the cotton profits for the right to work the land. The system, however, favored the large land-owners who, in cooperation with the market itself, set not only the prices which the share-croppers had to pay for seed and supplies, but decided upon the price for their cotton, and thus their “wage” as well. Another reason which also concerns the dependence upon cotton was the boll weevil infestations of 1915 and 1916 as well as the floods of 1915 and 1927. These natural disasters created a labor surplus, driving low wages even lower. This temporary surplus later became permanent in the 1930’s and 1940’s as mechanization displaced the field hands. Work that once required the use of fifty people could now be done by a machine, thus severely reducing the number of employees needed. Lastly, the social climate of the South cannot be underestimated in providing an over-arching motivation for African-Americans to want to leave. The promises of a newly won freedom, economic independence, and personal dignity in the wake of the defeat of the Confederacy and the early years of Reconstruction failed to be realized as a new political and social order emerged -one which unfortunately resembled that of the Antebellum period in many respects. In short, the forces which stimulated the Great Migration were economic, political, and social, having roots in both class and race inequities which plagued the agrarian South.
The relative success of earlier migrants as told by their letters home as well as the active recruitment of Southern workers needed to fill jobs in the industrial North caused many African-Americans to forsake the oppressive conditions of the South in hope of prosperity and happiness in the North. Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York became the destination of Blacks leaving the South. Names such as “Promised Land” and “Paradise Valley” as descriptions of these Northern cities attest to the hope and optimism which inspired many to leave their homes in search of better lives. For various reasons, including the waning of Western European immigration during the Great War, the cities became a haven of great demand for industrial and service-oriented workers. Despite the fact that many of these jobs were in effect “reserved” for African-Americans due to the subservient quality of these services, they allowed for the advancement of many Blacks considering the conditions from which they had left. The expectations which many African-Americans had of the North centered around the betterment of themselves and their families.
Although many of these expectations were never fully realized or were amended to reflect the realities of the industrial North, the documentaries and films which explore the subjects associated with the Great Migration highlight some of its positive effects. The Northern Blacks reported how they were able to buy food, clothing, and amenities, as well as enjoy the entertainment offered in the cities. Additionally, they were able to send money back to family members who remained in the South. The job opportunities themselves offered many positive effects, not the least of which was the dignity and self-worth which comes with some semblance of economic independence. As a result, African-Americans began to achieve successes which would have been virtually impossible in the South. For example, in New York, a Southern migrant became the first African-American principal.
Despite the positive effects of the Great Migration, there were also many negative factors which resulted from the relocation of Southern Blacks in the North. Both films and documentaries describe the rising tensions between the various ethnic groups which resided in the cities. Especially after World War One as economic and labor factors played into the dynamics, the tensions sometimes resulted in violence. Neighborhoods were segregated and relationships in the work environment became strained causing Odell Willis, a relocated worker, to exclaim: “These working conditions began to resemble the South.”