Part One: “Any Place But Here”
This film is a documentary that traces the later migration of African-Americans to the North in the 1930’s and 1940’s. By relying on the testimony of those who actually experienced this migration it presents their particular hopes and dreams while at the same time documenting the wider phenomenon of the Great Migration. Part one, “Any Place But Here” focuses on the situation in the South which forced many African-Americans to leave. An examination of the sharecropping system and its inherent inequities presents a tragic picture of the economic as well as social conflicts which kept the vast majority of Southern Blacks in abject poverty. The message of the documentary echoes that of one of its characters: the sorry conditions of African-Americans in the South moved many of them to want to live “any place but here.”
By focusing on the individual lives of an array of Southern Blacks who had moved North, the documentary is able to project the diversity of people who migrated North as well as the similarity of their experiences in the South and their motivations for leaving. Rev. Uless Carter, for instance, speaks of the flagrant inequalities of the sharecropping system, as does Florida Denton. Both speak of the manner in which their families would have to go into debt to the plantation owner throughout the year in order to live, and then would have to “settle up” with him just before Christmas. The rule rather than the exception was an inflation of prices and often fraudulent keeping of records which resulted in the sharecropper not receiving anything at the end of the year. Rev. Carter relates one specific instance when the plantation owner admitted to his father that he owed him money for the cotton he had produced but was not going to give it to him because he had to send his son to college. Unfortunately, this type of larceny and chicanery was indicative of the system itself.
All of the people interviewed in the film related the fear and tension that characterized the daily aspects of their lives. They were, in effect, prisoners of the system, unable to do anything but work the fields of the plantation owner. Vagrancy laws which allowed any Black not working to be put in jail as well as strictly enforced curfews kept dissent impossible. The plantation owner could have you put in jail if you would not work, just as he could have you let out -even if you killed another Black person- if he needed your labor. There was no justice for African-Americans in this type of society, as lynchings and beatings were frequent. One man pointed out that there was always the threat that you could be accused of whistling at a White women, an offense which could elicit the death penalty. Such conditions convinced many African-Americans that they must leave the South for their own sense of well-being.
In the end, the film points out that there were several forces which drove the majority of people to flee Southern plantations for Northern industries. All, however, were directly or indirectly the result of the sharecropping system and the Jim Crow laws. The dynamics of Southern economic and social constructs provided the conditions which prompted many of them to leave. The promise of a better life in the North gave them the hope which fueled their motivation.
Part Two: “Sweet Home Chicago”
In the second part of “The Promised Land,” the story continues by tracing the movement of the characters from the South to Chicago. Those Blacks who had migrated North earlier in the century provided a vital link between the Northern cities and the South. Many African-Americans either had relatives, friends, or knew of someone who had gone North years before and was now living well. Florida Denton tells of how she knew that she would leave the South and go to live with her aunt as soon as she was old enough. Rev. Ernest Whitehead tells of his rich uncle who would visit from Chicago, wearing new suits and handing out money. Chicago grew mythical in the minds of the Southerners who longed for a better life.
Newspapers such as the Chicago Defender added to the lure of the North. While vocally opposing the oppressive conditions of the South, the paper portrayed Northern industry as the hope of those who would leave. It was the voice not only of the African-Americans who lived in Chicago, but also those still in the South. The paper said things no one in the South could say. It gave hope and support.
The reality of Chicago, however, was something short of a paradise. Rev. Whitehead tells of being afraid of the city, where anything was available -both virtues and vices. Rev. Carter speaks of the temptations such a place held for many poor Blacks coming from the South who had never encountered such a culture. In this respect, the film reminds the viewer of the courage it took for young men and women to leave their homes and families to search out a better life in Chicago.
Another important aspect of the film is the presentation of the role of the railroad in the Great Migration. The train came to be regarded as the ticket to freedom, demanding its own respect and affection. Songs were written about it, paintings captured its strength. The drive North resembled the Biblical Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt about which many Southern Blacks had sung in their gospel songs. Porters George Tillman and Charles Johnson relate the jubilation which many showed at crossing the line into Ohio where slave states were separated from free states. They also tell of the place of the Pullman in the African-American community, a job which appeared servile but was in fact a respected position among the Southern Blacks. Porters were able to ease the transition from the South to Chicago by looking out for the welfare of those who were seeking a better life in the North. They tell of how they would drop off bags full of the Chicago Defender at Southern stations, and how the powerful Pullman Porter Union established a new-found respect for the Black worker.
While the mechanization of cotton farming displaced many workers in the South, James Hinton tells of how International Harvester, the producer of many of the machines, recruited Southern workers to come North to their factories. He, like many others, heard of their interest in labor from his family members, and quit school to move to Chicago. The reputation of the Southern Blacks as hard workers made them readily employable by the 1940’s as the war economy boomed. The war itself had another effect. Returning veterans who were supposed to be able to vote and enjoy other basic rights found that they were still treated the same. After having fought for their country, many were unwilling to remain in a place where they were not afforded the rights which they had struggled to preserve. This, as well as the promise of industrial jobs, led them North.
The second half of the film moves beyond the scope of this project in its important portrayal of the harsh reality of life in Chicago in contrast to its characterization as the “promised land.” The difficulty of industrial jobs, the cold winters, the racial tensions, and the segregation showed Chicago for what it really was. Several characters remarked that they faced similar dangers in the North that they did in the South. Segregation was “de facto,” as there were no Jim Crow laws, but people knew where they could and could not go. The film continues by exploring the rise of the ghettos and the failure of the urban economy, important themes that fall outside our scope.
In sequence, these two parts of “The Promised Land” portray in striking reality the conditions which drove many African-Americans to leave the South, the hopes and dreams which the North offered, their journey to Chicago, and the success and disappointments which they faced once there. By focusing on the same characters, the films document different phases of the same trip, and offer a complete picture of what it was like to leave home for the city. Both of these films will allow the students to judge for themselves the benefits and disadvantages of deciding to migrate, as well as providing first hand accounts of important background information.