Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Great Migration

When we consider large numbers of people moving themselves in this country we think of the Great Depression which saw 300,000 rural poor making their way from the Oklahoma/Arkansas dust bowl to California. Perhaps because John Steinbeck wrote so eloquently, followed by the film adaptation, this event is regarded as the prime example, certainly of the 20th century.

I've recently been made aware of another, far greater, migration from 1915 to 1970. Isabel Wilkerson in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns writes the story of six million Blacks escaping the Jim Crow South. In 1910, ninety percent lived in the former slave states, virtually the same number as before the Civil War. By the end of this Great Migration the number was fifty percent. More Blacks lived in Chicago than the entire state of Mississippi.

There were three streams of population shift. From Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia large numbers moved to Harlem, Philadelphia and Boston. The Mid-West of Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago emptied Mississippi and Arkansas. Los Angeles saw many ex-Texans and Louisianans. These were arduous moves. Their rural roots were severed. Schedules for north-bound trains were smuggled in by Pullman car porters. They moved from tenant farms to big cities, from an agrarian culture of segregation and intimidation to urban communities

A Black family driving their car from Texas could not expect to find any accommodations until they reached California and that was not certain. It was even dangerous for a Black man to park and sleep. No colored signs were commonplace well into the 1950s.

Segregation was not only an abomination for those oppressed but for the oppressors as well. The psyche of White America is poisoned in ways that are still playing themselves out. Today's violence that pervades our culture is traceable to racism as much as any strain of lawlessness in our history. What was latent is now becoming blatant. Certain Red states are revising textbooks in an effort to remove this stain. It must be confronted, not erased.

For three centuries Europeans crossed the ocean seeking opportunity and freedom from persecution. The Black experience, in chains, was opportunistic only for white Europeans and their colonists.

The Great Migration of the 20th century within our borders was an extension of the Civil War itself, an attempt to redress racial grievances and a flight from lynching, humiliation and economic bondage.

What many of us had hoped was a final chapter to our national shame with the election of Barack Obama has, so far, proven to reveal the deep fissures in our society. His successful presidency and reelection can be seen as essential in our healing.

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