Happy Friday Obots! (but you won’t be too happy once you read today’s post on our series for the week)
We continue looking at the history of The Great Migration
African-americans‘ letters to northern newspapers were among the best and most voluminous sources for understanding the migration process and interpreting the migrants’ motivations for leaving. Seven letters to the Chicago Defender— a black newspaper published in Chicago that strongly urged southern blacks to migrate North—attest to migrants’ strong desire to “better their condition,” often risking their lives and possessions to make the trip north.
LUTCHER, LA., May 13, 1917
Dear Sir: I have been reading the Chicago defender and seeing so many advertisements about the work in the north I thought to write you concerning my condition. I am working hard in the south and can hardly earn a living. I have a wife and one child and can hardly feed them. I thought to write and ask you for some information concerning how to get a pass for myself and family. I dont want to leave my family behind as I cant hardly make a living for them right here with them and I know they would fare hard if I would leave them. If there are any agents in the south there havent been any of them to Lutcher if they would come here they would get at least fifty men. Please sir let me hear from you as quick as possible. Now this is all. Please dont publish my letter, I was out in town today talking to some of the men and they say if they could get passes that 30 or 40 of them would come. But they havent got the money and they dont know how to come. But they are good strong and able working men. If you will instruct me I will instruct the other men how to come as they all want to work. Please dont publish this because we have to whisper this around among our selves because the white folks are angry now because the negroes are going north.
NATCHEZ, MISS., Sept. 22–17
MR. R. S. ABBOTT, Editor.
Dear Sir: I thought that you might help me in Some way either personally or through your influence, is why I am worrying you for which I beg pardon.
I am a married man having wife and mother to support, (I mention this in order to properly convey my plight) conditions here are not altogether good and living expenses growing while wages are small. My greatest desire is to leave for a better place but am unable to raise the money.
I can write short stories all of which portray negro characters but no burlesque can also write poems, have a gift for cartooning but have never learned the technicalities of comic drawing. these things will never profit me anything here in Natchez. Would like to know if you could use one or two of my short stories in serial form in your great paper they are very interesting and would furnish good reading matter. By this means I could probably leave here in short and thus come in possession of better employment enabling me to take up my drawing which I like best.
Kindly let me hear from you and if you cannot favor me could you refer me to any Negro publication buying fiction from their race.
Read the other letters here.
Once many of the migrants arrived, the land of promise was not all that it seemed.
The migration years saw the emergence of service organizations to provide aid and support to the newcomers, such as the National Urban League, founded in 1911 in New York. The Chicago Urban League opened its doors in 1917, and in its first two years some fifty-five thousand migrants sought assistance in finding jobs and housing. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and similar organizations provided a needed lifeline for incoming migrants.
Besides the white-black competition for employment in the cities, there was also white-black competition for living space. Prior to the migration, African Americans were often dispersed in small clusters in several city neighborhoods, where they lived in relative obscurity and invisibility. But soon white opposition effectively closed the market to newcomers, thereby creating ghettos. Whites also fled the areas where black migrants concentrated “as if from a plague.” City government, banks, and realtors conspired to keep African Americans’ residential opportunities constricted.
The combination of overcrowding, poverty, and poor access to quality medical treatment – even in the North there were few black physicians and hospitals were generally segregated – ensured a variety of serious health problems in African-American communities. Working long, arduous hours in badly ventilated spaces, coming home to equally unhealthy conditions, getting insufficient rest and nutrition made migrants particularly susceptible to many infectious illnesses. African Americans death rates were consistently higher than those of whites. Children were even more at risk. A shocking number died before the age of ten; more than a quarter of these succumbed before their first birthday. The mortality rate for black infants was twice that of white babies. The deaths soared during the steamy summer months in overcrowded slums.
In some cities, the migrants were removed from other sectors of the African-American community. The black elite sought to distance itself from the newcomers, citing their lack of education and rural background. Black migrants responded to social isolation by forming communities that were comprised of people from the southern areas they had left behind. In northern cities, one could find blocks of people from the same general area of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or the Carolinas. Throughout the urban North, the migration brought concentrations of African Americans, and the combination of concentration and hope produced vibrant black communities.
The first years of the Great Migration would see an unprecedented wave of mob violence sweep the nation. Twenty-six race riots – in cities large and small, North and South – would claim the lives of scores of African Americans. But the migrants did not instigate this bloody wave of lawlessness; it was, in most cases, directed at them.
The so-called Red Summer of 1919 actually began two years earlier in East St. Louis, Illinois, in July 1917. It was the only one of the battles to be directly linked to racial conflict in the workplace, but white workers’ fear of job competition was likely behind all of them. The East St. Louis riot began after African-American workers were hired to break a strike at an aluminum plant. A delegation of trade unionists met with the mayor and demanded that black migration to the town be stopped. As they left the meeting, they were told that a black man had accidentally shot a white man during a holdup. In a few minutes, the rumor spread that the shooting was intentional and involved an insulted white woman, then white girls.
Mobs quickly took to the streets, threatening and attacking any blacks they could find. The local police made no attempt to control the situation. Some of the whites later drove through the main black neighborhood firing indiscriminately into homes. Before the rampage ended, forty-eight African Americans were dead, hundreds injured, and more than three hundred buildings destroyed.
Chicago’s turn came on July 27, 1919, as the temperature soared into the nineties. Several black children drifted into waters off a public beach, by custom reserved for whites. Stones were thrown at them and one child drowned. A crowd of blacks and whites gathered at the scene. When a black man was arrested on a white’s complaint while a white man, identified by black witnesses as a suspect, was not, blacks attacked the arresting white officer and the riot was under way. The violence was confined mainly to the south side of the city, where 90 percent of the African-American population lived.
In the course of several days of rioting, both blacks and whites were beaten. Thirty-eight people were killed, twenty-three of them black, and 537 were wounded; most of the one thousand families left homeless were African Americans. Although the other riots during that terrible summer varied in ferocity, it was made abundantly clear that race mattered very much in urban America.
Two years after the Red Summer, a riot erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in an elevator, was arrested. On May 31, the Tulsa Tribune published a fictitious news story stating Rowland scratched the woman’s hands and face and tore at her clothes. By 10:30 p.m., a mob of nearly two thousand white people surrounded the jail, ready to lynch the man. In hopes of defending him, a group of blacks, who were previously turned away, returned to the jail to assist the sheriff. But before they could return to Greenwood – a predominately black community that achieved such levels of wealth that it earned the reputation as the “Negro Wall Street of America,” – the Tulsa Riot began. In its aftermath, more than three hundred African Americans were murdered, nearly six thousand were imprisoned. Half of Tulsa’s black population, and as many as twenty-five hundred people, left town, some temporarily but many definitively.