Hope your weekend is a good one Obots!
We conclude our series on The Great Migration with how the new populations in the north changed political structures and its enduring legacy.
Their painful experience of disenfranchisement in the South, coupled with their belief in the power of the ballot, led many migrants to register to vote almost immediately after arriving in the North. Having received so little benefit from their tax dollars for so long, African Americans now sought political representation. This new electorate brought with them bitter memories of political exclusion. Some had witnessed firsthand the violence and intimidation used against would-be black voters; many others had been told of them. Most, if not all, of these negative events were perpetrated under the auspices of the Democratic Party. A laborer originally from Alabama told an investigator that he could never vote for a Democrat as long as he kept his memory.
Their loyalty to the Republicans, however, did little, at first, to advance the interests of black migrants. But Republicans were more likely to field strong black candidates in predominantly African-American districts. The migrants firmly believed that electing such candidates was the key to achieving power, even, as was often the case, if the candidates were selected by a white political machine.
Chicago was one of the first cities where African Americans attained a measure of political influence. A number of black politicians rose to prominence. Perhaps the most outstanding was Oscar DePriest, who became Chicago’s first black councilman in 1915. In 1928, in a defining moment in African America’s political history, DePriest became the first black elected to the United States House of Representatives in the twentieth century. In 1935 Arthur W. Mitchell, a white Democrat, defeated him. This election signaled the beginning of the seismic shift of blacks’ political allegiance from the party of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Black Nationalism, spurred in particular by Marcus Mosiah Garvey, became an important part ofthe sociopolitical landscape. Garvey had formed the Unitversal Negro Improvement Associatio n (UNIA) in his native Jamaica in 1914 and brought it to New York three years later. He drew his following largely from the lower end of the economic spectrum – people who believed that middle-class black leaders had no concern for the masses. A large part of his followers were Southern migrants. Besides advocating going back to Africa, Garvey and the UNIA promoted economic independence and racial pride, crucial issues to people who had faced contempt, violent racism, and socioeconomic dependence in the South, and were determined to improve their lot in the North.
Though they faced discrimination, exclusion, and violence, African-American migrants never stopped moving forward. In 1890, 63 percent of all black male laborers worked in agriculture. By 1930, only 42 percent did so. During that period, the number of African-American schoolteachers more than doubled, the number of black-owned businesses tripled, and the literacy rate soared from 39 to 85 percent.
Many newcomers discovered their entrepreneurial talents as storeowners, real-estate brokers, funeral directors, providers of various skilled services to their community and to the larger population. The large numbers of migrants resulted in the formation of new institutions. By the mid-1920s, there were over two hundred black hospitals and twenty-five nursing schools in the United States.
Under the banner of black self-help, several social service organizations were founded to aid migrants and, more generally, uplift the black community from the inside. Many northern churches also established recreation centers and welfare agencies to respond to the needs of their members.
A new spirit prevailed in the arts as well. Mamie Smith from Cincinnati did one of the first commercial recordings by a black artist. Her “Crazy Blues” sold two million copies and she earned nearly $100,000 in royalties. Her success ushered in an era of “race records” and recognition on the part of the recording industry that a significant market existed within the black community. Race records quickly became big business.
The 1920s saw the emergence of the New Negro Movement, later called the Harlem Renaissance. Writers, poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors took some of their inspiration from the lives and struggles of the newcomers to the North. But, as Langston Hughes wrote, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.” Nevertheless, the movement was a reflection of the racial consciousness and pride that people felt in the urban North, and it produced important works in all facets of the arts.
Many scholars have noted that African Americans seemed to leave the South without benefit of counsel by the black leadership. Although Booker T. Washington died in 1915 and did not see the mass exodus, it is clear from his pronouncements that he would have opposed it. He often said, “The Negro is at his best in the South” and would find there greater economic opportunity and a higher moral life. The New York Age warned skilled southern workmen “to think carefully” before migrating where skilled jobs were hard to get. Professor Kelly Miller, of Howard University, declared, “The Negro’s industrial opportunities lie in the black belts“.
Yet ultimately, leaving the South was not about economic opportunity or living a “higher moral life.” Most migrants paid dearly, in some coin or other, for their departure. The Great Migration was about African Americans starting over and making sacrifices for future generations. As W. E. B. Du Bois concluded, the journey north represented not the end of a struggle but only its beginning.
The story of Tony Chandler, one of six million African Americans who
migrated from the south during the Great Migration.