The Great Migration in Perspective – Isabel Wilkerson

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Between 1915 and 1970 six million African Americans left their homes in the South in search of new opportunities and safety in the North. Some left for new opportunities, almost all of them sought to escape the racist violence, lynching, and legal and extra-legal discrimination. Their choices to leave changed both their lives and the United States. Scholar Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, explains:

They would cross into alien lands with fast, new ways of speaking and carrying oneself and with hard-to-figure rules and laws. The New World held out higher wages but staggering rents that the people had to calculate like a foreign currency. The places they went were big, frightening, and already crowded…and smaller equally foreign cities. Each turned into a “receiving station and port of refuge,” wrote the poet Carl Sandburg….

The people did not cross the turnstiles of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such. Their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow,  a nineteenth-century minstrel figure that would become shorthand for the violently enforced codes of the southern caste system….

Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable –what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scots-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.

They left.

Letters from African Americans to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, a religious organization in Chicago that helped Southern Blacks adjust to their new lives in the North provide insights into the choices that Southern Blacks made to leave their homes. Both letters mention the Chicago Defender, an influential newspaper written for a Black readership in Chicago and around the country. The Defender openly encouraged African Americans to leave the South. Each of of the letters below was written by people whose very basic civil and human rights, including the right to education, were denied.

Note: The letters are courtesy of the Library of Congress and have been reproduced without editing.

Letter from Cleveland Gailliard of Mobile, Alabama, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois, April 1, 1917

Mobile, Ala April 1st 1917
The Bethlehem Baptist Association

I take pains to pen you a few lines for information about comeing (sic) North and I see your
advertisements in the Chicago Defender and i am very Fond off the Defender i get it every week when i can and i like to read It and i am a Colred [colored] young man In need of a position because i have a family to support and I am out off a job and i can’t nothing To do to Support them i havs (sic) been Out of a job for five months or more and have been Sick to but I am up again thanks the good Lord and i am a member of Stone Street Baptist Church the olders Baptist Church in the South and I am 31 yrs old and i can fill the positions as a porter in a Grocery Store. Or run and Elevator or drive a Team are do most anything and I would like for the Association to please help me to get up their please And get a position please and I will help pay you the expenses when i get up their and got to work and i will work i was working for the New Orleans, Mobile and Chicago R.R. running the elevator and cleaning up to and they want me to work night and day for the same amount of salary which was $20.00 per month so I quit and i been looking every since last Nov so this is all at present

from
Cleveland Gailliard
Direct your letter (Gen. Del.)
Post Office, Mobile, Ala

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Gailliard, Cleveland, “Letter from Cleveland Gailliard of Mobile, Alabama, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, Chicago, Illinois,” 1 April 1917

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Macon, GA
April 12, 1918
To the Bethlehem Baptist Association

Reading in the Chicago Defender of your help securing positions I want to know if it is any way you can oblige me by helping me to get out there as I am anxious to leave here & everything so hard here I hope you will oblige in helping me to leave here ans [answer] at once to 309 Middle St.

Mrs. J.H. Adams
Courtesy of Library of Congress, “Letter from Mrs. J. H Adams, Macon, Georgia, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in
Chicago, Illinois, 12 April 1918

Reflections

Wilkerson compares African American migrants during the Great Migration to generations of immigrants and refugees. Consider her comparisons. How would you compare those stories? Use the same-different-gain thinking routine from Project Zero to structure the discussion.

Instead of speaking in generalizations, it might be helpful to research some of the individual cases that Wilkerson includes in her text and use them for comparison.

As you read the two letters, what stands out? How does what you have read in this post connect to what you know about this history? How does it extend your knowledge? How does it challenge your understanding? 

To learn more about the Great Migration search our website for additional resources including: