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15. Recreating the Great Migration

Now, is this possible; is it possible to re-create a world? Well if you are going to follow the novelist in trying to think of this kind of narrative, you want to think of the Great Migration in terms of character, in terms of plot, in terms of narrative structure; so what you're doing in a sense is casting aside the kind of social science history of the "izations;" you're casting aside the search, in some ways, for statistics except there's a frame and you're trying to figure out how you would write this as a story.

Now to start with character would be to meet some of the men and women who left the South. OK, who are these people? Now fortunately and one of the questions that interests me that no one asked is how many of these letters are there altogether? Are the letters that I handed out all the ones that I could find? Actually, no that's not true because you alluded to it so that's not correct. But are the letters that fill all these pages all the ones that are out there? And in point of fact, we know that first of all there are more of these letters available than were published, especially if you look at other cities. We also know that thousands of these were lost because Richard Wright, of all people, when he was working for the WPA did as part of the WPA writer's project, did an inventory of the Chicago Urban League records, the journals, and in this inventory he refers to thousands of letters written by southerners preparing to leave for the North. These are all gone, all these records are gone, but we know that that's what was there.

[Female voice] If we wanted to send students to look at originals just to get a feeling for them, where are the large collections?

Well, that's interesting. Because, that's another question that nobody asked because nobody asked questions about the sources themselves. No one asked about what do the originals look like, no one asked how these had been collected, where are they, how many? I don't know. The first place to look would be the American Memory Project on the web at the Library of Congress because the largest collection of these is at the Library of Congress.

[Female voice] __________

No, no, the only place that I know of where people have large numbers of these is the Library of Congress. These were collected by Charles Johnson, a black sociologist, in 1917 who was studying the Great Migration. Some of them were collected in Detroit, the Detroit Urban League saved some of them, those went to Washington. The National Urban League papers has these letters from Detroit.

[Female voice] What did the Defender do with…?

The Defender archives have not yet been very accessible for research purposes. So the ones that went to, all the ones that Johnson used went into the National Urban League records and so the very few that are still around are there. He published them in The Journal of Negro History, and that's why we have them, but I've seen a number of these and it is interesting to look at them because one of the things you find out, for example, is that they're written on very cheap paper. They are written in pencil, the handwriting is often very tentative, the spelling is poor. So what does--someone asked before about who wrote these. What would that tell you actually about who wrote them?

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