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19. The Second Emancipation

So, one of the things that we begin to realize is once we try to see this as a story about people, is that the first thing we have to ask is who are these people and how are they making these kinds of decisions. Now, what that gets us to very quickly is sort of the meaning of migration to people. And Robert Abbott, who was the editor of The Chicago Defender, which again in answer to one of your questions earlier, certainly is the most influential black newspaper during this period, Abbott labeled the movement the Second Emancipation. In fact even before you see Great Migration another term you see is the Second Emancipation. Well, if you're going to understand the Great Migration in terms of how people saw it at the time--Robert Abbott is a pretty smart man and he certainly was in touch with black southerners, people who were moving--what does it mean that he's calling it a Second Emancipation. Well, it probably means that you gotta figure out what the inheritance of the First Emancipation is, if this is part of that longer process.

Well, evidence suggests that freed people, upon emancipation, one of the most important things was that they insisted on their status as what, one minister called part and parcel of the American Republic. Citizenship was crucial and like other Americans they considered land ownership essential to that status, to the status of being a citizen of the Republic.

But unlike other Americans they weren't supposed to share anything. Those of you who have read All God's Dangers, which is an oral history of a sharecropper, might recall that that Ned Cobb, the main character, later explained how whites reacted to his attempt to climb the ladder in the South, what's called the agricultural ladder. From sharecropper to tenant farmer to landowner and it's a landowner really when you become a full citizen.

"Whenever the colored man prospered too fast in this country, under the old rulings, they worked every figure to cut you down, to cut your briches off you". So "after years of hard work", observed one black, religious journal in 1917, black southerners were coming to realize that "neither character, the accumulation of property, the fostering of the church, the schools and a better and higher standard of the home, had brought either respect or the chance for mobility." In modern terms, even acting like a model minority didn't seem to make any difference in the South.

But what was interesting was that when you read black, southern newspapers in this period; and when you read some of these letters written by migrants, you get a sense that maybe black southerners did not translate this into a notion that the system doesn't work; they didn't translate this into an argument that, well, agricultural capitalism doesn't work; they translated it into a notion, into the idea that it doesn't work for us. Because to most black southerners it looked like whites could make it in the South.

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Learn more about The Chicago Defender and its founder, Robert S. Abbott at this Web site by PBS.

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