So here again, it's worth thinking about what constitutes history.
With the benefit of hindsight and multiple sources we know, as
historians, we can look at these sources, we can do all kinds
of neat analysis, and we can learn that in fact it was very difficult
for most white southerners to accumulate land. It was very difficult
if you were a white southerner to gain any kind of mobility, and
in fact it was nearly as difficult for white southerners as it
was for black.
We know that because of the fancy analysis that we can do. The
folks who are good with numbers can do that. We also know that,
not only because there have been numbers,
but we know that during this period that textile labor, textile
mill labor was plentiful and it was cheap and it was all white.
So why were all these southern white folks eager to work in these
awful textile mills for virtually no money, breathing this awful
air, having their children work, their wives work, was largely
because mobility into land ownership was very difficult; this
was a way to make a living.
But again, thinking this other way about history, about how
it looks to people at the time, what actually matters is not
whites actually could do, what really matters is what black southerners
thought whites could do; because that tells us what they think
of how the system works. And the poorest whites, who were most
likely to fall into tenancy or to head to the mills, lived
the Upcountry, which is where black folks didn't live. So the
white southerners that black southerners had some familiarity
with, were the ones in fact who were able to make it.
And, black southerners had evidence that African-Americans could
make it in the North. They read black newspapers; they read
from friends describing a world in which black men, and then
beginning in 1920, black women could vote; they earned enough
had a sense that black northerners earned enough money to live
in homes that were larger, better equipped, than southern urban
or rural black homes. The sense that northern black children
went to school for nine months every year. And one of the reasons
this is that if you think about it, once people start moving
to the north, which people did start doing in modest numbers
1890s, who goes back home to visit; the people who make it, right?
If you leave Mississippi and you go to Chicago in 1913, and
1915-1916 and you're going back to visit, it means that you've
either done pretty well or you pretend you've done pretty well.
[Female voice] Was there any real, serious re-migration ____
that they found that they didn't?
Very few people go back; people who don't make it in Chicago
go somewhere else. There is considerable movement around--within
the North. And one reason for that is that, there is the selectivity
of migration. The people who leave the South during this period
are really people who want to leave the South. So going back
have very little intention to go back so there's very little
return migration. In fact, after the Chicago race riots, when
think people would go back in 1919, the Urban League sent someone
to stand at the railroad stations and count people and
they counted two hundred and fifty some-odd people. So, even
when you would think people would be heading back in 1919, when
were losing their jobs, when people were getting killed--beat
up on the streets of Chicago, there aren't a whole lot of people