Go to the Digital Library top page!

Social Studies

Click here to go to Great Migration introduction

Lecture Menu > The Great Migration

23. Fictional Accounts of Migration

And thrn its essential to understand what happens when some of these goals are frustrated, so for example, when the right to vote doesn't translate to political power or when advancement in the workplace has its very clear limits, which I think helps us to understand the appeal of Marcus Garvey in the 1920's and eventually the dynamics of the civil rights movement.

And then its essential also to work them through the implications of the second Great Migration, that period in the forties to 1960's and early seventies. The reason is that if we- from looking at all these sources come to say, "Well, this was an active decision that people made; it mattered that they didn't have to move, that they were trying to decide where to move"; go back to the questions about southern cities.

Something very different happens in the second Great Migration because in 1948 the mechanical cotton picker was introduced for the first time on a large, southern plantation. By the early 1950s southern plantations all over the south are using the mechanical cotton picker. Does anyone want to guess why that changes the whole dynamics of the Great Migration?

[Female voice] _____________

That's right, that's right. So where before you had people on the land saying, well I can be a sharecropper for another forty years and my son can be a sharecropper and his son can be a sharecropper and my daughters can marry sharecroppers but I would rather go to work in a factory.

In 1956 that's not the decision facing them. The decision facing someone now in rural Mississippi is I'm out of here, where do I go, I can't stay here. And those are two very different dynamics of migration. They are two very different processes. In one case there's a very active decision making going on; in the other case you've got people who are really being pushed and they've got to figure out what to do.

Now, what all of this then gets you to, and I'm going to stop, is it gets you to different ways of thinking about what happens when people get here, and different ways of thinking about the process of migration in general and I think in some ways this is best expressed in fiction.

There's a short story that, if you want to give your students a real sense of the exhilaration of migration, there are two ways, I think there are, and Ken probably knows more examples, but there are the two that I can think of, the classic ones, and one is the last chapter of Richard Wright's Black Boy, and the first chapter of American Hunger, where he talks about leaving Memphis and then coming to Chicago. And in American Hunger he talks about coming to the railroad station and not seeing signs white or colored signs in the railroad station in Chicago. "It was strange to pause before a crowded newsstand and to buy a newspaper without having to wait until the white man was served." You get a real sense of what this all means.

But in some ways you get a more powerful sense in Rudolph Fisher's short story, "City of Refuge," which is in Alain Locke's, The New Negro, published in 1925. And at this point that I'm going to read, Fisher is talking about a recent migrant from, I think he's from North Carolina and he's emerging-I think his name is Solomon Gillis, and he's emerging from the subway at 135th and Lenox Ave., in the middle of Harlem. He's taken the train from North Carolina and the subway up to Harlem, and he's just coming out of the subway.

"Casting about for direction, the tall newcomer's glance, caught inevitably on the most conspicuous thing in sight. A magnificent figure in blue that stood in the middle of the crossing and blew a whistle and waved great, white, gloved hands. The southern Negro's eyes opened wide-now opened wider. If the inside of New York had mystified him (the subway), the outside was amazing to him, for there stood a handsome, brass-buttoned giant directing the heaviest traffic Gillis had ever seen. Halting unnumbered tons of automobiles and trucks and wagons and push carts and street carts, holding them at bay with one hand while he swept similar tons correctly on with the other. Ruling the wide crossing with supreme self-assurance and he too was a Negro yet most of the vehicles that leapt-that leaped or crouched at his bidding carried white passengers. One of these overdrove down a few feet and Gillis heard the officer's shrill whistle and gruff reproof, saw the driver's face turn red and his car draw back like a threatened pup. It was beyond belief, it was impossible."

But one of the things to think about as you read these letters is to ask yourself, how many of these people would have seen this as beyond belief, as impossible? What kind of expectations did they have? And going back to the questions, it takes you back I think to question number one; was The Defender the only source of information. For many black southerners it was, which meant that people going to New York, Cleveland, often had images that looked like Chicago because they read The Defender, and this was their image of the North.

«previous 23 of 30 next »

Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!