My Great Migration Story

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 - 09:33 AM

My grandfather didn't tell me the story of his childhood, of his birth in Mississippi and his school years in Arkansas. The story of my family (at least one side of it) is the story of adversity and triumph, but I didn't know that growing up. My great grandmother was the child of a black slave and a Scotch-Irish plantation overseer, the product of years of a rape that produced six children. But out of violence came one unlikely stroke of luck. Her Mississippi father developed such a strong affection for his mixed-race children that he provided them with small plots of land and advanced educations. And that's the environment into which my grandfather was born in 1895.  So my family has been stable financially and well educated since the days of Reconstruction.

I didn't learn any of this from my grandfather.  He also didn't talk about being called a "nigger" on the streets of Little Rock, or what is was like to live in a black neighborhood, go to a school for black kids, and go to a black college. He also didn't talk about why his mother fled Mississippi with her infant son, that his father was murdered by white men who were enraged by the idea of a successful black businessman in their community. I didn't learn these stories until years after my grandfather had passed away.

But my grandfather was one of the silent, determined millions who left the South because they wanted their full rights of citizenship.  For him, it was the promise of a college education at an interracial school, Oberlin College in Ohio. For others, it was an assembly line job and $5 an hour in Detroit, or voting without fear, living where they chose, saying what they pleased without the danger of violent reprisal, and raising their children far from the swinging shadows of corpses hanging in southern trees.  Turns out that the North and West weren't the color-blind nirvanas that many blacks imagined, but Chicago and Cleveland were a far fry from Birmingham and Atlanta.

Why don't our families share stories of the Great Migration and what motivated it? Why don't we see this event for the earth-shattering, seismic shift that it was? Well, that's partly because it elapsed over five or six decades, a trickle that became a flood. It's also because this was a leaderless revolution with no soaring speeches from Martin Luther King or gut-wrenching music from Marian Anderson to draw national attention.  

Nevertheless, it was perhaps the most powerful civil rights movement this country has ever seen. Talk about nonviolent resistance.  Millions of people decided they would not live in a place where they couldn't enjoy all the rights of an American citizen, and so they packed their things and started fresh in Pittsburgh and New York and Indianapolis.  For some, it was a risk even to leave.  Southern states passed laws prohibiting blacks from leaving and levied fines of $25,000 against anyone caught recruiting black workers away from the South.  Policemen waited on railway platforms and arrested any African-American holding a suitcase. Perhaps Southerners realized what would happen to Dixie after their working class left. In some ways, the South has still not recovered from the mass exodus of its workers and the loss of cheap labor.

Celeste Headlee, circa 1971, on the cover of her grandfather William Grant Still's album "A Festive Sunday with William Grant Still"

I'm told that Isabel Wilkerson's book is the first comprehensive look at the Great Migration and the incredible changes it wrought in American life.  I hope there are many more. We have probably only scratched the surface of this impossibly rich subject.  

But Wilkerson was right to focus her book around the personal stories of three people who made that journey north of the Mason-Dixon line. Six million blacks made this decision as individuals, packed their belongings alone, headed toward the highway or rail station in silence and arrived at their destinations with no fanfare.  

Diana Ross, Bill Cosby, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Nat King Cole and Miles Davis are all products of the Great Migration.  As am I.  I am the descendant of immigrants.  For a moment let's forget the migration from Africa that was violent and tragic.  Let's mark the journey that was intentional.  The exodus of citizens who demanded citizenship; the passage of farmers and clerks and doctors and lawyers who insisted they had a right to work and live as they pleased.  

The Great Migration made America a richer, fairer, better place. Maybe it's time we all start talking about it, no matter what color we are, and celebrating the bloodless revolution that made us what we are.

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Comments [2]

Will someone please inform Celeste Headlee about the difference between an immigrant and a migrant. Moving into the country is immigration. That's why the movement of African Americans from the south is called the great MIGRATION.

Sep. 16 2010 09:33 AM
Rosalind Murray from Palm Beach County, FL

I am fascinated by this story and can't wait to purchase this book not just for myself but for everyone of my siblings. We are products of the great migration but our story takes so many twists and turns. My mother, Marybelle Mobley left Rock Hill, SC as a teenage mother to my older brother Butch. Your story made me think of her courage to leave what she knew and head to New York City. I don't know know all the particulars about her life in NYC with my brother except he was an infant she had a sister and she had friends and a network that insured safety and success. It made me cry when I think of coutless familes and their amazing journeys to the promised land of the north. Having just visted NYC with our 9 year old and tourning Ellis Island, our story is the same as any immigrant, making a new life out of nothing but hope, dreams, and hard work. It is the same story.
She later married my father who incidently was also from Rock Hill, SC. These folks wanted a better life and future not just for themselves but for us long before we were born. We lived in Pittsburgh and I never knew one thing about segregation except for the things I read in books. What an education I have received from this show. Thank you for your gift.

Sep. 15 2010 11:09 AM

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