The great migration is not a part of my family experience. Our white ancestors landed in the Northeast, one of my relatives on my mother’s side was one of the first Dutch settlers in New York, and they stayed in the Northeast. After the original migration from places in Europe my gang stayed put.
I grew up in white suburbs of Binghamton and Rochester New York. I lived for a time in the city of Syracuse where after years of public school where everyone was pretty much the same I was sent to a middle school where most of the students were bussed from the inner city. My junior high school was 80 percent black – not African American – black. There were black sections of the city and white sections. This segregation was puzzling to a young boy who loved to ride his bike all over the city, and ride the bus and see the city first hand.
How did it get like this? There was a clear understanding of the historical context of economic disparities between blacks and whites related to slavery. But that didn’t explain completely why the cities of the north were so divided. I studied my American history, knew about the Civil War, the emancipation, reconstruction, and the milestones of the Civil Rights movement. But it seemed as though a chapter had been left out of the story.
I went to college in Chicago in 1975, on the South Side, where the Irish politics of Richard Daley’s city seemed to date from the 1800’s. But the political and cultural life of South Chicago, where I went to school at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, was all black and was new, vibrant, and poor. The South Side was a land of blues, great southern food, and poverty. It was only through living in Chicago that I learned of the Great Migration of African Americans from the racially polarized and bitter south to the opportunities of the North in the 20th century.
People in south Chicago talked about their families back down south. When I would hitchhike south out of town on route 55, I usually got to ride with someone driving back home to a reunion in Alabama by way of St. Louis. Here was the missing chapter. How the black neighborhoods of Chicago and Detroit and other cities got that way was the other narrative in the vst historical arc that stated with slavery and continued in the northern political struggles in cities like Cleveland where Carl Stokes became that cities first black mayor directly because of the migration.
After college when I went back to Chicago as a public radio reporter to cover the election victory of Harold Washington, I saw the migration once again. Washington’s victory as mayor of Chicago was another step on the journey northward and forward in a political and social evolution that is still continuing. I didn’t know him then, but that audience in 1983, where Harold Washington gave his victory speech no doubt was a young community organizer cheering along with the crowd. A young man named Barack Obama.