Two generations ago, millions of black people moved North into a land of more opportunities. The Great Migration is an important part of Black History, but is seldom mentioned.
From 1916 to 1970 is what is known as the Great Migration, a moment that impacted the history of black people in America up to the present day. Anyone reading this in the Millenial or GenZ generation probably has a grand or great grandmother who was a part of the Great Migration. I asked my mom for further information on the topic.
“It was significant in black history because it denoted a major shift in the African American population. We were brought to this country as slaves, as rural workers to mostly pick cotton, tobacco, things like that. So we mostly lived where that industry was, in the southern states. And generation after generation lived in the southern states and a large majority, even after slavery ended, sayed in the industry because there wasn’t a lot of other opportunities. So we stayed in the agricultural industry in sharecropping.”
Because it was oppressive and unfair the government decided to crack down on it. And so a lot of these sharecropping families were broken up by the government. The government said you can’t do this anymore. Sharecropping is not legal, you’re not paying taxes on these people, social security, basically they’re working for you for what you say is a part of the land but you’re not giving them anything. They’re not even paying them a living wage.
So when they broke up sharecropping they[slave owners]said ‘you can’t live here you gotta go’. And that’s what started this great migration from the south.”
After the government broke up the practice a lot of black people had nowhere to go, nor did they have any land. And because they were in the south the system was so oppressive that black people couldn’t get work anywhere. And so from 1916 to the 1970’s, 6 million black people left the south and moved up north.
My grandmother, Yvonne, was born in 1938. She is 82, was born in Morgan City, Mississippi and was a part of the Great Migration. I interviewed her about her experience moving to Chicago and what it was like down south.
What do you know about the great migration?
“[the Great Migration] was still going on in 1957, which is when we migrated. I came in 1960.
“Everybody just left and came up north. Especially the black men. [they] came up north to work in the steel mills. It was so hot in the steel mills and we were used to working in the sun in the south and we could take it. Plus they paid more money than working in the fields. They started asking the men to come up north and a lot of them just took off. That’s what it was about. Leaving the south to come up north to get work get more money for your work”
How old were you?
What was it like back in Mississippi? What job did you do and where did you work?
“Oh it was really bad. We worked in the cotton fields picking cotton. We lived on a plantation and we picked the cotton. Until somebody made a cotton-picker and that’s when -and another reason we left the south was cause they wanted us off the plantation. Because they had a machine to work the fields.
–I also heard it was because they had to start paying you.
“Yeah, that too. More money. Money period. The federal government stepped in and they had to start paying us money. Because they had a system [where] we would get half, the cotton we picked, we would get half of the money. Once they made the machine, they didn’t need us anymore. And then when the government said they had to pay us, they really got rid of us then.
We were, my mother and family didn’t, but other people were asked to get off the farm.
What opportunities did you have in Chicago that you didn’t have in Mississippi?
“Ooh! Jobs. Any work, especially the ladies. The ladies were working in the restaurants. They wanted black women to work in the restaurants and cook. Those jobs were very plentiful. You go to any restaurant, white or black, and they would hire you to cook and when you get through cooking you would clean.
How was Chicago life different than life in Mississippi?
“Ooh, uh, well… How do you say it? Well, the white men in Mississippi were so cruel, especially to black men. We were segregated. To tell the truth, we were segregated when we got here. Down there [South] we couldn’t go to school with the white people. We couldn’t work with them if they had any businesses. But up here [North] you could. They would hire you and you could work in the same factory with the white person. They were segregated here too but they didn’t tell you, like the white man down south said “No you can’t move here”. They would just move out in Chicago. You wake up one morning, you play with their little children, get up the next morning, they’re gone. Out to Elmherst, Shawnberg, they moved away from us. They started moving north instead of staying on the west and south side.”
“Most of the black people moved the south side because that’s where they would let them stay. That’s why the south side has a lot of black people”
Did you see more segregation appear as more black people moved in or was it the opposite? Was there less segregation?
“No. It was that you could have a place to go. You could stay on the west side or the south side. We didn’t have civil rights in Mississippi. That’s what brought Martin Luthor king to the surface. We were born here like they were, but we didn’t have the civil rights that they did. Also, we had to ride on the back of the bus. We couldn’t sit up in the front like the lady did [Rosa Parks]. But she was in Alabama. We couldn’t do it nowhere in the south. Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, I’m not sure about Tennessee.
Did you still have to sit in the back of the bus in Chicago?
Would you say you like Chicago life more than life back in Mississippi?
“I love the state of Mississippi. It was hot and that’s what I was used to. And it looked like any of those little carribean islands except for the water. It has beautiful flowers and all kinds of birds, just like the carribean. It was the white folks that we were scared of.
-So you like Chicago more but you love the state of Mississippi?
“Yes. The state of Mississippi is beautiful. But the reason people didn’t go to Mississippi, especially the black men because they would do whatever they want to you”
Why do you think it is important for people to learn about this?
“So we’ll know. It should be in the history, but because the white people did it they’re not gonna put it in the history. It’s hard to tell people about yourself, especially when you’ve done ruthless things. It’s too hard to do it. It’s important to know why we moved from down there and the segregation and the abuse to black people.”
We have to remember that the Great Migration was only 2 generations ago. My mother said that most black people in the 30-50 age range have a parent that was part of the great migration. Which means that most of us black teenagers have a grandparent who moved from the south up north for better opportunities. Because of the migration, black people were able to move to the cities and fight for civil rights that we likely never would have gotten if we had stayed down south. This event impacted generations of african americans and it will for many more to come. This is what makes the Great Migration such an important part of black history.