The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great MigrationWhen millions of African-Americans fled the South in search of a better life, they remade the nation in ways that are still being feltAn African-American family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression. (MPI/Getty Images)By Isabel WilkersonSMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | SUBSCRIBE SEPTEMBER 20168.9K 73 2 29 14 37 13.1K 8.9K 73 29 14 2 13.1KIn 1963, the American mathematician Edward Lorenz, taking a measure of the earth’s atmosphere in a laboratory that would seem far removed from the social upheavals of the time, set forth the theory that a single “flap of a sea gull’s wings” could redirect the path of a tornado on another continent, that it could, in fact, be “enough to alter the course of the weather forever,” and that, though the theory was then new and untested, “the most recent evidence would seem to favor the sea gulls.”FROM THIS STORY The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationBUYAt that moment in American history, the country had reached a turning point in a fight for racial justice that had been building for decades. This was the year of the killing of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, of Gov. George Wallace blocking black students at the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama, the year of the March on Washington, of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” By then, millions of African-Americans had already testified with their bodies to the repression they had endured in the Jim Crow South by defecting to the North and West in what came to be known as the Great Migration. They were fleeing a world where they were restricted to the most menial of jobs, underpaid if paid at all, and frequently barred from voting. Between 1880 and 1950, an African-American was lynched more than once a week for some perceived breach of the racial hierarchy.“They left as though they were fleeing some curse,” wrote the scholar Emmett J. Scott, an observer of the early years of the migration. “They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket and they left with the intention of staying.”The migration began, like the flap of a sea gull’s wings, as a rivulet of black families escaping Selma, Alabama, in the winter of 1916. Their quiet departure was scarcely noticed except for a single paragraph in the Chicago Defender, to whom they confided that “the treatment doesn’t warrant staying.” The rivulet would become rapids, which grew into a flood of six million people journeying out of the South over the course of six decades. They were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country, not unlike refugees in other parts of the world fleeing famine, war and pestilence.Until that moment and from the time of their arrival on these shores, the vast majority of African-Americans had been confined to the South, at the bottom of a feudal social order, at the mercy of slaveholders and their descendants and often-violent vigilantes. The Great Migration was the first big step that the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.“Oftentimes, just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do,” wrote John Dollard, an anthropologist studying the racial caste system of the South in the 1930s, “and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put on.”The refugees could not know what was in store for them and for their descendants at their destinations or what effect their exodus would have on the country. But by their actions, they would reshape the social and political geography of every city they fled to. When the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation.Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazineBUYMerely by leaving, African-Americans would get to participate in democracy and, by their presence, force the North to pay attention to the injustices in the South and the increasingly organized fight against those injustices. By leaving, they would change the course of their lives and those of their children. They would become Richard Wright the novelist instead of Richard Wright the sharecropper. They would become John Coltrane, jazz musician instead of tailor; Bill Russell, NBA pioneer instead of paper mill worker; Zora Neale Hurston, beloved folklorist instead of maidservant. The children of the Great Migration would reshape professions that, had their families not left, may never have been open to them, from sports and music to literature and art: Miles Davis, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morr
Isabel Wilkerson is a former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner. She is the author of the best-selling The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
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