Daughter of The Great Migration

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

Over the course of six decades, some six million black Southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban American and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally lay aside a feudal cast system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheet weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.

During this time, a good portion of all Black Americans alive picked up and left the tobacco farms of Virginia, the rice plantations of South Carolina, cotton fields in East Texas and Mississippi, and the villages and backwoods of the remaining Southern states–Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and, by some measures, Oklahoma. They set out for cities they had whispered about among themselves or had seen in a mail order catalogue. Some came straight from the fields with their King James Bibles and old twelve-string guitars. Still more were townspeople looking to be their fuller selves, tradesmen following their customers, pastors trailing their flocks.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I am reminded again that I am a member of a soon-to-disappear group–children and grandchildren of The Great Migration.

I was trying to explain to a friend–a 40-year-old white guy–how I really want to travel with my nieces and nephews to Mississippi, so they can experience going “down South” in the summertime, something they have never done. He replied, “Yeah, my family used to head down to the beach in Florida all the time, when I was a kid.” And I had a hard time articulating that what I am speaking of is different. Here in Central Indiana, it seems every white family clears out of town to the Florida beaches come Spring Break or summertime. But what I’m talking about is different.

For Midwestern families of The Great Migrations–African American families–pointing the family car South wasn’t about seeking sand and sun and maybe a visit to Disney World. It was about returning, as my father would say, “down home.” It was, I imagine, for the adults, about reconnecting with cultural roots; showing off children to relatives rarely seen. It was about introducing offspring to roots that were foreign to them. For me, It was about coolers packed with fried chicken, potato salad and drinks for lunch at tired-looking rest stops. It was about palettes of blankets in the “way back” of the station wagon, crayons melting in the sun and jockeying with my brother and sister for seat space. It was about looking out of a hot car window with awe as the roads turned to red clay and the pines grew taller and taller–a world away from my Northern Rust Belt city. It was about the dark; it gets so dark in the country that the stars seem to multiply a thousandfold.

It was about “supper,” a meal that didn’t exist for me north of the Mason Dixon line, served around 4 p.m. with fresh greens, black-eyed peas and homemade corn bread and other good stuff; and melon that I actually liked–honeydew and watermelon from some nearby field. It was about the sound of rain on a tin roof and squeaky screen doors surrounded by chickens and farm cats and “dirt dobber” nests. It was about front porch swings and being regaled with stories of country life–mules and picking cotton. It was about aunts with warm arms and sweet, Southern accents. It was about thinking you were going to be bored–out in the middle of nowhere with a sketchy TV signal–but always finding something exciting to explore. (My maternal grandfather, who immigrated from Alabama, once traveled with us to visit my paternal grandparents in rural Mississippi. He taught me how to keep a grasshopper on a “leash.”) It was about trips “to town,” which turned out not to have a mall or anything like it, just a Ben Franklin 5 and Dime and a theater showing last year’s movies. That was my experience. And millions of Northern black kids had some variation of that. My husband has Southern relatives in the country and town, so his stories differ a bit, but at heart they are the same.

I was speaking of this to a girlfriend of mine — a black woman of my age — as if she would understand. And she reminded me that she grew up in the South. My experience is uniquely African American, but it is also uniquely Northern–maybe uniquely Northeastern. I don’t know whether the people who migrated West could as easily pack their kids in the car and drive home to, say, Louisiana. I don’t know about the culture the migrations created in places like California.

At any rate, my father came north on the tail end of the second migration, in the 60s. (My maternal grandparents came north in the 20s and 30s.) By the time I was born in the final days of 1969, the migration trend had reversed. And so, mine truly is the last generation, I think, to experience this raised in the New World/tied to the Old World thing. (One of the things I like about Suns is the way Wilkerson compares the migrations to other immigrant experiences and highlights their commonalities.)

I think I wrote here last year about losing a connection to some Southern black foodways. Not just the collards and sweet potato pies, but the neck bones, souse meat and pig’s feet that were occasional treats in my home growing up. It doesn’t occur to me to make those things now. And there is no chance I could whip up souse from scratch like my Great Aunt Lee used to, even if I wanted to. My nieces and nephews may never eat this food. And they have never set foot in Kentucky or Mississippi or Alabama, where their grandfather and great-grandparents came from. They needn’t head “down South” to visit extended family. Their parents’ roots are Northern. All of us first- and second-generation Northerners have this shorthand to describe our unique cultural experiences, but that is slipping away. I suppose this is so for all immigrants and their children and grandchildren. As the generations move on, descendants become unmoored from “the old country.” Still makes me melancholy, though.

Maybe the new experience will be that of the reverse migration. As more and more blacks return South to cities like Houston and Atlanta, perhaps their children will share stories of traveling north to visit family in chilly, old industrial centers along the Great Lakes. They’ll be amazed at the mounds of snow and speak fondly about eating Italian Beef, Maxwell Street polishes and Chicago deep dish pizza.

Image courtesy of Chicago Man

  • prettypithy

    “My experience is uniquely African American, but it is also uniquely Northern–maybe uniquely Northeastern. I don’t know whether the people who migrated West could as easily pack their kids in the car and drive home to, say, Louisiana. I don’t know about the culture the migrations created in places like California.”

    My grandparents migrated form Arkansas to California; my mother had a similar experience growing up with visits “back home” though perhaps not as frequently. I think this is an experience many children of migrants share, regardless of geography. I will check out your article on food ways. I have eaten all the great food prepared by my grandparents (I was born in 1982); I should learn how to prepare it myself.

  • http://restructure.wordpress.com/ Restructure

    This is a great post.

    I’m going to go a little bit off-topic here to talk about connections other people might be making.

    When your white friend thought your family going down South was like his family going down to the beach in Florida, it means that he thinks of you as belonging to the North. As a person of Chinese descent, if I talked about visiting China, a white person would assume that I am “going back home” and that I would have relatives there, instead of thinking that it’s the same as him going to China to teach English. In other words, white people see black people as belonging to the North in a way that they don’t see Asian people belonging to North America. Therefore, you do not experience the perpetual foreigner stereotype, even if you are a descendant of immigrants.

    You feel that you are a member of a soon-to-disappear group, because of cultural loss. This may be similar to descendants of white European immigrants losing their ancestral culture (except they have white privilege, and you don’t). It would not be the same as how race and migration works in general, as some comments might be suggesting.

    Anyway, thank you. This was a beautiful post.

  • jaded

    I am in my early 30s, and my parents were part of the migratory generation. I was born in California. When my dad was growing up, some of his family moved north to NYC, Baltimore and Rochester, but he stayed. The same with my mom.

    We took summer trips down south. Driving even all the way from California. My other friends had similar experiences, but for some, their immediate family moved to CA too.

    Today my family struggles with how to have a family reunion and deal with all of our population centers. We’ve been rotating between the east coast areas, but for the few of us who settled in CA, the family does not get to connect with our side of the country in large groups.

  • Ash

    Wow! What a great post. My family is from a rural part of South Carolina, and back in the fifties, my grandfather’s older sister moved out to Seattle, and his older brother to Philadelphia. My grandfather remained a defiant Southerner and country man. When I introduce myself to someone else that’s black and from the North or maybe the West, and I attempt to explain where I’m from, I present it this way: Remember when you were a kid and during the summer you went down south to visit your country cousins? I was that country cousin.

  • http://twitter.com/mwpolitico Shirley Grigsby

    I enjoyed the book very much, but unfortunately I can’t relate, to trips going “down south”. I only have one grandparent that was born in the south, my maternal grandfather migrated with his mother as a young child after his father died. My maternal grandmother was born in 1910 in the Midwest. I believe her parents were from the south.

    However, my father’s family has been in the Midwest since the early 1820s. They left Virginia, because the commonwealth had become increasing more hostile and dangerous for free African Americans.

  • Lisa_E

    This is so interesting to me from a different perspective: my family (on my dad’s side) is very Californian (I’m the third generation born here). However, I’m the first generation born outside of Imperial Valley, the small desert county my dad and my grandpa were born and raised in. This has created a black identity that is so reminiscent of what you are describing: going down to “The Valley” to visit my grandparents, cousins and family friends (who might as well be family), and seeing how different people act. Oddly this is also very different from the majority of black folks I know whose families are rooted in urban areas.

    So basically this was a long way of saying thanks and giving my own bit of insight into Californian migration. :)

  • przora

    Thanks for your post. I too have roots in the Great Migration experience as all four of my grandparents were born in the rural South and my dad migrated as a baby, so this post brought back many memories. I have to say that I can really relate to the part about Southern food–I haven’t had a decent apple pie since my grandmother died and unfortunately, I can’t cook.

    I’ve never thought about it much but my grandparents from the Upper South tended to have fonder memories of their childhood experiences and more of a willingness to return home for visits than my grandparents from the Deep South. Despite their thick southern accents my mom’s parents refused to think of themselves as anything other than New Yorkers after they left the Deep South. They left home and never looked back.

    I guess they would find it interesting that all their grandkids, and for that matter all their friends grandkids, either want to live the North or have left.

  • AndreaPlaid

    Wow, this post made me all nostalgic for going “down South,” yet made me realize how deeply Northerner I am. A bittersweet yearning…

    As always, a beautifully insightful post, Tami!

  • CoraD

    My mother grew up in rural SE Missouri and later migrated west. (Anyone who says SE MO is not the South has obviously not been there.) The trips you describe sound a lot like my experiences, except we flew then drove for most trips. That, and my family is white. In addition to unique cuisine and lush, hot landscape and loving family members, these visits introduced me to blatant racism – my family lived in a town where blacks were not welcome after dark and they saw nothing wrong with that.

    Reading the post was an interesting journey down memory lane.

  • Anonymous

    I remember when I used to visit my dad’s family, but that was in the 1960′s and it really seemed like I was in some bizarre time warp, like I had taken a step backwards ten years. Still, I always had a good time. The last time I was in Georgia for a long time was in 1979 and I haven’t been back since. Though I have been back to Virginia where my mom’s family is from.

  • LBell

    I LOVED!!! this book. Like any good history book should do, it put my own life, as a daughter and granddaughter of African-American migrants, into perspective. Interestingly my sister and her family now live two hours away from the town my father left in 1959. My niece is going to grow up as a Southerner!

  • Their_child

    Thank you Tami! I love reading this. I just finished The Warmth of Other Suns recently and it really gave me a better understanding of my parents, grandparents and many of my closest high school friends who had immigrated from other countries. My grandparents migrated from tiny towns in Georgia and Alabama to the big city of Atlanta in search of a better life and an escape from stifling racism. My parents migrated to DC and later the Maryland suburbs looking for better jobs and schools for me and my siblings. My friend’s parents moved them from Korea, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and Mexico in search of better opportunities. Every summer I found myself envying my friends as they were packed up and sent back to their home countries to visit their grandparents and cousins. Then my dad would tell stories about how as a desperately poor city kid he and his brothers were often sent to live with their great uncles and aunts in Roanoke, Alabama at the end of the summer. In the country cash was rare but their seemed to be free food and adventure everywhere he looked.
    For some reason I always felt that I had missed out on something because my parents never sent me “back home”. I grew up without grandparents since all but one had died before I was born and my remaining grandmother was not on speaking terms with my father for most of my childhood. So starting 2 years ago I began to take myself back to the old country. I built a tree on Ancestry.com and used my genealogical research as an excuse to meet relatives I never knew I had and find my own connection to the land of my ancestors.

  • http://twitter.com/TasashaH Tasasha Henderson

    I can relate. I am only 25, but every other summer when I was a child, I would travel with my maternal grandparents and my grandfather’s side of the family to Mississippi. It was always fun, playing with the other kids, experiencing a place so much different than what i was used to.