2018-02-03 / Features

The great migration


In 1940 Bessie and Fred Smith, of Person County, had a decision to make. Should they stay in Person County and face increasing discrimination and violence or should they moved to an unknown life in the North? Their dilemma was similar to one for many Southern blacks. As the decades of the late 1800s and early 1900s passed, thousands of African-American families made the same decision to leave their homes in the state of North Carolina and all over the South in search of a better life. Like the Smiths, they moved North.

In the years after the Civil War, formerly enslaved people throughout the South temporarily enjoyed freedom and new opportunities. Republican politicians reached out to blacks, hoping to get their vote. Black leaders rose to power, the lawmakers respected the rights of African American citizens. But after the 1876 election, Democratic politicians began to turn against blacks. The Ku Klux Klan intimidated African-Americans and helped bring to power leaders who believed in white supremacy. For a while, North Carolinians ignored this trend. But in the mid-1890s, white Democratic voters chose to elect politicians that were determined to put blacks “in their place” through intimidation and discrimination.

From that point on, North Carolina blacks rapidly lost power in government and society. Lawmakers passed “Jim Crow” laws that prevented blacks from voting and separated them from whites. African-Americans faced housing and job discrimination and an unfair legal system. And although blacks in other states faced more frequent aggression, violence toward African- Americans in North Carolina increased in the 1890s and early 1900s from Democratic Party voters.

The state was becoming economically unfriendly to blacks as well. Sharecropping had been a dead end for black farmers since the 1880s. Although the growing textile industry offered desirable jobs, they were for whites only. Poor whites were even taking jobs usually held by blacks. African-Americans found themselves out of work or struggling to make ends meet.

Some families were able to leave places like Person County by car in search of a better life in the North. 
SUBMITTED Some families were able to leave places like Person County by car in search of a better life in the North. SUBMITTED Not surprisingly, African Americans began leaving Roxboro and North Carolina and most of them headed North. By 1915 the migration of blacks went up dramatically due to World War I. The fighting in Europe increased factory orders in northern cities as America join WW1 in 1917 and sent soldiers overseas, production rose, but the number of available factory workers fell. North Carolina blacks welcomed the chance for good jobs with less discrimination.

Like many African- Americans, the Smiths found Jim Crow North Carolina an undesirable place to raise children. Along with their young son William, they headed North to New York. They were not alone. Between 1900 and 1940 almost 2 million African-Americans left the South. Most departing from North Carolina moved directly north to states along the East Coast. In fact, North Carolinians along with Virginians and South Carolinians top the list of immigrants to New York State. From other areas of the South, African-Americans relocated to places such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit and farther West.

Train stations were often packed with African-Americans trying to make their way North. 
SUBMITTED Train stations were often packed with African-Americans trying to make their way North. SUBMITTED As blacks moved north in this “Great Migration,” they created communities within cities. It was not uncommon to find entire blocks of families from one southern state. Many North Carolinians moved to Harlem, the center of black life in New York City. During the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s, African-American art, literature and music flourished.

But life for blacks who moved to the North was not necessarily better. Poverty and discrimination existed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line but so did joy and inspiration.

Many other African- Americans felt the same way although they remained in the North, many men and women, like William Smith continue to love the South. Recent census reports show that more and more black Americans are returning South.

Although blacks fled North Carolina during the “Jim Crow” era, their descendants have increasingly returned in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Since the 70s, more African-Americans have moved into the state than out. And in the last decade North Carolina has been one of the most popular states in this reverse black exodus.

Over the course of six decades, some 6 million black Southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside its feudal system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, pushed the country toward the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s.

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