The Portable Humanist Podcast Series

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How the Great Migration Changed American History

In the early 20th century, black southerners fled racial violence and sharecropping for steady work in northern cities like New York and Chicago. But these migrants still faced challenges once they arrived. In this talk, Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield explores the Great Migration and its great influence on American history.

The talk was recorded at the University of Vermont on November 16, 2019 for our Fall Conference 2019.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield: Black people are in the South, and they have all these different things that we’re going to talk about in a few moments happening to them. But there are all of these jobs up north. These are good opportunities. You have jobs in steel mills, railroads, meatpacking plants, the automobile industry. This is a lot better.

Dr. Whitfield:  Why is it better? Because where are they being pushed from?

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

Throughout the 20th century, African Americans fled southern states to escape persecution and seek opportunities in northern and western cities. But once they arrived in cities like New York and Chicago, the migrants still faced economic and racial challenges.

Known as “the Great Migration,” this was one of the largest mass internal movements in history, and it reshaped our country’s culture and politics. In this talk, Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield explores the Great Migration and its great influence on American history.

Dr. Whitfield is a Professor of History at the University of Vermont. His talk was recorded on November 16, 2019 as part of the Vermont Humanities Fall Conference. The theme of the conference was “Searching for Home: Journeys, Quests and Migrations.”

Here’s Dr. Whitfield.

Dr. Whitfield: I’m here to talk to you about the Great Migration, and I think in American history, or at least in African American history, but I think it’s true for all of American history, migration is really important. I know immigration is such a hot topic in the United States today. But truth be told, I stopped watching the news two months ago. Maybe things have changed. I don’t know. I know it’s the single best decision I’ve ever made aside from getting married and having my daughter. I don’t feel you can talk about the Great Migration without mentioning some of the earlier migrations that are important to this country. I mean, first you have the Atlantic slave trade. And, you know, funny enough. I think the 10.7 million people that are brought over to the new world, only about 400,000 of those people actually end up in what we call the United States today. But in fact, a much larger migration, which in some ways is like a precursor to the Great Migration, obviously is the domestic slave trade, which has gotten a lot more attention over the last 15 or 20 years. Walter Johnson wrote a great big book about this. He’s a professor at Harvard.

Dr. Whitfield: So from 1800 to 1860, there’s about 1 million people moved from the area that I study, slavery in the Chesapeake region, down to the south west. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, places like that. And it is a lot of those people’s descendants who make up the African Americans who ended up coming up on the Great Migration in the 20th century. But I also think we have to remember all the different migrations that happened with African Americans before the Civil War. And my research focuses on a couple of those migrations that people don’t always talk about. One is the migration of 23,000 to 25,000 African Americans outside of the United States after the Revolutionary War. The numbers are hard to get. We think 23,000 to 25,000. About 8,000 to 10,000 of those people were free. The rest were slaves who were taken by American loyalists. And they went to the Maritimes. They went to what we call today central Canada. They went to Jamaica, the Bahamas and some to England as well.

Dr. Whitfield: And we also want to think about those black people who under the auspices, if you can call it that, of the American Colonization Society, went to Liberia. So another several thousand people. And of course, the black people who also migrated to Haiti, even though quite a few of them returned to the United States. And of course, lastly, we don’t want to forget about all the black people who migrated to what at the time was called Canada West, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, though they were coming earlier. So it’ll be a lot of fun to talk about this and we’ll sort of talk about all the reasons why people migrated and then sort of why it was important.

Dr. Whitfield: I’m going to give you a very basic overview. Then we’ll talk about why migration. We’re going to talk about all these different reasons why people actually left. And then we’re going to talk about what happens when they get to the promised land. This north, where things are supposed to go better. And they do go better in a lot of ways. But in some other ways, they don’t go so great. But we’re going to talk about the political realignment that happens in America that’s so important to understanding the Democratic Party today.

Dr. Whitfield: So the Great Migration, what was it? Basically, it’s from about 1915 to 1970. And during that time, we think about six million African Americans migrated mostly from the rural South to the urban North. But when we say North, we don’t mean like just New England or the Northeast. We mean like North writ large. So including the Midwest and, of course, the Northeast. And also after 1940, the West, especially Los Angeles, places like that. So it’s pretty interesting.

Dr. Whitfield: But I think most historians we sort of divide the Great Migration. It’s probably more accurate to speak about it as Great Migrations, plural. And that’s because we usually divide it up into a first Great Migration and then a second Great Migration. We’ll do most of our focus today on the first. But when we talk about the first Great Migration, we’re really talking about the period 1916 to about 1940. And during that time period, you’re talking about maybe one and a half million African Americans that migrate to the Northeast.

Dr. Whitfield: But the second great migration, 1940 to 1970, that’s several million people, maybe up to five million. And that’s not only from the rural South, but it’s also black people who are in towns in urban areas in the South. Now, to be completely fair about this. Black people had been leaving the South for like ever. Right. I mean, just to be clear about it. You know, black people were leaving the south in the 1810s, 1820s, 1830s. So on and so forth. The Exoduster movement, black people going out to Kansas in the 1870s. I mean, there’s a lot of history there. And there were black people migrating to the Northeast before 1916. The numbers just weren’t as big.

Dr. Whitfield: In America, unfortunately, this is a historical and a historiographical problem. We tend to think that history matters just because there’s lots of people. We like to study slavery in South Carolina because somehow it’s more important than slavery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, because there’s a lot more slaves in South Carolina. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do history, but I think it’s important to realize that there were black people that were coming up to the North well before 1916. I wrote an article many, many years ago, too many years ago now, in Vermont History, our academic journal for the Vermont Historical Society. And it was about black people in Burlington, 1880 to 1900. And what I found in that was that there were many people in Burlington – there were only probably 115 black people here at that point from at least what the census records and city directory said – but a lot of these people were from Tennessee, South Carolina. Some of them were born in Vermont, that’s for sure. But a lot of them weren’t. So that sort of gives you an idea.

Dr. Whitfield: The other part that I want to mention about the Great Migration is that it’s not so simple as people: they’re in Mississippi and then bam, they go to Evanston, Illinois. It’s not that simple. A lot of times they’ll migrate to one city and for whatever reason, they will migrate to another city. Could be jobs, could be families. It’s not much different from my friends that do Italian American history. Sometimes Italian Americans might start off in New York, but then they might go somewhere else after that. So there’s multiple migrations that are going on. And I kind of love that complexity about American history.

Dr. Whitfield: So why migrate? There are so many things we need to talk about. I’m going to give you a couple overall reasons. A few serious anecdotes then some ones that are a little more amusing. We’ll talk a little bit about Reconstruction first. And then I’m going to give you a section on racial violence, because I don’t think you can really understate what was going on in the South. Especially after 1880.

Dr. Whitfield: So about Reconstruction. Reconstruction is like America’s great failure. The funny thing about it is that historians, you know, from the left, like Eric Foner, agree with sort of the more conservative historians of the early 20th century who thought the Reconstruction failed because it gave black people too many rights. Eric Foner comes along and he says, no, actually, that’s not why it failed. It failed because actually black people weren’t protected enough. But what happens during Reconstruction? How does this affect the Great Migration? Like, what does that actually mean?

Dr. Whitfield: So here’s the problem, OK? There’s a very simple American historical problem of why Reconstruction failed and why you have the Great Migration. One of the good things about slavery from people’s perspectives like John C. Calhoun or James Henry Hammond or people like that, was that it’s not just simply a labor system or an economic system. It’s definitely that, as more recent historiography is showing. But it’s also a cultural system. And this is what you get in Virginia in the early 1600s. It’s the idea that if you’re white, at least you’re not black. If you’re white, at least you’re not a slave. This is important. John C. Calhoun talked about slavery as a way to reduce class conflict among whites. In that sense, it’s like a pretty good idea, right?

Dr. Whitfield: Because they realize that if we can convince, in Mississippi or Virginia, if we can convince Joe Blow, who owns three slaves, that he has the same interest as somebody from the Carter family with two hundred slaves, that’s winning for us. And it is right because it’s a form of herrenvolk democracy. If you can convince a person in the South who is illiterate, has no money, is a tenant farmer, has three teeth. Can’t read, doesn’t know anything about the Constitution, doesn’t care either. That’s all fine. That he has something in common with John C. Calhoun or Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson. That’s a good system. Because if those people aren’t going to get pissed off at those elites, that’s a good thing. And that’s how the system kind of works. That’s what happens after Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676. And that’s sort of the system that these people create.

Dr. Whitfield: It’s amazing to me that the Civil War even occurred, to be honest. But what’s the real problem with the Civil War? The problem with the Civil War is very simple. When it ends, all of a sudden, you have four million people who had not been free, are all of a sudden free. What do you do with them? And frankly, this is horrible to say, I know. But what kind of system are you going to create when all of a sudden you’ve got a bunch of poor black people, your former slave, your poor, you’re not gonna have any capital, right? You’re a poor black person and you have a poor white person. What’s the difference? There is none. You got a problem. You got to fix it. You got to solve it, right. That’s what Reconstruction and lynching is all about is reestablishing a racial hierarchy because when you get rid of something like slavery. That line gets blurred.

Dr. Whitfield: If you’re a poor white person and maybe you can rent a slave, they actually back then wealthy slave owners would rent slaves sometimes on layaway, like Wal-Mart. You know, they would like sort of let them rent a slave for a little while, then they can get that feeling. Maybe they can work their way up. But once you get rid of this system of slavery, how much difference is there between a poor black person and a poor white person? What is that difference, exactly? Precisely. Well, you kind of have to have a system that works that out.

Dr. Whitfield: Reconstruction, they don’t really know what to do. The Republican Party, of course, not surprisingly, they want to expand their hegemony or their interest, shall we say, into the South. The way they think they can do that is by giving some black people, black men, not black women, the franchise. We can give these people the vote. But how committed are we to giving these black people the vote and then protecting them? The great thing about American history, I teach all my students all the time. Just because a law says something doesn’t make it so. I always tell them, I’m like, look, if somebody were doing the history of Burlington two hundred years from now and they said, you know what? I found a police book that said that the speed limit on Main Street was 25 miles per hour. So everybody must’ve gone 25 miles per hour. No. Same thing with Reconstruction. When you pass the 13th Amendment and then you pass the 14th Amendment, giving black people citizenship and equal protection under the laws and then you pass 15th Amendment, you give black men the right to vote. Which was very upsetting to a lot of white women who had worked in abolitionist communities. That was another whole problem that came out of that.

Dr. Whitfield: The only way this can function or even start to function is if the federal government is actually willing to have troops down there to support this. They have to be willing to protect these people. And really, we always think of Reconstruction as 1865 to 1877. Or 1863 until 1877. The truth is Reconstruction starts ending like in 1869-70. Because there’s less willingness to intervene on the behalf of not only black people, but their white Republican allies, whether they had come from the North, these people we previously called carpetbaggers. I don’t know if that’s the P.C. term anymore. And also, remember, there were also local Southern whites who supported the Republicans for a variety of reasons. We used to call them scallawags. Now, the problem here is when you’re not willing to protect these people through force of arms, they are very vulnerable. And when you have a group like the Ku Klux Klan, the first Ku Klux Klan, and they weren’t all in the Ku Klux Klan, right? Because when the federal government decides this is so embarrassing, we have to basically ban the Klan with the enforcement acts, they just go out in the open and start shooting people. And killing people. And they are not just killing former slaves. They’re doing that, but they’re also killing white Republicans. People who were like state legislators. They’re killing them in the streets. And basically what ends up happening is the federal government becomes less and less willing over time to intervene.

Dr. Whitfield: By the time Grant is in his second term, of what we can only call an unfortunate presidency. Great general, not such a great President. He’s not really willing to intervene and he gets calls from people in Mississippi, Republican state legislators, telegrams. They get letters, everything sent to him. And he’s not willing to go as far as needed to support Reconstruction. They’re just not willing to intervene.

Dr. Whitfield: So in Mississippi and Alabama, they sort of have something that we call the shotgun policy, which is basically if black people showed up to vote, they knew they would get killed. I mean, it’s pretty simple, but effective. The 14th Amendment doesn’t mean anything if you know how you’re gonna get murdered for voting. You probably just want to have a little bit of land that you’re leasing and have your wife or your husband or your children and hopefully be able to keep them somewhat safe. At least they can’t sell you apart from your family.

Dr. Whitfield: Those are the many reasons why Reconstruction fails. But the racial aspect angle that we’re going to talk about a little bit more. That’s only part of the reason why people leave during the Great Migration. There’s a lot of other reasons. And we usually divide them up everyone into what we call push-pull factors. Push means you’re pushed out of a place and pool means you’re sort of drawn to a place.

Dr. Whitfield: The push factors are pretty obvious, we’re going to go into detail about them. It’s basically the sort of racial violence that people are facing, especially after 1880. Reconstruction is insanely violent, but it takes another step in the 1880s and 1890s when people are actually, when you start having these public lynchings, these sort of festivals of violence. Where people are cutting off arms, hands. Cutting out people’s hearts. Cutting off people’s genitals and selling them. It’s like at an extra level. So we’re going to talk about that.

Dr. Whitfield: But people move for many reasons. So that’s a push thing. The pull factor is in the North. What they see – especially during World War One – are the opening of all these sort of industries in manufacturing? And we have to remember that at the very same time, the war really halts European immigration, which had been super, super heavy between 1880 and 1914. And these white people who came over during that time period, they were not treated very well either. Many of them were from southern and Eastern Europe. And they were sort of looked down upon. They were not seen as Northwestern European. They really saw these people as sort of inferior. So there had been all sorts of pushes to stop this kind of immigration. And that’s why you get something like eugenics in University of Vermont was one of the centers of eugenics. There’s the idea that we have to stop all these Europeans, these lesser than white people. Today to us, we might see them and think, what are they talking about? But to Americans back then, these people were not Americans. They weren’t even really white. They were something less than that. They might not have quite been black, but closer to that than to the Northwestern British model. That was one of the things that was going on.

Dr. Whitfield: So the war sort of stops this European immigration. There’s less cheap labor. So there’s all these jobs. So black people are like in the South, they have all these different things that we’re going to talk about in a few moments happening to them. [But there’s all these jobs up north. These are like kind of good opportunities. You have jobs in steel mills, railroads, meatpacking plants, the automobile industry. Right. This is a lot better. Why is it better? Because where are they being pushed from?

Dr. Whitfield: We haven’t talked a lot about the economics of African Americans after the Civil War. The majority of black people in the South. The majority of them are either tenant farmers or they’re sharecroppers. And in this system of sharecropping, or tenant farming, they’re sort of caught in a cycle of poverty. They don’t own the land that they’re on. Sharecropping gives them a little bit more independence than tenant farming, but they’re both systems that basically exploit cheap labor. They don’t make a lot of money. They’re always in debt. It’s not a good situation. If there’s any schools around, they’re not that good. You know, they’re putting all the kids, whether they’re aged five to 19, 18 in the same little school house. It’s not a good situation.

Dr. Whitfield: So the north has all these things that it seems to be offering. So people see this. And they’re kind of like we should do this. White Southern reaction at the very beginning is sort of like, well. They’re kind of happy that black people are leaving because they kind of hold them in low regard. At the same time, they don’t really want to lose all these tenant farmers and sharecroppers. It’s the exact same situation that you read about in the constitutional convention. That you see people like Thomas Jefferson in his notes on the state of Virginia, George Washington and all of his letters. That they struggle with especially the Virginian planting elite in the 1780s and 1790s. They want Virginia to be whiter. They do. They have all sorts of insane plans. I mean, there some of them like literally crazy. But they want Virginia to be whiter and they think there’s too many black people there, but they don’t want to give up the black people in Virginia because they know that’s their economy. And this is the same thing they’re struggling with at the constitutional convention.

Dr. Whitfield: They sort of know theoretically that slavery is kind of bad. Now, they have a lot of reasons why it’s bad. Right. A lot of them had to do with what it did to white people, if you can believe that that was their one of their biggest fears. But they kind of know in theory. They think about John Locke and you think about, the Enlightenment. Maybe it’s wrong, but what can we do about it? All these black people here and they couldn’t really conceive of a biracial democracy like what we’re doing in this room, as harmless as it might seem, was like something that was a little too much for them. This is a situation of white southerners in 1910s, 1920s, they look down on black people, but they also realize it’s a source of cheap labor. So how do you deal with this?

Dr. Whitfield: Well, black people are like, this is great. We’re out of here. Some of them. They are sort of excited because there are a lot of black newspapers in the north that are printing articles and they’re being taken down to the south. So you have newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, and they encourage black southerners to basically move north and black railroad porters and dining car employees distribute thousands of copies all throughout the south. People are reading them and people are thinking maybe this is a good idea. One editorial from the Chicago Defender said to other black people, “To die from the bite of frost is far more glorious than that of the mob. I beg of you, my brothers, to leave that benighted land. You are free men.” Now, if we can excuse the gendered language when he says free men, I think he meant all people. But it’s the money issue as well. You can make a lot more money up north. Even just being in domestic service, you could make more money, weekly, monthly than you could ever make sharecropping.

Dr. Whitfield: Just to give you an example. One man who came from the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands area, and that’s the subject of my first book, was these people from the Georgia Sea Islands who ended up in Nova Scotia after the War of 1812. It’s a very strange story. But he said I could work and dig all year on the island. The best I could do would be to make one hundred dollars and take a chance of making nothing. Well, I figured I could make around 30 or 40 dollars every week up here, and at that rate I could probably maybe even save one hundred dollars every couple months. He ended up settling in Philadelphia and then he moved to Brooklyn, New York.

Dr. Whitfield: Just to give you another example, a lot of people are moving up there and a lot of times it’s for racial violence. A lot of time it’s for economic things. But we have to remember that these folks who are living in the south they are people. I tell my students this all the time because whenever we talk about slavery, or this kind of thing, they have this big idea of like this mass of black people, they’re all the same, and their lives are just horrible. You know, and I try to remind them of what Ralph Ellison said. “African-American history has to be more than the sum of his brutalization.” It has to be more than that. And so when I say that, what I mean by that is that. These are people I mean, they were born into this world. You know what we might think? How could anybody live in this world? This is their lives. And they were different types of people. Some were strong. Some were weak. Some were tall. Some were short. Some had musical talent. Some did not. There is a wide range of people who are moving up there and doing it for a wide range of ideas. And a lot of times they’re human beings and sometimes they’re 18 years old and they’re young and they have blood pumping through their veins and want to have a good time.

Dr. Whitfield: Good example of this was a woman who left the isolation of St. Helena’s island, another South Carolina sea island. She said, I got. They were like, why did you move here? As you said. I got tired of the island, too lonesome. Go to bed at six o’clock. Everything dead. No dances, no movie pictures show, no nothing. Because every once in a while they would have a dance. But here you can go to them every Saturday night. And honestly, that’s the reason people move here more than anything else.

Dr. Whitfield: When we talk about these big issues, economic, racial violence, that stuff is all true. And none of that’s made up. But we have to also remember, these people are human beings. And sometimes it’s like, OK, here I am. I live in rural South Carolina. And I want to go to Harlem because I heard Harlem’s a lot of fun. And I can make more money. And I might not get lynched.

Dr. Whitfield: So people decide to do that. And so people are migrating. And just to give you an example of some of the numbers. New York had 91,709 black people in 1910. By 1920, it had 152,000. Chicago had 44,000 black people in 1910, by 1920 it had one hundred and nine thousand. That might help explain the race riot of 1919 in Chicago.

Dr. Whitfield: And you know, it wasn’t just some of the big cities we’re thinking about. Think about a place like Gary, Indiana. Gary had 383 black people in 1910 by 1920 it had 5,299. So people are going to different places and for a lot of different reasons. One of the big things we want to talk about is the racial violence, because it really is so extreme, especially after 1889. Lynching is one of those phenomena in American history that…I don’t know how else to say it. It seems extremely American to me in that it’s extremely violent.

Dr. Whitfield: It’s a weird form of controlled violence against a very specific and targeted group. Sometimes my students – and I don’t know about anybody here – but they have this idea that when people were lynched, they did it like late at night in the dark, like by themselves. I’m like, no, no, they did it in front of hundreds or thousands of people. And they made postcards of it like literal postcards. People weren’t ashamed of this. And as I’m sure everyone in this room is well educated, as we all know, the reason that people thought black people were getting lynched wasn’t the actual reason black people were actually getting lynched. As one Little Rock, Arkansas paper said, and I won’t pretend that this is my own work. I’ve taken many of these examples from a very famous historian, Leon Litwack. He did a really good job trying to explain why this is happening, why is this going on? One Little Rock, Arkansas paper sort of summed it up. It said, as long as black people, quote unquote, cast their lustful eyes on white women, that there would be a reaction. And this was very important. And the same newspaper said this may be southern brutality – lynching – as far as the Boston Negro can see, but in polite circles, we call it southern chivalry, a southern virtue that will never die.

Dr. Whitfield: But here’s the crazy thing about this. The fear of black men raping white women or black men and white women having consensual sex. They did not seem to distinguish. Was very, very upsetting for these people. But can I just tell you how bizarre this is for me? I mean, as I go on with this, I can’t help but tell you I can trace my heritage back to 17th century Virginia. And I come from a long line of slaves and slave owners. And, you know, growing up, I guess people just told me that I was black. That’s just what it was. And I think the weird thing for me was I took an ancestry DNA test. And it messed my mind up. It can do that to you. Because I found out that I was like 53 percent European. I had never even been told anything about that in my life. I never been told about all these English, British, Scottish, Irish heritage that I had. My friend Sean Field, a wonderful medieval historian, he’s like “welcome to the club.”

Dr. Whitfield:  I literally had no idea. But it’s very clear that my third great grandfather, who was a soldier for the Confederacy, he was a white guy. A direct relation. You know, obviously he was sleeping with – he was young, he was only 17 or 18 – with an enslaved black woman. But it was very common for white men’s first experience to be with enslaved black women. That was not uncommon. A lot of the archive that slave historians are working with to look at these different relationships are uncovering this. It’s everywhere. You see it in letters. And, of course, the biggest example, obviously, is Strom Thurmond. Right. We all remember good old Strom Thurmond. With his black daughter. You can’t avoid this sort of stuff. It’s very interesting that there was this gigantic fear post Civil War of rape or sex between black and white. Before the Civil War, it’s not the same level of concern. There are different concerns. One of the biggest concerns is, well, what if the mother is white and the father is black? It wasn’t this sort of sexualized thing. It was more like what you do with this child. Because if it’s a white mother, the child was free. So that’s a problem.

Dr. Whitfield: So how do we understand this? In actuality, rape or sexual indiscretion actually was a relatively minor cause of the mob violence of the three thousand black people known to have been lynched between about 1889 and 1918, only about 20 percent were accused of rape. The majority of them were lynched for super trivial reasons. It’s depressing, but it’s so outrageous. It’s so hard to believe, but some of the offenses included the following: using disrespectful language, being insulting. Being insolent, being boastful, threatening, using my favorite word incendiary language, insubordination, impertinence, improper demeanor, a sarcastic grin, laughing for too long or too long of a prolonged silence. Refusing to doff one’s cap to a white person, refusing to give the right of way. And this is like something that could definitely get you lynched.

Dr. Whitfield: There were all sorts of reasons. You could jump a labor contract, meaning you left a household that wanted to still employ you. Well, you could get lynched for that. All sorts of examples. For example, Charles Jones, who is from Georgia, was lynched by 150 white people for stealing a pair of shoes and quote unquote, talking big. Thank you again, Leon Litwack for this. Henry Sykes was lynched in Mississippi for calling up white girls on the telephone and annoying them. Jeff Brown accidentally brushed against a white girl as he was running to catch a train and a mob hanged him for attempted rape.

Dr. Whitfield: And I think we have to understand all of this happening in light of what one federal official said in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, he said, when a [n-word] gets ideas, the best thing to do is to get him underground as quick as possible. And I think that just about sums it up. But the best example I can give you again, thank you Leon Litwack is from Rufus Moncrief. He made one mistake when on his way home from work, he encountered a group of men. He did not display the expected humble demeanor and seemed reluctant to pull off his hat to them when they spoke to him. The men beat him badly, and soon other people joined in the attack. Some of them severing Moncrief’s limbs with a saw. They dragged what remained of him to a nearby tree and strung him up as they continued to mutilate his body for good measure. They hung Moncrief’s dog next to him, and then informed Moncrief’s wife that she would find two black puppies hanging to a tree and ordered her to remove them quickly, or the farm would be burned down. The 80-year-old woman cut the bodies down and placed him in large oat bags for burial. The coroner’s inquest, of course, and this was very common, decided that Moncrief had come to his death by hands unknown.

Dr. Whitfield: All it is is racist terrorism. It’s literal terrorism. Because if this didn’t happen to you, you hear about it, you know that it could happen to you. So going up north doesn’t seem like a really bad idea. And I don’t think that black people moving up north were dumb enough to think that the north was going to be like, great. But it was better.

Dr. Whitfield: My father’s mother. She was extremely light skinned. They lived in Amite, Mississippi. Anybody ever been down there? Yeah. So pretty infamous from the civil rights days. So this is like she left there in like the 1910s. But it was so bad in Mississippi. Our family left Mississippi and moved to Alabama for a couple of years because it was that much better. I’m not making this up. And then they went to Evanston, Illinois. And so my grandmother became a pharmacist. And her son, my dad, who’s now 80 years old. He became a medical doctor and he lives in Evanston. But just gives you an idea of what these people were actually dealing with.

Dr. Whitfield: I think we’re pretty clear on why they moved north. So what happens in the north and why does it matter? So they get to the north, they are in all these different cities. But even though things aren’t great and there are race riots throughout the north. In the 1910s, there’s Chicago 1919, I think East St. Louis in 1917, there are a series of other outbreaks of racial violence. Chicago is incredibly violent. There’s been several books written about that. All that stuff is true, but they could get a factory job. They could feed their family. They could vote. Or at least try to. And I think that’s extremely important.

Dr. Whitfield: And voting is one of the most important things that happens. Being able to start to exercise the franchise in the 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know if you have a civil rights movement, if you don’t have more and more black people moving up north and voting, especially in swing states. Whether we agree with the Electoral College or not, and I can think of like 3000 reasons not to, in this sense, it actually helped black people because they were moving up to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Chicago. And they vote. They can tip an election. They can tip a state, right, and think about the democratic elections that will come after the 1920s. Think about this coalition that Roosevelt builds. All of a sudden, black people can vote. So FDR, and let’s give credit where credit’s due to Eleanor Roosevelt because she was way more supportive of racial justice than FDR. FDR said, I don’t know if we can bring about this century quite yet. He might have wanted to do more, he’s a little hard to read that way, but he certainly was more willing to help black people than any of these presidents between 1900 and 1932. He was open to that. But it’s because black people are moving north, it’s because they can vote and they start voting. Now we have to remember, I mean as weird as it sounds today, black people voted for the Republican Party almost exclusively. Right from the 1860s on.

Dr. Whitfield: But it’s in the 1930s and 1940s that this starts to change. People in the Democratic Party start to notice. So what does the Democratic Party do? They got a weird coalition going. They got the Deep South. Right. They got people like Strom Thurman, the descendants of James K. Vardaman, right? They have all of these people who are sort of southern anti-black people, but black people will start to vote for the Democratic Party. And this is a very interesting thing. So by 1948, of course, the Democrats, they adopt a civil rights plank. And out of that, of course, the Deep South are people who aren’t happy, who don’t think the Democratic Party is sufficiently racist enough. They formed the Dixiecrat Party. And they decide, OK, we’re gonna do this. And some of those people who would be left over since late 60s, early 70s, they would switch over to the Republican Party.

Dr. Whitfield: Now, we have to be careful because not all black people immediately switch to the Democratic Party. My grandfather voted for the Republican Party well into the 1970s, probably. And of course, we know Edward Brooke, who didn’t die all that long ago, is the first black person elected to the Senate post Reconstruction. He was a Republican. And when he was asked toward the end of his life why he had left the Republican Party, he said, I didn’t leave it. He said they left me. And you know, that’s coming from Edward Brooke. He’s not exactly what I would call, super far left. So that’s an interesting thing. So the question is, of course, as we talk more about this, will black people in the future at some point go back to the Republican Party, the original party that they voted for. I guess we don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen next 20 years we think we do. I don’t think it’s very likely right now. But you never know.

Dr. Whitfield: I always like that example for my students because it always helps them see how these parties can shift and so on and so forth. But black people become, as we know now, the sort of the backbone of the Democratic Party. I mean, they’re very important. JFK in 1960. If he won the election, he barely won it. Nixon could have challenged that. He didn’t. Black people helped. Does Kennedy win without the black vote in 1960? I don’t doubt it. But you can see the black people did vote for him and they voted for LBJ. And one of the most ironic things about the Great Migration are these black people moving to the north. We’ve talked about for all these different reasons. You know, it seems to me that the two presidents that were best for black civil rights were two white Southern males, Harry Truman and LBJ. I mean, LBJ was way better on civil rights than some of the earlier ones. So it’s a very interesting thing.

Dr. Whitfield: The last thing I want to mention that I think is important is the cultural exchange that happens. I think that’s super important is you have this sort of cultural exchange that happens in the sense that black people are migrating up to these northern cities and you have this blossoming of African-American culture in terms of literature, in terms of music. With jazz. So especially in Chicago, you know, you think of the Harlem Renaissance. So you have all of that and. When this migration takes place in nineteen thirties and forties and then we have the further migration on top of it. You have certain issues that make the civil rights movement difficult.

Dr. Whitfield: So what happens with the civil rights movement? How does the Great Migration influence this? This is a very touchy subject for people. Because it’s pretty clear that Martin Luther King and some of the leaders of the civil rights movement, what they did and spoke for, even though toward the end of his life, he was moving on towards more of a class-based issue, it was very helpful for middle class African Americans. Like my parents could not buy a house in Chevy Chase, Maryland in like 1967. They literally actually couldn’t. But when they went back in 1981, I was only a couple years old. They could buy it. So that part of the civil rights movement is very successful for middle and upper-class black people.

Dr. Whitfield: But one of the things that happens with this migration, especially after 1940, is people moving to black urban areas. With all the problems that go along with urban settlement and so on and so forth. And some black people, obviously not all, in these urban areas did not think that the civil rights movement spoke to them. They felt maybe Malcolm X speaks a little more to us or better yet, as you get into later 60s, the Black Panthers speak more for us. They’re speaking a language. They’re talking about breakfast. They’re talking about issues with the police. These things actually matter to us. And, of course, what do you have in the late 1960s? Some people call this a failure of the civil rights movement. The Kerner Commission talked about this. What do you have in the late 1960s? You have a riot in Bed-Stuy in 65. You have Newark in 67. You have Detroit in 67. A lot of race riots. So all of these people who have migrated up, maybe their children were there and plus a second wave. So who was the civil rights movement speaking to? This is a sort of a broader question.

Dr. Whitfield: But I think we can all agree that the Great Migration is one of the most important events in American history. Now, more recently, there’s been a bit of a reverse Great Migration into certain parts of the south. The reason is there are pretty good jobs. Taxes are lower. It’s cheaper, much cheaper actually to live in many parts of the south. And there are. So it’s not perfect. What people in the hip hop industry would call the New South. They had a New South and in the 1880s turned out that was a little bit more like the old South. But now they talk about the new South and they talk about it in terms of improved race relations. So there has been a bit of black people moving back down to the South.

Dr. Whitfield: And we see, a black woman can run for governor in Georgia and come within two points of winning. You can have a black man running in Florida. And don’t kid yourself. We haven’t talked a lot about colorism within the black community, and we can. But the fact that you have two darker-skinned African Americans, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, running in the South and doing so well, even though they didn’t quite win, I think says something. Now, what exactly that will mean, I guess we’ll see.

Thanks for listening to The Portable Humanist. Visit our website at vermonthumanities.org/podcasts for a transcript of this episode, and for more information about Vermont Humanities.