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South-North Black Migration in early 20th Century….

May 9, 2012

Jacob Lawrence Migration Series…Weighing the cotton

The Jacob Lawrence Migration Series Website

American Lynching Series

The period after the Civil War in the United States saw the economy explode in the industrial age. For the next sixty years, until 1924 – and sometime thereafter – the U.S. economy was troubled with labor shortages. A good portion of those labor shortages were addressed by massive immigration, immigrants recruited from Eastern and Southern Europe, from China, Japan and India in the main and by the early 20th century from Mexico, Latin America and later Puerto Rico.

But the labor shortages were also addressed by the shifting status of groups already present, among the women and Blacks. Women enter the U.S. labor force in the period after the Civil War in unprecedented numbers. For Blacks, released from the shackles of slavery as a result of the 1863 emancipation proclamation and other legislation at the end of the Civil War, a new kind of subjugation was introduced; today it is referred to as `Jim Crow’ that included extreme forms of segregation, lynching and a more generalized officially sanctioned reign of terror and it lasted a full century until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to its most egregious forms (although the residue of racism, and a rather sizable residue at that, continues until the present).

Beginning in the early twentieth century `a way out’ of the Southern predicament was offered to the former slave population: escape to the northern and western industrial cities – Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York City where the pay was sometimes ten times what a Black could earn in the cotton fields of Alabama or Mississippi and where, if segregation still reared its ugly head, still it was in many ways a milder form, especially in the big cities.

Over the course of about thirty years, the Black population of the United States shifted from a predominantly southern, to a predominantly northern population. Before 1900 more than 90% of this countries Blacks lived in the South. By 1950, that same percentage had found homes, jobs and a degree of refuge in northern industrial cities. This population shift was the largest internal population migration in American history. It changed the texture of the country not only population-wise but culturally, sociologically and ultimately politically.

Much has been written about the shift.

It is also portrayed vividly in the art of Jacob Lawrence – artist of the great migration. Some years ago – it must be five or six – I had the good fortune to be in Washington DC at the time when Lawrence’s migration series was exhibited in its entirety at a small art gallery just off Dupont Circle.  A powerful exhibit, especially when seen in its entirety. Today a poster from the series (the washer woman cleaning an apartment floor) is on our living room wall and I look at it, take pleasure in it and think about the great migration and its implication, pretty much every morning (well – after I’ve had my first cup of coffee)

Around the same time that the Jacob Lawrence migration series was making the round (part of it came to Denver and was exhibited here in the Denver Art Museum) a serious historical study of lynching in the south was undertaken by a number of Black scholars. It produced a number of pretty definitive – if deeply disturbing – studies on the practice – referred to in the famous song sung by Billie Holliday `Strange Fruit’.  A Colorado historian, Steve Leonard of Metro State College has written on the same subject concerning the history of lynching in Colorado. Lynching was not simply killing innocent people because of their race or ethnic background. An extreme form of social control – the essential message was: this is what is in store for you if you don’t `remain in your place’. Often it entailed a whole ritual; the lynching would be announced in local papers, days before `the event’. Tens of thousands of people often showed up; in one case, a lynching in a Dallas suburb, the press estimates were 100,000 were on hand. Lynchings took on the air of picnics – with music, food that went on casually for hours as people casually watched what was usually a Black male publicly tortured, humiliated and killed as if they were at a baseball game. It is the casualness of the ritual that has long haunted and horrified me, that people could – and still do – commit such crimes against other human beings.

There is a direct line between these lynchings to the tiger cages in Vietnam and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And now torture in America – if one can `prove’ a person to be `an enemy of the state’  is legal in the USA. In any case, I suggest people first click on the `lynching’ link…it helps explain in part why it was that Blacks stampeded out of the South in the early twentieth century. Then click on the Jacob Lawrence series and the passage into `the new world’; it wasn’t a world without problems nor without racial discrimination, but it was still a more dignified, hopeful world

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