By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
To put a human face on the six million African-Americans who participated in the Great Migration, thumb through the stockpile of letters that Southern readers sent to The Chicago Defender from 1916-1917.
“I wish you would let me know if there is anything up there that I can get,” a married man from Jacksonville, Fla., wrote on April 4, 1917. “We are suffering and we cannot get anything here. . . I will go to Pennsylvania, New York State, New Jersey, or Illinois. Or anywhere that I can support my wife.”
A man from Lutcher, La., wrote in a letter dated May 13, 1917, “I am working hard in the south and can hardly earn a living. I have a wife and one child and can hardly feed them. . . Please don’t publish this because we have to whisper this around among ourselves because the white folks are angry now because the negroes are going north.”
A 17-year-old female off from school for the summer wrote in a letter dated June 6, 1917, “I am writing to you all asking a favor. . .School has just closed. . .But there isn’t a thing here for me to do, the wages here is from a dollar and a half a week. What could I earn …
Nothing … I would like for you all to get me a good job and as I haven’t any money to come in please send me a pass and I would work and pay every cent of it back and get me a good quite place to stay.”
Do you get the picture? These letters could have been written by a person with an oval, round, diamond, square or heart-shaped face (the standard six facial shapes, in other words). But a sense of urgency and silent desperation stream through all of the letters because six millions African-Americans left the South aiming to escape low wages, lynching’s and harsh Jim Crow laws when they packed up, and participated in the Great Migration from 1910-1970.
This is the point, as the nation observes the 2019 Black History Month theme: Black Migrations, those who left the South had different facial features, lived in different parts of the South but all faced the same harsh realities that confronted Chicago Defender Publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott. With 25 cents in his pocket, he launched The Chicago Defender in 1905 after studying printing at Hampton Institute. Abbott also earned a law degree from Kent College of Law in Chicago in 1898.
The letters kept coming because people were looking for better opportunities. Here is a quick comparison of wages in the South and the North around 1917, (when many of these letters were written to The Chicago Defender).
African-Americans miners in Macon, Ga., for example, earned $1.25 a day, compared to $4.65 a day for miners in Birmingham. In Iboden, Va., an African-American coal worker earned 60¢ a car for loading coal into freight-train cars with a four-ton capacity. However, the average African-American family in Harlem earned $1,300 a year, which translates to about $2.50 to $3.50 per day.
In Philadelphia, African-American women working in the hosiery trade industry could earn $4.50 per week. The cost of a home in 1915 was about $3,200, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Few homes had running water, and almost none had running hot water. Most were heated by a potbelly stove or by a coal furnace. Bread cost 7 cents a loaf, eggs, 34 cents a dozen. Laundry was cleaned by rubbing clothes on a washboard.
And this is why Abbott’s newspaper was wildly successful after he printed his first 300 issues in a room at his boardinghouse in 1905. His paper depicted Chicago as a promised land and included numerous help-wanted ads.
Young, old and middle age migrants exited the three states with the largest African-American populations: Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Great Migration’s impact was crystal-clear by 1970. New York, Illinois and California had the most African-Americans as a result.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of the 2010 book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” said any migration is a referendum on the place that people are fleeing. Although census data shows that African-Americans who left the South had far more schooling than those who stayed, more stable family life, as shown by lower divorce rates and fewer children born outside of marriage. “They were seeking political asylum within their own homeland, to be free like other Americans,” Wilkerson said.
Based on more than a thousand interviews, written in broad imaginative strokes, Wilkerson’s book follows the journey of three Southern African-Americans, each representing a different decade of the Great Migration as well as a different destination. She uses this shrewd storytelling device for two reasons, first to show people left the South in a steady and continuous stream, fleeing the same horrors. Second, people bold enough to leave did so and often traveled by train.
And this is why The Chicago Defender’s stature increased to the point that its peak circulation climbed to 300,000 during the 1930’s. It continued to publish stories on jobs, friendly neighborhoods, and even included train schedules to point the way north. Pullman porters smuggled the papers into Southern railroad depots. Black entertainers and athletes dropped them off.
In one issue, the Chicago Defender’s tireless coverage on the exodus included a front-page photograph on Sept. 2, 1916 that showed neatly dressed African-American men and women waiting for a train in Savannah. The migrants were leaving, according to the caption, because they were “tired of being kicked and cursed.”
Another one of his newspapers included a poem, “Bound for the Promised Land.” It painted a glowing picture of the North with lines like: “No Cracker there to seduce your sister, nor to hang you to a limb.”
Emmett J. Scott the highest-ranking African-American in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and author of the 1920 report, “Negro Migration during the War,” discovered The Chicago Defender was very popular in the Deep South.
“Negroes grab the Defender like a hungry mule grabs fodder,” he was told in Mississippi. “Old men who did not know how to read would buy it because it was regarded as something precious.”
As a result, the faces of those who wrote the letters changed from issue to issue. The desperate, urgent tone did not.
“In reading the Defenders want ad I notice that there is lots of work to be had … (by) able bodied working men who is out of work and desire work, a reader from Bessemer, Ala., wrote on May 14, 1917.“Am I not right? … I have about 10 or 15 good working men who is out of work and are dying to leave the south and I assure you that they are working men and will be too glad to come north east or west, anywhere but the south.”
A New Orleans reader said in a letter dated April 22, 1917, “I thought you could help me secure work in your Windy City. I’m a married man have one child. I have common school education … I am presently employed as a miner has been for 14 years but would like a Change … I’m sober and can adjust.”
A man from Memphis wrote, “I want a job in a small town somewhere in the north where I can receive very good wages and where I can educate my three little girls and demand respect … I prefer a job as cabinetmaker or any kind of furniture mfg. if possible.”