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Historian speaks on the Great Migration

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VPM News Focal Point
The Great Migration changed the complexion and culture of the places people left behind and shaped the new places they would call home.

Between 1915 and 1970, approximately 6 million African Americans left their homes in the Southern United States and went in search of opportunity. Most went to cities and towns in the North, changing the complexion and culture of the places they left behind and shaping the new places they would call home. Historian Lauranett Lee sheds light on this and related migration patterns of Southern Black people. 


ANGIE MILES: I'm speaking with Dr. Lauranett Lee, who's leading a new initiative on race and social justice at Richmond Hill. But Dr. Lee, your list of credentials is quite long. Talk a little bit, if you will, about how you got into this work. What interested you in African American history?

LAURANETT LEE (DIRECTOR OF RACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, RICHMOND HILL): Thank you so much, Angie. Happy to be here and talk with you. I'm a Virginian, first and foremost. And I did not like history growing up because it excluded so much. I did not see myself in it. But later, I learned to love it after receiving a bachelor's in communications from Mundelein College, now part of Loyola. I came back home and went to Virginia State University and studied with Dr. Edgar Toppin. And that opened my world to history and the people's history. And so that's what I focus on. I was at the Virginia Historical Society for 15 years and helped the team create a database called "Unknown No Longer" to help descendants find their ancestors that now have been folded into Virginia Untold, which is at the Library of Virginia. And now, as the inaugural director of race and social justice at Richmond Hill, I am helping to lift up the history that had really not been told until recently.

In the, largely the early 1900s, a lot of Black people left the South, including Virginia, bound for destinations North. What were the conditions like for many Black people in Virginia in the early 1900s that would prompt so many to leave in such numbers to go North?

Everything was segregated. You could not go to an integrated park, restaurant, restroom, school, everything was segregated. And not only segregated, opportunities were so restricted. The employment was limited in such ways that most African-Americans were relegated to positions where they would never be able to rise so high to be on the same level with whites. And education, not only in the elementary through high school years, but higher education was limited. In fact, Virginia created grants so that those who wanted a higher education would be compensated to go out of the state because they did not want to integrate the universities. And so there was this quest to live fully. And of course, that meant you go where you can to have a better life. But that happened even before the early 1900s. You look at immediately after the Civil War, people were moving about. And to some people, it seemed like they were just wandering aimlessly. But they were looking for family. They were leaving rural areas, going to cities. They were going from Southern states into Northern and Western states in search of family, in search of reuniting.

You mentioned the era of Reconstruction. I do think it's important in looking at migration patterns to note that immediately after the end of slavery, Black families were trying to find the people who had been basically stolen from them, the family members who had been sold away sometimes into the deep South. And so surprisingly, some people left Virginia and did go South because they knew that's where their search needed to start. There were people who went North, people who relied on Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and other kind souls to post those last seen notices to try to find the family members who were, in some cases, the only possessions they had on this planet.

One reason we know about people who were searching for family members is because of advertisements that were placed in newspapers. And in those advertisements, we can see the ways that they remember ancestors. It was not only in the clothing that they might've worn, but also scars. Because of the institution of slavery, many, many enslaved people had scars. And this would have been noted, even the way that they carried themselves. I've seen advertisements that said, she walks with pride. She holds her head high. He walks with a limp. And so they are describing themselves as best they can remember in hopes that others can help them find their ancestors. Those advertisements are really, really important.

I think that the rate of reunion was sadly not as high as people had hoped. It was very difficult for people to reunite. I do want us to move forward now, if we could to, what's considered officially the period of the Great Migration, I guess, which would be early 1900s through as late as 1970, as black people moved North, sometimes as whole families, but often as individuals. I know my grandfather's mother, for example, went to Philadelphia. The children stayed in the South with the grandparents because people were trying to see if they could make a living, see if they could make a little money and send it home to mom, dad, grandma, grandpa. What kinds of opportunities did Black people find in the North when they left Virginia?

So, there were much more job opportunities for them, much more opportunity to make a living wage, though it's not a great deal. It's more than they would have had in the South. In addition to the kinds of employment that they had here, working in domestic service, being in service industries, there were also the opportunities to work in factories, to work in education, to be in positions where they could make enough money to send back home. And we do know that oftentimes it would be one or two of the parents that would go first and then children would go later because they would need to set up a home. And in leaving the children with grandparents or relatives, they were assured that the children were taken care of while they were making way for themselves in the middle.

And the urban centers, really being enriched in many ways by the presence of these formerly Southern individuals who brought with them something of the South, the cooking, the traditions, the porch culture, and enlivenment of the neighborhoods. What would you say is the value for the North in having those former Southerners arrive?

The recipes, the church reunions, family reunions, dancing, jazz, music, gospel. It was an infusion of that Southern culture into that Northern environment that has made the North what it is today.

I want to point to Isabel Wilkerson who wrote what's considered the opus on the Great Migration in "The Warmth of Other Sons." She, as a Pulitzer Prize winning author, was raised by parents who were from the Great Migration and later she relocated to the Atlanta area which some would consider the Deep South. Similarly, Bryan Stevenson, who is known for his work in acknowledging the victims of lynchings. He was a product of the Great Migration growing up in the North, but then later relocating to the deep South. We've seen an influx of people who either themselves went North during the Great Migration or whose parents or grandparents did, coming back to the South. Does that have anything to do with either the exhaustion of opportunity or promises unfulfilled in the North? I’m thinking of cities like Detroit where the factories have closed and were moved away. Places like Baltimore where so much is now boarded up and people have moved South again. What does that say about the South? What does it say about the new Virginia as a place of equality and opportunity for people who previously thought they could not find that here?

We do find people moving back and I wouldn't even say moving back South, moving back home because there's something in them that pulls them back. If it's the thing of, there was a time we lived in the North, we'd come home in the summertime to be with the elders, the larger extended family. More people want to raise their children around family. More people want to hold on to land that family may have been able to obtain and want a life that is a little slower in some ways, a little more settled and in a way that resonates within them. A life that, where you can sit out on your porches. They want to have gardens. They want to be able to grow their own food. They want to know other people who have left and come back who are maintaining gardens, who are raising their children and family in this place that we call home.

We're going to have to end our discussion there, although there is so much more that we could talk about, and I hope that we will get an opportunity to do that at another time. But thank you so much, Dr. Lauranett Lee for discussing with me the migration patterns of Black people from Virginia, inclusive of those who moved about during Reconstruction in search of family members that had been taken from them. And then those who went North during the Great Migration and then many who have started to make their way South again to what you described as home. So, thank you for this discussion today.

Thank you so much; appreciate it.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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