Intro African American Studies
Blog Post #2
The cultural artifact I have chosen to share is a photograph of two black men with their bags packed heading north in hopes of better opportunities during the Great Migration. The first wave of the Great Migration during “1910-1940 approximately 1.5 million black people left the south” According to Pittman (2015). This was in response to the many Black codes that were terrorizing black existence in the South. Also the practice of peonage in the South that was supposed to be illegal, but many Black people continued to suffer from this practice. Peonage was becoming the new way that former slave holders could legally bind Black people to their land and have them perform work against their will. Lafayette Hershaw in her book about peonage wrote “In fact, it is difficult to draw a distinction between the condition of a man who remains in service against his will, because the State has passed a certain law under which he can be arrested and returned to work, and the condition of a man on a nearby farm who is actually made to stay at work by arrest and actual threats of force under the same law” (Hershaw, Lafayette M).
It is reported that “it was very common for Sheriffs or whites in the South to claim that Black people owed them money and then to sell them to the Jails or direct individuals” (Professor Pittman, personal communication, Nov 12th, 2015). When these majority Black men were in these prisons they were being rented out to private companies as essentially slave labor with reported “harsher treatment and working environments then when they were enslaved” (PBS Documentary).
This photo resonates with me because my grandfather and family migrated north during the first and second part of the Great Migration from Louisiana and Texas to Seattle. My grandfather’s decision to move north helped him to become a very established man becoming a home owner of many houses and accumulating a good deal of money that could sustain his family after his death. My grandfather came to Seattle being one of 15 children and having only a 4th grade education because his family was very poor and owned and ran a farm. Not only were Black people trying to escape racial prejudices and the risk of death or prison, but they were also trying to find a way to elevate their status here in the United States. When I look at this picture I envision my 19 year old grandfather packing up and leaving everything and everyone behind to start over new in a foreign place with no real guarantee of success.
This photograph of men traveling north during the Great Migration comes from the “Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture” which is located in Harlem, New York. This center opened in 1925 because there was a need for it considering the growing population of Black people migrating to the city for work from the South. This place was needed so that the newly forming Black community would have somewhere to learn about their history and culture and to also keep records of it in tact for generations to come. This center preserves many things such as books, news articles, paintings, photographs, etc. of many Black experiences here in America as well as Africa originated documents and memorabilia.
The Great Migration was so important for many Black people and families because it was offering them a different life and opportunities in factory jobs, railroad jobs, and fishing industries. Black people were able to leave behind the very hard labor of working other people’s land most often where they would be cheated out of their pay because they were unable to have legal contracts. They would also be cheated out of earned wages when renting a plot of land because the interest rates would be so high that they’d end up owing more money to the white land owners and needing to take out another loan to stay afloat.
Black people were harassed and made to live in constant fear in the South. Black men were constantly being hung and killed for supposed fear of them raping white women or something completely made up because there were no laws to protect them. Black people were made to walk in the street and to get off the sidewalk if they saw a white person coming. Reasons like these caused many Black people to want to leave the South so that they could live with some form of dignity and peace.
This cultural product relates to what we’ve learned in class because we’ve had readings and lectures about the Great Migration and its significance for Black people. In the South it was very hard for Black people to get jobs outside of Agriculture or for women domestic work. In the North because of the war and things such as the Japanese being put into the internment camps there was a rise in the need for labor in factories. Black men had a difficult time getting these jobs since other minorities were considered for the jobs first. Women continued to work in Domestic work in the North.
Other very interesting things about the Great Migration is that though many Black people left the South because of unfair treatment they were still “at risk for rape in Black women and the refusal to give jobs to Black men” according to Pittman (2015). Black families were paying more than half their income for their homes and most times extended families lived together in small homes in order to survive. According to Pittman (2015) although there were better school systems in the North many Black children had to find work and this made truancy rates to rise and their school work to suffer.
The Great Migration helped a lot of Black families, but in many ways they still had to live in severe poverty in these big cities because of the racism that existed within the work force. The opportunity for jobs, better education, and the unbearable racism in the South is what caused the migration of black people and ultimately gave Black families a chance of building a life outside of the South where the majority of Black people lived.