The Black Migration Up North

Roundup: Media's Take

From NPR (Feb. 19, 2004):

TAVIS SMILEY: The largest wave of African-American migration to the north for a better life began during World War I. African-Americans trying to escape racism in the South flocked to cities from the Midwest to the East Coast. Civil rights activist and historian Timuel Black, son of first-generation migrants to Chicago , surveys this exciting time through the eyes of those who lived through it. He recently talked to our reporter, Allison Keyes, about his new book, "Bridges of Memory: Chicago 's First Wave of Black Migration," an oral history.

Mr. TIMUEL BLACK (Author, "Bridges of Memory: Chicago's First Wave of Black Migration"): Blacks found friendship with one another because most of them had left the South and most of them had left urban areas of the South, Birmingham, Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, so they had some familiarity with what the city was like, and many of them, like my parents, had been met by friends or relatives when they came into Chicago.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:


Mr. BLACK: And they were given some kind of coaching as to how to get along and behave in Chicago . Now there was quite a few jobs in Chicago at that period of time, right after World War I, and so they had no problems with employment. What they had problems with was mobility in the city, where they were met with hostility if they went beyond the boundaries of those ghettos.

KEYES: If I recall correctly, a lot of the people you spoke to in your book said that black people didn't even need to go downtown because there was so much happening on the South Side, and lots of people my age don't remember a lot of that. Can you tell us about some of the places that don't exist anymore, like the Vendome, where you first saw Louis Armstrong?

Mr. BLACK: Oh, the Vendome, the States(ph), the Mecca building; moving southward, the Regal, the Savoy, the places where Duke and Count Basie and all those--the Grand Terrace, the Rum Boogie, the DeLisa. I could name many places of entertainment.

KEYES: And there was a black ballpark at 39th and Wentworth.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, yes, that was American Giants, where the founder of the American Negro League, Luke Foster(ph), had been sort of given or lent this land by Charles Comiskey, who was somewhat liberal in his terms. The White Sox park was in the old place where now there's a public housing development there.

KEYES: Right.

Mr. BLACK: But yeah, Luke Foster, who--was as much a businessman as he was a baseball player, and he organized the Negro Baseball League.

KEYES: The group that you spoke to in this book is from your generation, and they pretty much came because they thought Chicago was the promised land, and they wanted their kids not to have to learn about sharecropping and tobacco picking.

Mr. BLACK: All of my grandparents were born in slavery. My mother and father were born in relatively small towns, Jacksonville , Alabama , and Florence , Alabama . By the way, Florence , Alabama , was the home of the first African-American elected to the Congress after Reconstruction, Oscar DePriest. Mr. DePriest went to Kansas City and then found that Chicago, for him, sounded more like the opportunity place, so he came to Chicago and there he bought a lot of land and became rather prosperous and went into politics very early.

So my mother and dad left Jacksonville and Florence , and they met in Birmingham , where I was born. I was eight months old when they decided that they did not want to raise their children in that terroristic environment, that--not only terroristic, one that did not yield the opportunities that they felt my brother and sister and I deserved.

KEYES: But when people got to Chicago , they still found some of the same kind of discrimination, but kind of in a different manner.

Mr. BLACK: With the influx of more and more African-Americans to the big cities, particularly Chicago , the landowners and the landlords had made an agreement called restrictive covenants, that they would not rent or sell to people of color, primarily Negroes. Also, Asians were included in that, particularly Chinese, but it wasn't as explicit as that deprivation of opportunity to move freely for blacks. And so we were confined in a relatively small area. The population density in the black community was three to four times what it was in the white community.

KEYES: You've written that many young African-Americans don't know anything about the glorious past history of black Chicago and that they've lost their sense of identity. Was teaching them that your primary reason for writing this book?

Mr. BLACK: My primary reason for writing was to broaden the interest, at least, among young people, black and white, and bring memories of people of my generation, who lived that period of time in Chicago , but to stimulate younger people, black and white, but focusing on young African-Americans who know so little about their history. I won't say all, but too many do not know. As a result, they don't have a sense of pride in the sense of their history that gives them a signal to strive harder, even when times are tough.

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