This book review was written by Eugene Kernes
“Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable.” – Isabel Wilkerson, The Great Migration, 1915-1970, Page 31
“Young people like them weren’t tied to a place like their slave grandparents had been forced to, and they weren’t content to move from plantation to plantation like their parents. Even since World War 1 had broken out and all those jobs had opened up in the North, there had been an agitation for something better, some fast, new kind of life where they could almost imagine themselves equal to the white people. An so they had gone off to wherever the money seemed to be raining down.” – Isabel Wilkerson, George Swanson Starling, Page 72
“Planters did not like to lose good help. They had ways of keeping sharecroppers under them, claimed they owed money when they didn’t, that they had to work off the debt, which meant they were working for free and made fugitives of them if they left. The planters kept the books, and, even if a sharecropper had the nerve to keep his own, a colored man’s numbers didn’t count.” – Isabel Wilkerson, Breaking Away, Page 182
During the 20th century, many American southern black individuals and families made a choice to go north. This is considered a Great Migration. They migrated for the same reasons various other peoples throughout history migrated. When life in their region became untenable, they left to places where there was hope of a better life. For improved social and economic opportunities. Going to where they could be employed in their chosen fields. Moving away from where they were relentlessly persecuted, to where there were less social restrictions and fears. Reluctant to leave, but they left in search for freedom.
The end of the American Civil War established liberties for black individuals. But in the south, by the end of the 19th century, laws were created to segregate the peoples. The Jim Crow laws removed the previously gained liberties. But the era was different, with black individuals not restricted to a region. The south did not want to lose the quality labor, and created laws to try and keep black individuals. Yet black individuals found ways to leave. Migrating north. What black individuals found in the north was much better, but not ideal. The north did not have segregation laws, but socially were still able to enforce segregation. Black individuals left the dangers of the south, but the north had dangers as well. Those who migrated could not warn their successors of the different dangers. Nor did the north have the social cohesion that they had in the south, in which the community members would have looked after each other.
Persecution and Jim Crow Laws:
Circa early 20th century, there were black individuals with no personal account of slavery. They were free, but not free. They lived under Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws had official discrimination laws, but also unofficial social custom rituals. Breaking a minor ritual or gesture, would have quickly led to the black individual being assaulted. Everyday interactions favored white individuals, and subordinated black individuals.
Sharecroppers were pinned to the land. The master kept sharecroppers in debt, by not giving the sharecropper what they earned. The sharecropper could not contradict the master, because that would have had terrible consequences. The good bosses at least allowed the sharecroppers to break even, rather than get the sharecropper further into debt.
As planters wanted to keep labor, they kept the sharecropper in debt. The planter claimed that the sharecropper owned money, and needed to pay off the debt, even if there was no actual debt. That meant that sharecroppers either worked for free, or became fugitives if they did not. Should a sharecropper keep a record, it would not matter because black individual records did not count. The reason for the lack of justice, was because black individuals could not make or enforce their demands.
WW1 created a labor shortage. Wartime labor shortages created various creative ways to force individuals into working. Those caught not working were arrested, and obtained fines which were needed to be paid off working. This was debt peonage, which was an illegal form of contemporary slavery.
Younger individuals did not obtain their predecessors debts, did not want to be coerced, and were not satisfied with working on plantations. WW1 opened up a lot of jobs in the North, and the younger individuals were willing to go North. They went North for the income, and because there was more liberty there.
There were those who went north for work, but later came back to the south. The problem was that their perspectives have changed. They became accustomed to fair wages, and various freedoms and liberties. They had become used to their life not being in danger for even minor social infractions. Going back south, the dissatisfaction with the lower income caused them to form groups and hold out for higher wages.
Those who earned money received more than they even thought possible. Not because it was a lot of money, but because it was far more than was possible in the past. This was only due to the war. They disapproved of the war, but secretly also did not want it to end.
There was a huge disparity in pay between white and black individuals. White individuals could provide for their successors, and therefore accumulate wealth. Black individuals could barely provide for themselves, and thereby save enough for successors. This created an intergenerational disparity wealth gap. A name was the only thing black individuals could give their successors, making that name very important. Communities utilized the same beloved names.
Migration, and The North:
Those who left the south, took memories of the south with them. Being reminded, by insignificant things, of the where they came from. Generally, the more ambitious the migrant, the further they are willing to go and overcome greater obstacles. Migration requires energy, and planning. A desire and willingness to act. They are more likely to be better educated than those of their original regions, and more motivated. Leading them to become successful in the new region.
In the north, black individuals were allowed to vote. But they were not really sure how, but learned. Their ability to vote changed who got into office. And were able to remove individuals who wanted to keep the power to abuse black individuals. In the south, black individual knew better than to try to vote even if they had the option.
Although there were no segregation laws in the north, people still found ways to segregate based on race. To degrade black values and individuals. As black individuals earned money, they started to move into better neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that were primarily white. There was an assumption that black individuals would reduce the value of the neighborhood, which set an expectation that lowered the retail value of the neighborhood. With falling prices, white individuals could not finance investments. Leading to many white people selling what they had at low prices and leaving the neighborhood. White people left in advance of any black individuals moving there.
Many who left the south due to dangers, did not consider the different dangers of the places that they moved to. They were usually small-town individuals, moving to urban environments without knowing the problems of their new region. In the south, migrants had a community that could warn the people of dangers, and watch out for others. But where the migrants moved to, they did not have a support network. They were not warned of the dangers of drugs, guns, and violence. They did not know these dangers, and therefore could not warn their children of these dangers. The conditions of the northern cities brought down many migrants.
The book is composed of mostly narrative and examples. Not much explanation of the content. The history is told from the perspective of various peoples, with different stories to tell about their migration. Can be hard to keep track of the different narratives.
The book is polarizing. Showing the struggles of black individuals, and how they were persecuted by white individuals. The problem is what is not expressed, that not all white people supported Jim Crow laws. The white people who undermined Jim Crow laws. The caste system is very difficult to overcome, from each perspective.