"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Clash of Two Migrations (Seventh in a Series)

     The move to the periphery of our traditional urban areas began with the wealthy, before the Second World War.  It gathered momentum during the late 1940s for reasons already introduced in this series of posts.  Just as it began to be called a “migration,” quite early in its historical arc, it encountered another migration, one both larger and of longer duration.  “Encounter” is not exactly the right word; the two migrations clashed, with results that were both unfortunate and unequal. This clash altered the nature of both migrations, and for the worse.  In an example of opposites repelling, the migration to the suburbs consciously strove to exclude these other migrants from joining them, directing it instead to the urban areas the migrants were vacating.  We are talking about opposite races, of course, white and black.  In the major cities where numbers and density allowed reactions other than flight, those whites who had not joined the migration to the suburbs sought to direct the new black arrivals to some other neighborhood than their own through a variety of tactics, many of them illegal and all of them questionable morality, at the very least.

     This clash was a complex and controversial component of modern American history, and I will spend some time on it.  But before I introduce some specifics, about which most people think they know a lot, I want to establish the deeper context, about which few know anything at all.  There are always levels within reality, and thus within history.  This is an important one.

     The other migration that would so affect that to the crabgrass frontier had begun earlier, encompassed larger numbers spanning a longer period of time and produced such fundamental consequences that scholars refer to it as “The Great Migration.”  The phrase describes the movement of over six million African Americans (voluntarily, this time) out of the South, where the vast majority of their ancestors had been taken generations earlier.  Historians also divide it into two phases (a third, “reverse” phase is underway), with 1940 as the approximate dividing line.

    This migration deserves the appellation “Great,” both for its extent and its close-to-countless results.  At the dawn of the 20th century, over 95% of African Americans were living a rural existence in the “Old South.”  As the greater industrialization of the northern states produced a greater and still greater need for labor, these areas experienced a labor shortage even with the enormous number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe that were arriving at this time.  Thus was born an opportunity for the people who had for long been bound to the land, in one way or another.  They were technically free to move, but the economic slavery of the sharecropping system gave few the means.  The need for labor in the north was so insistent that several of the larger corporations that had already sent representatives into the Southern states to tout the jobs available up north, began to make special arrangements to move northward those who could do the work, even if they could not afford the journey.  The original arrangement—and its original beneficiary—was the Illinois Central Railroad, which welcomed a passenger influx that did not require much improvement of its services.  The railroad brought them up from the Mississippi delta, and Chicago was the original destination for most, but by no means the final destination for all.  The jobs beckoned across the industrial middle and northeast, and these migrants did exactly as America’s migrants have always done and traveled to where the jobs were, settling largely in the cities that hosted industries.  The First World War provided a major impetus; with workers leaving for the army, the need for labor became even more pressing.  When those soldiers returned, of course, those new African American workers discovered a reality about their industrial jobs: “last hired, first fired.”  The fact that they were not white did not exactly hurt, either.

     The Great Depression effectively stemmed the flow of this migration, but only temporarily.  After 1940, rearmament and then war first increased the demands on industry and then removed a great many of the workers needed to meet those demands.  The result was a labor shortage of a much greater dimension than in World War I.  The response came from African Americans and women; we celebrate the latter, as “Rosie The Riveter.”  Greater demand for industrial labor in the North brought greater migration of African Americans from the South, often along new routes.  Whereas some 1.5 million African Americans migrated during the first movement, another 5 million followed during the second.  By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the transformation of the Industrial Belt into the Rust Belt brought the migration to an end.

     The result was profound; by the 1960s almost half of African Americans were living in the northeast and north central regions of the country, and the vast majority of those had settled into the cities.  We all know the result; today, the word “urban” is a euphemism for “black,” particularly when followed by such words as “music” or “culture.”

     This Second Great Migration, occurring as it did during and after the Second World War, neatly overlapped with the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  As a result, each had an effect on the other.  By the end of the war, the Great Migration had added substantial African American components to the industrial workforce, and therefore to the population of those urban areas where industry was concentrated.  They had begun at the lowest levels of work, of course, and had occupied the lowest-quality housing.  Many still did, but others had found opportunities and had seized them, gaining job skills sufficient to propel them into America’s expanding middle class.  Then there were the African American veterans, back from a war where they had suffered discrimination, been forced to join segregated units, and almost uniformly set to performing menial tasks, but where each had made his contribution to the war effort has best he could.  This combination of hard-earned opportunities meant that some descendants of the Great Migration attempted to join the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  In other words, African Americans began to look for ways to leave the pasts that exhibited little good and partake in the new adventure, just as white veterans and those white laborers who had acquired skills and a middle class outlook were doing, at the same time.  The result was, all too often, not pleasant.  The two migrations clashed, fiercely resisting attempts by African Americans to merge them.

     We will return to our focus--our urban areas--when I discuss the initial arrival of African Americans in the better neighborhoods of our cities and town, and the reaction they provoked.  Before that, however, we need to examine the situation out on the crabgrass frontier itself, specifically why the better-off African Americans did not join that migration until well after it was underway.  I other words, when those people I introduced last time--those who would leave because a black family was moving onto their block--did so, why were they so sure that their relocation to the suburbs would be worth the effort?  They clearly would move only to those suburbs where they would encounter no African Americans, and they were able to do just that.  Why will be the subject of the next post in this series.