During the first Great Migration, from1916 to 1919, nearly 70,000 African Americans migrated from the rural south to northern cities, in search of freedom, better lifestyles and working conditions. Created by students in the NEH North by South seminar at Kenyon College, this web site is devoted to tracing the flight of African Americans from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago during two main periods of migration, from approximately 1916 to 1950. Influenced by halo-rimmed accounts of city life, thousands of African Americans left the South without knowing what trials and tribulations awaited them. The combination of word-of-mouth advice, active recruiting by northern labor agents, and promises of free transportation often supplied the reason and mode for migration North. Likewise, the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, published articles exposing the blatant racism of white southerners, political oppression, and the perpetual threat of lynching. Still, even though the Defender provided a foundation for decision-making, nothing proved as crucial as the actual moment of decision. Every migrant lost something as soon as he or she boarded the train. Some left behind families and congregations. Others lost the respect of their southern relatives and ministers. Every migrant literally stood at a crossroads, between North and South, mystery and familiarity, bright lights and desolate fields echoing ancestral voices and the passage of time.
To gain a deeper perspective, we have divided our research into five categories: Space, Religion, Blues, Food, and Family. Although each group provides a potential lens through which to study The Great Migration, the concept of space serves as a unifying theme.
The significance of our quilt is multi-fold. First, it represents our attempt to patch together the interviews and accounts we have gathered over the past year. More importantly, it symbolizes the vibrancy and individuality of African American culture during the Migrationö different shades, shapes and patterns intrinsic to the whole. Despite the broad range of backgrounds and experiences, African American migrants finally had two choices-- to stay in the South, and watch as friends and relatives packed up and left, or to "fly away."
Just as the concept of the crossroads originated in African culture with the deity, Eshu-Elegba, "flying away" signifies a yearning for freedom which has permeated African-based culture over the last four centuries. During the Atlantic Slave Trade and the horrific nightmare of the Middle Passage, some West Africans reacted to enslavement and transplantation by committing suicide, euphemistically known as "flying back to Africa." Accounts and folk tales of the flying Africans circulated widely throughout the South, generally in response to the brutality of white overseers toward their African slaves. In African American cemeteries throughout the South, burial decorations such as toy airplanes placed on graves help the spirit get to Heaven, or Africa, fast. However, the metaphor of "flying away" manifests itself in ways other than suicide and death. Also called "stealing away," it is the desire to escape to a better place. In African-influenced voodoo art, the bird is an emblem of the mind, symbolizing "ashe," or "the-power-to-make-things-happen." Encompassing all of these beliefs, The Great Migration became the first successful attempt of African Americans to collectively seize control over their destinies.
During a time when Chicago epitomized The Promised Land for many Delta migrants, the train provided them with the wings to get there.