Fortunately for me, my grandparents joined the Great Migration
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I’m a granddaughter of the Great Migration.
I was a young adult before I understood the magnitude of that movement, which began 100 years ago this year, and how it forever shaped Chicago and the nation. I thought my grandparents were merely from Down South, like many other of my friends and their friends and family. I didn’t understand my grandparents’ courage to leave their homes and achievements once they got here.
But I now keenly understand how I’m a beneficiary.
My grandparents ascended to the middle class on the South Side by buying homes, working hard and sending their children to college. They trekked from Tennessee and Georgia, working as a federal government secretary, public school cook, printer and Pullman Porter. Only my maternal grandfather was able to travel to see me graduate from Howard University in Washington – his first grandchild to do so – and he beamed brighter than the July sun on Lake Michigan’s beaches.
From 1916 to 1970, half a million Southern black migrants journeyed to Chicago for better lives, sometimes escaping sharecropping and racial violence. At the start of the Great Migration, Chicago’s black population was 44,103 and by the end, more than 1 million. The contributions are endless: jazz, blues, food, culture, literature and journalism. The Great Migration brought us The Chicago Defender, Gwendolyn Brooks, Provident Hospital and Muddy Waters. Not to mention political prowess in Congress and a First Lady in the White House.
Over the next year the city will celebrate the centennial via various programming – from music to art to political reflection. During this time, I hope grandparents sit down with grandchildren to share their Great Migration story with neither shame nor embarrassment. We often find our elders don’t want to stroll down memory lane. But these narratives are important to our collective journey.
This is also a time to reflect on black Chicago – past, present and future.
When those first black Southerners landed on the South Side, the city greeted them with a series of discriminatory housing policies that kept them confined to an overcrowded Black Belt and unable to fully achieve the American Dream of homeownership. A racist real estate industry endorsed restrictive covenants, which prevented whites from selling or leasing property to African Americans. The federal government allowed redlining and favored loans to white suburbs. White homeowner associations did all they could to stop blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. Contract buying thwarted black homeowners from possessing the title to their houses.
These segregationist policies linger today in black Chicago when we consider the legacy of white flight, under-resourced communities and continued predatory lending practices. We aren’t talking about vestiges of the past. The Chicago Urban League recently put out a report about the impact of racial segregation. It found that 19 black communities “have had little to no change in residential segregation over the past several decades, making them more vulnerable to socioeconomic burdens than other neighborhoods in Chicago.”
Commemorating the Great Migration is also an opportunity to reflect on how to move forward and recognize that segregation isn’t the same as self-selection. Separate but equal still doesn’t work. Unemployment, poor health outcomes, lower median housing values and violence all circle back to segregation.
As we reconcile our past, I also hope that black Chicago also finds just that – hope. That black Chicago pride that enveloped and shaped me has taken quite a beating recently. It’s slowly vaporizing. Media coverage, local and abroad, tells us that we are simply denizens in dangerous neighborhoods. Our troubled neighborhoods aren’t the sum of who we are and they can be traced back to decades of policies that have tried to keep black folk in their place.
Let’s use the Great Migration centennial to seize control of the narrative.
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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