From the Bookshelf: Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

In order to understand the Red Summer of 1919, we must understand the great migration of African-Americans from the southern states to the norther cities. In order to understand this relocation of people, race, and culture, we must understand Jim Crowe laws. In order to understand Jim Crowe laws we must understand the Reconstruction Period, after the Civil War in the USA. In order the understand… oh, lets just address institutional/structural/systematic racism.

The short of it is, that after the Civil War, the Union promised to give each freed slave “40 acres and a mule”. About the same time period, one line of my ancestors from northern Europe was allowed to participate in a land run in Oklahoma. The were given the option to stake out and homestead on 140 acres. There you go: one black slave = 40 acres, one white refugee = 140 acres. The rest of the story is down hill.

Over the next half century, those freed slaves who actually received their 40 acres and a mule (many were denied the land and the mule, others were swindled out of them and convinced that they were still working for the master or turned into share-croppers) were systematically encouraged to move along. Jim Crowe laws. We all know how those in power can make life pretty miserable by enacting laws, regulations, work place policies, etc. If one is not lynched, figuratively or literally, selling one’s property or leaving one’s job becomes the most desirable option.

For many, particularly younger freedmen and women, the industrial jobs in the northern cities seemed pretty enticing. They sold (if anyone would buy) their property and moved to places north and west. Any of these sound familiar: Tulse, OK, Cincinnati, OH, New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, PA, St. Louis, MI, Detroit, MI, Chicago, IL. Sounds like a list of hot spots over the past 100 years.

For many of those who migrated from the south, the job prospects became less available as more workers showed up. They also found that cities used various zoning and banking practices to provide them living quarters (hardly homes) in segregated neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, my ancestors sold their range-land in Oklahoma, took that capital and bought almond orchards in California. Certainly, those Okies were not universally liked. Listen to the song, “California Cotton Fields”, or read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.

But, my point is that in the early 20th century, 1st and 2nd generation white immigrants already had working capital to let them move up in society and the economy, while 1st and 2nd generation freemen and women were losing most of what they had in order to get away from systematic racism… only to find that systematic racism just came in a different form in the northern and western cities. (By the way, if you think this is a 100 year old problem, do the math. Equally educated and employed black women earn 62 cents for every $1 a white man makes at the same job… multiply that by the number of working black women and their families and communities are earning $50 billion less per year than a white guy with… pants. That is $50 billion of lost capital)

Jacob Lawrence was a painter. Among his body of work is a series of 60 paintings chronicling the sequence of the migration of of African-Americans from he south to the north. When the series was sold, The Phillips Collection gallery in Washington, D.C. took stewardship of half of the paintings, and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City too on the other half. A few years ago, they brought the full series together, lined them up in sequence, and let us walk through the galleries, viewing a narrative of people seeking a better life.

His painting depict black farmers on the land. Southern white people burning their crop, lynching them, and driving them away. Northern cities proclaiming good jobs. Masses of black people traveling by foot, cart, and train. Black people arriving in those advertised cities to find little housing, long employment lines, and hostile white crowds who feared the influx of labor competition and rumors of declining property values if black people were allowed to move it. Eventually, it would lead to segregating communities with white and black beach along Lake Michigan on that hot summer of 1919.

But, freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has motivated many people, tribes, and races for millennia. From the Hebrews leaving Egypt in “Exodus”, to the Pilgrims leaving England, to freed slaves leaving the south. What Thomas Jefferson hid from us in his declaration, was that John Locke originated the philosophy of freedom, but actually said, “life, liberty, and property.”

Extra Credit Quiz”

Who said, “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

A) James Madison

B) Teddy Roosevelt

C) Ronald Regan

D) Malcom X

Whom you select may say something about your view of institutional/structural/systematic racism.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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4 Responses to From the Bookshelf: Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

  1. K-O – so, here it is! It’s great to see such a talent showcased – thanks for the history lesson 😉 – Susan

  2. What a timely, important, and moving post! Wonderful art, and I really like how you wrote about your own family’s experience to contrast it with the experience of Blacks. What a sorry history of race, terror, and discrimination this country has. Sigh. But we created it. Surely we can create something different, something better. Can’t we? You might be interested in knowing that my first choice for the quiz was Thomas Jefferson, but he wasn’t on the list. My second choice—don’t ask me why—was Malcolm X. 😉

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