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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Migrations

Letter to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois, 1918, detail.
Writing for Help
- Emmett J. Scott, ed., "Letters of Negro Migrants, 1916-1918," The Journal of Negro History, July & October 1919

What were African Americans seeking when they left the South? What did relocation in the North mean to them? To help answer these questions, we turn to the Chicago Defender, the weekly African American newspaper (see #1: Leaving, 1920). Like many such papers, the Defender made its way into obscure corners of the rural South. It directly addressed anxieties that the prospect of moving engendered in its readers. It assured them, for example, that Chicago winters were little worse than those experienced in Albany, Georgia, or Spartanburg, South Carolina. Its readers identified so personally with the Defender that they wrote its editors for help in finding employment. Emmett Scott collected many of these letters and published them in The Journal of Negro History in 1919.

The letters presented here date from 1917 and thus represent one of the earliest waves of migration. Note where the letters come from, and note, too, that people were leaving the South one by one and in groups. The writers expected responses and often got them, not from the editors but from businessmen to whom the editors passed the letters. Often the letters guided big city labor recruiters as they scoured the South to find workers to meet the tremendous demand for labor caused by the departure of men to fight in World War I and by the drop in European immigration. Pleading for work, the writers described the crush of poverty, the constant threat of violence, and the indignity of life in the South. The site to which we link offers an abundance of letters and organizes them according to theme: "Letters Asking for Information About the North," for example, or "Letters About the Treatment of Negroes in the South." Sampling each category, you will hear the voices of the migrants as they express their hopes, fears, and frustrations. (Total collection: 105 pp.)

Discussion questions
  1. Judging from the letters, why are African Americans leaving the South?
  2. What circumstances "push" the migrants from the South? What circumstances "pull" them? How do they differ?
  3. What are the themes of these letters, their tone?
  4. What range of skills and education do they present?
  5. How do letters written by women differ from those written by men?
  6. What image of the South do these letters present?
  7. What image of black Southern communities do they present?
  8. What image of the North do they present?
  9. What are the writers' expectations?
  10. How do these letters challenge stereotypes?
  11. Judging from these letters, who is leaving the South?
  12. How much information about life in the North appears to have filtered back to the South at this time?

Framing Questions
  •  What migrations did African Americans undertake in the twentieth century?
  •  What were the effects of these migrations?

Letters: 105 pages (entire collection)
Supplemental Sites
The Great Migration, primary source excerpts in History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York (CUNY)

- Southern blacks' letters to the Chicago Defender
- Migrants' letters to southern family and friends
- Summaries of interviews with southern migrants in Chicago, 1917
- African American migrant in Philadelphia, 1910s; text and audio clip of 1983 radio interview

The Great Migration, 1916-1960, in In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)

Chicago: Destination for the Great Migration, in The African American Mosaic, from the Library of Congress

Chicago in 1919, from eCUIP: Digital Library Project of the Chicago Public Schools & University of Chicago Internet Project

Emmett J. Scott, brief biography, in The African American Registry

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Letter from Mrs. J. H. Adams, Macon, Georgia, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois, 1918, detail. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Carter G. Woodson Papers.

1. Leaving, 1920   2. Writing for Help   3. The Chicago Riots   4. Promised Land?
  5. The Blues   6. Old Timers, Newcomers   7. Leaving But Staying
8. New Consciousness   9. New Art   10. Painting the Migration   11. Leaving, 1960

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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