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

Black farmer, Mississippi, 1936
Black farmer, Mississippi, 1936
Leaving But Staying
- Walter Cavers and Willie Harrell, interviews, Behind the Veil Project, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University
- Walter Cavers:
   - Narrative (PDF)
   - "Wrongly Accused" (audio clip, 3:20;
     scroll down)
- Willie Harrell: Narrative (PDF)

Accounts of the Great Migration focus, with good reason, on the flight from the South to the North. It is important to note, however, that there was considerable migration within the South itself, from rural communities to Southern cities. Why did some migrants choose to stay in the South? How did their encounter with cities like Memphis and Charlotte differ from those of other migrants with cities like Chicago and New York? These two pieces suggest answers to these questions and reflect the strong emotional bond many African Americans felt for the South, despite the horrors they experienced there.1

Walter Cavers fled rural Alabama for Charlotte, North Carolina, in the late 1930s. He wanted to go to college, but rural schools stayed open for only a few months each year in order to keep black laborers in the fields. Field labor was brutal. Nature itself seemed malevolent: pleasantly named "velvet beans" would "scratch and sting." Cordial relations with whites could turn vicious at the slightest perceived insult or infraction. One day, Cavers just left. "They looked for me and I was gone," he remembers. He eventually found his way to Charlotte, where, by 1958, he had joined the NAACP and met with enough success to purchase a Lincoln. An accident involving that car in the small town of York, South Carolina, landed him in jail for a year. Upon release, he moved to New York, yet he returned to Charlotte. Resilient and tenacious, he succeeds, characterizing the challenges he faced as simply "a few bumps." In the "Wrongly Accused" audio clip he describes various indignities he suffered in the South, including the auto accident that sent him to jail.

Willie Harrell's life on a Mississippi plantation was "just like old slavery times," so much, in fact, that in 1977 when the TV series Roots was broadcast, it brought back such painful memories he turned it off. White landowners controlled nearly every aspect of African Americans' lives. Harrell describes a world where black laborers could not shop for clothes alone, where even elderly African Americans could not obtain respect from white landowners, and where the threat of violence hung over African Americans every day. But "back then you couldn't fight back." So Harrell left. He fled at night, with lightning bugs illuminating his path. He reached Memphis, Tennessee, and found there an atmosphere that allowed him a sense of dignity. But his early experiences were so scarring that when he returned to Mississippi in his old age, his fear returned as well. (8 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Why did Walter Cavers leave Alabama?
  2. How deliberate was his departure?
  3. Why did he stop in Charlotte?
  4. What role do the ghosts play in Cavers's story?
  5. What does the fact that Cavers knows and communicates with "the richest person" in Charlotte suggest about the city and his place in it?
  6. What does his Lincoln represent?
  7. Why does he return to Charlotte?
  8. Why did Willie Harrell leave Mississippi?
  9. How deliberate was his departure?
  10. Why did he stop in Memphis?
  11. In what ways are Cavers's and Harrell's stories similar? In what ways are they different?
  12. What images of the South, black and white, are presented in Cavers's and Harrell's narratives?
  13. What implications would the dates of their departures—Cavers in 1930, Harrell probably in the 1940s—have held for their flights from Alabama and Mississippi?
  14. How does the black community Cavers found in Charlotte and Harrell found in Memphis differ from the black community King Solomon Gillis, the protagonist of "The City of Refuge," found in Harlem? What might account for the differences?
  15. How do Cavers and Harrell describe the natural environment? Compare its meaning in their stories with its meaning in Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow."

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

Cavers: 4
Harrell: 4
8 pages
Supplemental Sites
Remembering Jim Crow, website accompanying the publication, from American Radio Works

Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South, from the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University

*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: African American farmer, near Tupelo, Mississippi, March 1936; photograph by Walker Evans. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

1 William Chafe et al., eds., Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South (New York: The New Press, 2001).

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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