Sunday, September 25, 2016

American History, the Great Migration, and Grandma Burnie

From the first pages of Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, I was hooked on pioneer stories. I loved to read about old-time frontier families crossing the country in a covered wagon, homesteaders, Indians, and girls in calico and sunbonnets. Since I grew up in Washington state, social studies class and school field trips reinforced those themes. They featuring tales of Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail.

Either missing altogether or mentioned without emphasis were stories of a migration that began a few decades after the covered wagon days came to a close. The Great Migration did just as much to shape our country, probably more. But I'm learning about it now.

You see, here in South Carolina, those Lewis and Clark stories don't do so much to capture the imagination. Not like tales of the day in 1865 when General Sherman and his troops burned down two-thirds of our town... and other important events from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (sometimes called by other names), Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement.

And probably everybody knows something about the Great Migration. It was a series of several waves between 1910 and 1970 during which more than six million African Americans moved from their rural lives in the South to in the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West to take up industrial jobs (starting with WWI war factories). They were driven away by crop failures and Jim Crow laws, and drawn by job offers and the hope of a great new life in places that seemed to be Promised Lands: Chicago. Philadelphia. Detroit.
"Around 1916, when the Great Migration began, a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what blacks could expect to make working the land in the rural South." (
They may have escaped sharecropping, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan, but they still faced prejudice and discrimination. There were culture clashes, housing shortages, and race riots. But there were also things like the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of black civic culture. The early waves created thriving black communities in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis, with later settlements growing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland. No longer was the African American experience a rural one, but now, much more, an urban one. The migration far exceeded the number of Irish, Italians, or other immigrant communities whose stories are part of our national narrative.
"By 1970, when the Great Migration ended, its demographic impact was unmistakable: Whereas in 1900, nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms, by 1970 the South was home to less than half of the country’s African-Americans, with only 25 percent living in the region’s rural areas." (Learn more from
My interest in the Great Migration was piqued in learning about a local, 110-year-old African-American lady who recently passed away. She lived through all that, as explained by an SC House Resolution offering her birthday congratulations. Burnie, a sharecropper's daughter, dropped out of school in the fourth grade when her mom died; she had to help take care of her siblings and work on the farm. Married, widowed, twice. Raised children and buried some. When the land could no longer support them, Burnie and her family moved north in 1955 to seek a better life. She worked as a housekeeper in a few DC hotels. Didn't return to the South until she was an old woman. Never stopped praying, says a brief video on our local news.

An obituary states that Burnie Montgomery was survived by four of her children, 21 grandchildren, 46 great grandchildren, and 50 great-great-grandchildren, among others.

Added to my reading list the best-seller The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson.

No comments: