Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Great Migration

Immigration records are often the starting point in a family history search.  The records of my ancestors who came over in the early 1900s frequently reveal their nearest relatives in Europe and who they were going to in the United States.  From these records we can observe how each new immigrant helped the next.  Each new immigrant goes to a brother, uncle or cousin who has already braved the journey. Parents are often the nearest relative in Europe and frequently remained behind as each child departed. 

Stories that have been handed down often indicate difficulties in leaving the country with my grandmother actually taking a bullet in order to leave the Ukraine.  What drove them to such lengths to leave a familiar place for such a long and unknown journey?  Often it was the threat of a stint in the Russian Army or threats to their life presented by Cossacks and pogroms. 

I recently read a fascinating book that focused on a different kind of immigration that echoed the experience of my Jewish ancestors.  The book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.   It addresses the migration of Southern blacks to the North and views them through the lens of immigration theory.  From WWI through 1970, six million black southerners migrated from the South to the North.

Although it took place within the confines of one country, it meets many of the characteristics of immigration.  The South under Jim Crow laws was unquestionably a dangerous, dehumanizing and limiting environment in which to live.  Lynchings and the inability to defend oneself were not unlike the pogroms that arose periodically in Eastern Europe leaving as many as 300 dead in their wake, the tally in my grandmother’s shtetl a year before she departed for the United States. The North, while by no means prejudice free, did not have prejudice embedded in the very fabric of its laws like the South.  It presented a land of opportunity to blacks in terms of quality education, the opportunity to move freely and freedom from threats to their life. 

As I read of their lives under Jim Crow laws I was surprised to learn how the restrictions arose after Reconstruction.  The North withdrew in the mid-1870s and Southerners began to take away the opportunities that had accrued to freed slaves in the intervening decades.  Freedoms were stripped away one by one, gradually dehumanizing them and constricting their world.  The restrictions that were imposed were eerily similar to many that were placed upon the Jews by the Nazis. 

Leaving was not an easy thing to do because Southerners didn’t want to lose their cheap labor force and often blocked their departure.  They had to plan their exit carefully often leaving from another town quietly to assure a safe exit.  Not unlike my family members who had to swim a river and were shot at crossing the border.

In the North the Southern blacks faced many of the challenges of other immigrants, compounded by the fact that race was a far more defining characteristic than ethnicity.  Wilkerson writes that immigrants who traveled the furthest against the most difficult challenges typically found a greater level of success.  Southern blacks were no exception to this rule spawning such well known names as Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Jesse Owens, Oprah Winfrey, August Wilson and Michelle Obama. 

I found this book enlightening on many levels and thoroughly engaging.  Wilkerson follows the stories of three unrelated people from their experience in the South, their departure and their subsequent life in the North.  Her premise of “The Great Migration” as an immigration story creates a logical context through which to view the evolution of today’s black communities.  For me it created a level of empathy as I saw their experience echoed in my own family’s immigration story.

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