Great article! It talks about the role of the black press in initiating and sustaining the black migration from the south between 1915 and 1930 – and how the South’s Jim Crow Laws and Lynching fueled that migration.
‘Bound for the Promised Land’
African Americans devised a mass exodus from the Jim Crow South,largely at the urging of The Chicago Defender
In the spring of 1916, incumbent President Woodrow Wilson began a difficult presidential campaign. Wilson was facing a reunified Republican Party and an electorate skeptical of his pledge to keep the United States out of World War I—he was also facing obstacles from the African American electorate, which though small could be decisive in several key states. During his first run for office in 1912, leaders from the African American community had supported Wilson even though he was the son of a Confederate chaplain who, as a historian, had helped manufacture revisionist histories of the post–Civil War years. But black voters now felt betrayed by Wilson’s conduct as president: He segregated the federal government for the first time ever, and he screened the racist film Birth of a Nation in the White House.
The Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading African American newspaper at the time, was all too happy to heap on the criticism, declaring Wilson a “colossal failure” and challenging his foreign policy—both over the invasion of Haiti the previous year and for sending troops into Mexico to pursue revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. “If President Woodrow Wilson is so anxious to teach the world good morals,” read one editorial on the subject, “let him begin by placing the U.S. Army in the South; institute a chase of the lynchers as earnestly as the one he is now carrying on in Mexico.”
By most measures, the total number of lynchings was, in fact, down from prior years; it was the severity of the incidents that had increased. In May, The Defender printed a letter from a white resident of Waco, Texas, a witness to the horrific murder of a 17-year-old named Jesse Washington. The letter writer was outraged by what he had seen: A mob of “fifteen to twenty-thousand men and women intermingled with children and babies in their arms” gathered to torture Washington and then burn him at the stake. Accused of the murder of a white woman several miles from his home, Washington was convicted by a jury despite scant evidence. Then, as happened all too often, Washington was dragged from the courtroom, hung from a tree, and burned on a funeral pyre. “The crowd was made up of some of the supposed best citizens of the South,” the letter writer noted. “Doctors, lawyers, business men and Christians (posing as such, however). After the fire subsided, the mob was not satisfied: They hacked with pen knives the fingers, the toes, and pieces of flesh from the body, carrying them as souvenirs to their automobiles.” The correspondent went on to conclude that it was absurd to send soldiers to Mexico “when the troops are needed right here in the South.”
For several years, The Defender had demanded federal intervention as the only meaningful solution to the brutality of Southern whites. But that summer, as hundreds of African Americans arrived at Chicago’s train stations every week,The Defender’s position on the migration northward evolved. In August, under the headline “Southerners Plan to Stop Exodus,” the newspaper reported that recruiters for one of the Pennsylvania-based railroad lines had convinced all of the workers on one steamship line in Jacksonville, Florida, to quit and move to the North en masse, leaving the steamship owners suddenly without a crew. The Jacksonville City Council responded by passing a law requiring labor agents from Northern companies to pay $1,000 for a license.
Incidents like this convinced The Defender’s publisher, Robert Abbott, that migration was at once an effective tactic for hurting the white South and a real opportunity for African Americans to live in freedom. Abbott had experienced discrimination from labor unions himself when he first arrived in Chicago from Georgia less than 20 years earlier, and he had been reluctant to invite his fellows to the city if there were no real job opportunities. He became positively enthusiastic about migration, however, when he saw the mounting evidence that the departure of African Americans was negatively affecting the Southern economy.In November, as Woodrow Wilson won a narrow reelection victory, The Defender’s editorial page published “Bound for the Promised Land,” by M. Ward, a then-unknown poet whose portrait photo shows a nattily dressed young man with a satin bow tie. The poem reflects the experiences of those who had already migrated north, found jobs, and sent for their wives, as well as of the Southerners’ efforts to ban the work of Northern labor agents:
From Florida’s stormy banks I’ll go, I’ll bid the South goodbye; No longer will they treat me so, And knock me in the eye,
Hasten on my dark brother, Duck the Jim Crow law.
No Crackers North to slap your mother, or knock you on the jaw.
No Cracker there to seduce your sister, nor to hang you to a limb.
And you’re not obliged to call ’em “Mister,” nor skin ’em back at him.
The poem was so popular that the issue sold out, prompting The Defender to reprint it a few months later. “This poem caused more men to leave the Southland than any other effort,” the newspaper proudly noted….Read the Rest Here
Albert A. Smith “The Reason” Featured in The CRISIS in March 1920