The Culture and Intellectual Climate of the Great Migration

Scott and Violet Arthur arrive with their family at Chicago’s Polk Street Depot on Aug. 30, 1920, two months after their two sons were lynched in Paris, Texas (Wikimedia Commons/ Chicago Defender)

A Movement in Every Direction: A Great Migration Critical Reader is a helpful collection of primary and secondary sources related to the exodus of Black southerners to cities in the Urban North, West, and American South. Moving beyond what might be seen as “typical” sources, A Movement in Every Direction asks readers and teachers to think deeply and critically about the texts they define as essential for understanding the Great Migration. It also demonstrates how the Great Migration continues to live on in the posterity of people who migrated. As Krystal C. Mack explains in her reflection on food and family, a connection to the past through food “allows [her] to dive deeply into layers of the personal and political…to create a new or different type of social discourse” (195). Editors Jessica Bell Brown and Ryan N. Dennis, art museum curators at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Mississippi Museum of Art, respectively, crafted a book that creatively and engagingly connects the past and the present. Perhaps more than anything else, the authors aim to show how “the conditions of Black life in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America were more expansive than many people have come to understand” (14). They meet their lofty goal with flair.

The collection is based on a contemporary art exhibition entitled A Movement in Every Direction that began with a simple prompt: “What would happen if today’s leading artists were given the space to think about the lasting impact of the Great Migration in a holistic, expansive, and dynamic way?” (12). The editors, and the artists with whom they worked to curate the collection, quickly realized that the history of the Great Migration was more complex than many non-specialists recognize. After months of work, the resulting exhibition and critical reader showcase “scholarly writings, news articles, and editorials, along with photographs, recipes, and related materials to create a more robust understanding of the Great Migration’s impact on American culture” (13).

Focusing on what might be called the “long” Great Migration, Brown, Dennis, and their team focus on the period between 1870 and 1970 when the racial composition of the United States North and West changed drastically. Never attempting to cover every city or every topic, A Movement in Every Direction instead wishes to show how individuals, families, and communities survived and thrived as they left the rural south for locations in the Urban North, Midwest, and West.

Section one, entitled “Between Town and Metropolis: The Great Migration and the American City,” explores how The Great Migration helped fuel urbanization (focusing almost entirely on the South). I appreciated how the editors framed labor as a means by which Black people asserted their agency by leaving the south for the urban North. For instance, the editors included letters from Black migrants in northern newspapers that explained how they looked for better-paying work as they moved above the Mason-Dixon line. Sources like “Race Labor Leaving” from the Chicago Defender also highlight the threat of Black laborers’ exodus from the south. “The white people of the extreme south are becoming armed over the steady moving of race families out of the mineral belt,” the article declares. Making even plainer the reasons for the Black exodus, the newspaper noted, “local editorials in white papers are pleased with the business men to hold the race men [Black men] if possible” (23).1

Section two, “A Morsel, A Memory, A Feast: Lasting Legacies of Black Southern Foodways,” showcases an underappreciated array of primary sources: recipes and cookbooks. The recreations of historical recipes and modern adaptations provided by African American chefs are both effective and affective. It effectively shows how African American intellectual histories are not limited to books, articles, newspapers, or other sources traditionally associated with the history of ideas but are also engaging with source material on the local and familial levels. Intellectual history should include the thoughts and contributions of people whose names may not be known to history. As Saidiya Hartman wrote about young Black women living during the Great Migration, thought is never only within the purview or “capacity of the educated, or the endowment of the elites.”2

The section is affective in that the primary sources become alive to readers because the recipes are often accompanied by the insight and photography of chefs who prepared the historical dish (or entrees derived from the historical recipe). The sources, in essential ways, become alive to readers because they can see how they have been passed on through generations and pass on meaning today.

Section three, “Finding Sanctuary in Ourselves: Cultural Expressions of the Great Migration,” presents readers with evidence of the “religious movements, cultural expressions, and creative urgencies that offered [Black] individuals a greater sense of self, collectivity, and purpose” (200). Different forms of cultural expressions are paired together effectively. For instance, Langston Hughes’ poem “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman” is placed opposite Jacob Lawrence’s painting The female workers were the last to arrive north. Placing each form of expression in the book allows reader to engage with each text. But with the sources combined, the sensory experience is deeper and more textured, allowing different perspectives on the same idea or theme.

A Movement in Every Direction contributes to the growing field of African American cultural histories in the Great Depression, highlighting some of the most innovative works of scholarship on this time and space. For instance, portions of Judith Weisenfeld’s New World-A-Coming introduce readers to the new religio-racial movements associated with the Great Depression, including the Nation of Islam. Another section includes writing from Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s Every Nation Has Its Dish, which explores southern foodways’ intellectual and material histories as she explains how and why those recipes, traditions, and flavors traveled north in the Great Migration.

One area where the editors and artists could have devoted more attention is the urbanization of the south from 1870-1970. The editors recognize (and call for) more work on the topic of the urbanizing south. Accordingly, I merely echo their desire for more academic work on African Americans and the urbanization of the post-Reconstruction South.

A Movement in Every Direction will be valuable for classroom use, as it makes it easy to assign primary and secondary sources together in ways that encourage a deeper understanding of both. This is a must-read and must-consult book for those researching and teaching twentieth-century African American history.

  1. Race Labor Leaving, Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), February 5, 1916.
  2. Thora Siemsen  interview with Saidiya Hartman, “On Working with Archives,” The Creative Independent, originally published February 3, 2021, https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/saidiya-hartman-on-working-with-archives/.
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Joseph R. Stuart

Joseph Stuart is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Utah, where he studied the relationship of race, masculinity, religion, and the state in twentieth-century African American freedom movements. His book manuscript examines the history of the Nation of Islam as a lens to study Black religious opposition to integration in the Long Civil Rights Movement. You can follow him on Twitter at @jstuart__.

Comments on “The Culture and Intellectual Climate of the Great Migration

  • Mr. Fields,
    I was happy to see you mentioned Jacob Lawrence in the article. It has been said “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I wish everyone who has trouble reading could see Mr. Lawrence’s entire Great Migration series of paintings. Once viewed no explanation is needed.
    Again, thank you.

    Reply

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