The Southern Diaspora; How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America

The Southern Diaspora; How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America by James Gregory. University of North Carolina Press, 2005, paper. 

James Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora tells the story of southern black and white migration to the north and west in the twentieth century. Between the 1900s and 1970s, eighteen million people left the South, most of them permanently. They left because of the deteriorating economic conditions, particularly in agriculture. They also felt the call of better jobs in the North. By the end of the 1970s the flow of immigrants had reversed. Northerners were now heading south.


Gregory believes that there is an advantage in telling the two stories of white and black migration together. Even though there are important differences. Blacks tended to cluster in the northern and western cities, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg, and later Los Angeles. With less resistance from northerners, white destinations were more dispersed. Contrary to popular notions, white southerners moving north were far more numerous than black southerners.


Times were tough for this southern diaspora. Nevertheless both groups did well compared to those who remained in the South. True, blacks in the south earned only a percentage of southern white income, but by the 1950s black southern women had almost caught up with white females.


Gregory’s account is a celebration of what southerners-moved-north accomplished, particularly their contributions to the cultural life of northern cities. ‘Country’ musicians, as they were called, found audiences throughout the north and west, Chicago and L.A. particularly. Gregory points out that the careers of these mostly white southern entertainers were made possible by the recording industry, then mostly in New York’s Tin Pan Alley and the film industry in southern California.


Radio and film, later television, had a fascination with white southerners from Appalachia – hillbillies. Hence ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’,’ Petticoat Junction’, ‘Hew Haw’ are examples. They presented an often less than flattering image of white southerners.


Less commonly in network radio and television, black southerners have enriched American popular music. Dixieland jazz, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, and hip-hop were musical genres pioneered by black southern musicians, many of them southerners living in the north.


Perhaps the most celebrated institution of the Southern diaspora was the black metropolis. Gregory talks about the black urban areas, like Harlem in New York, as welcoming and empowering. Today the big-city neighborhoods in which black southerners settled are viewed as creative and vibrant environments. At the time, however, social scientists and the press mostly recorded their social disorganization and poverty. Sound familiar?


Because they were less dispersed, African-Americans had the greater political impact on the North. Blacks could now vote and were good at leveraging their new voting power. They built alliances with such diverse groups as the national Republican Party, the radical left, Jews, the labor movement, and northern mainstream Protestants.


African-Americans were mostly ignored by the New Deal. Gregory recounts the Negro campaign in 1940 to open opportunities for employment in the expanding war industries, for example. When President Roosevelt resisted, black leaders threatened to march on Washington. In January 1941 a call went out and the Negro press and pulpit went into action.


Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York, brokered an agreement. Roosevelt’s ‘Executive Order 8802’ banned discrimination in industries receiving war contracts and in government offices. True the armed forces remained segregated throughout the war and civil rights legislation remained stalled by southern Democrats. But the black southern diaspora had forged a major step toward rights for African-Americans.


The National Museum of African American History & Culture is opening this fall on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian magazine (Sept. 2016) has published a special issue to celebrate the occasion. “The Road to Freedom” by Isabel Wilkerson was one of several interesting articles on Black Migration out of the South with a graphic that illuminates the flow of some six million blacks from whence they came and to what part of the country they went.



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