year the Association for the Study of African American Life and
History (ASALH) choses a theme for Black History Month. This year
they have chosen, Black Migrations emphasizing “the
movement of people of African descent to new destinations and
subsequently to new social realities.” Their theme is
important, especially when we think of the “Great Migration”,
the time after World War I when Black folk fled the oppressive south
looking for a new reality.
not flee? Black men were lynched in their uniforms when they came
back into enslavement-type realities even as they embraced a country
that did not appreciation them. Just a few years after Black men
returned from World War I, white people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so
jealous of African American economic accomplishment, torched the 30
block Black-owned Greenwood community on a pretense. Nowhere to run,
nowhere to hide from virulent racism.
yet, Black folks had mobility. Often, we came together to create
community. We left oppressive spaces to find new ones that were only
marginally less oppressive. As ASALH puts it, “African
American migration patterns included relocation from southern farms
to southern cities; from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and
West; from the Caribbean to US cities as well as to migrant labor
farms; and the emigration of noted African Americans to Africa and to
European cities, such as Paris and London, after the end of World War
I and World War II.”
what it means – Black folks were moving, migrating, making it
happen, grasping at reality and opportunity despite every barrier.
Black folks moved because they were looking for safe places to
survive and thrive, to enjoy life despite the racial obstacles that
were thrown at us. Black folks moved because movement was preferable
to standing still. We moved because we had to.
the same time, migration is not only about a movement of space, but
also about a movement of mindset. The Mississippi men and women who
moved to Chicago had to change the way they chose to encounter the
world. They had to move from being sharecroppers to being entitled
voters. Their movement changed the way that politics and economics
influenced major cities. Even though their movement did not
necessarily result in “fairness”, their movement and
their changed participation made things far more fair, and the
political process somewhat more representative.
Movement. Mobilization. A shifting of the brain. A shifting of
the heart. While ASALH would like us to focus on the physical
migration that happened in the 20th century, I would also like us to
focus on the necessary heart migration that must take place to propel
us through the 21st century. Our Black History Month story can’t
simply be a story of the ways we moved to accommodate economic
shifts, but it must also be a story of the ways we have moved our
do we mean when we say Black community? What do we mean when we
embrace the theme of “migrations”? Are we aware of the
rigors our people experienced when they moved South to North? Do we
honor them with our presence?
never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Sadie Tanner Moselle Alexander,
but because she was the first African American woman to receive the
Ph.D. in economics (and one of the three who were the first to
receive the degree on the same weekend), I feel a bond with her and
have written about her life and her career. She wrote about
migration, about the folks who came from the South to cities like
Philadelphia to find a space for themselves. She wrote about the many
ways cities were unwelcoming to new residents. She wrote then, like
we might write now, about the many ways our urban landscape changes
with mobility and migration.
choosing Black Migrations as a Black History Month theme,
ASALH has chosen to examine the mobility that is part of African
American life in this country. We move because we want safer space
and place. We move because we flee structural danger. We move
because we are African and American and moving is part of our DNA.
move. We migrate. We seek the best that our nation has to offer, and
when it does not provide what we need, we move, and we move again!