Lynching, Oppression, Lost Potential: Why Blacks Fled the South

Blacks fled the South for the North to escape lynching, brutal working conditions and unfair labor. How did their migration change the U.S. as we know it?

The migration of Blacks from the American South to the North is “the greatest untold story of the 20th century,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson said to an audience of CEOs and senior executives at DiversityInc’s diversity conference in Washington, D.C.

Her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” is about Blacks’ emigration from the South between 1915 and 1970 to escape a “mercurial” caste system of color that threatened violence daily. “An African American was lynched every four days,” Wilkerson said. “That was the price of maintaining the caste system.”

Wilkerson talked about how the migration of Blacks was much like the migration of Europeans, Asians and Latinos to the U.S. — the journey was about freedom to express and to build on their talents.

“It is about the very thing that propelled all of our forebears, one way or another — across the Atlantic in steerage, or across the Rio Grande, or across the Pacific Ocean. It’s the very thing that binds all of us together. We all have so much more in common that we’ve been led to believe, because, ultimately, somebody in all of our backgrounds had to do what the people in this book did,” Wilkerson says.

“That is really what diversity is all about, building on innate talents that are within us all and making the most of everybody who’s in our organizations,” she says. “The cost of holding people down and not allowing them to flourish hurts the world.”

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  • What’s really interesting is the fact that lately, we’ve returned to the south in larger numbers.

  • This is true. I may be caucasian, but my family got here long, long ago due to oppression of the Acadians of Canada. They were imprisoned due to their race, oppressed, some were enslaved, and others were put on ships and deported because of their race as Acadians. My direct ancestors followed the Mississippi River down to our area where there were more people of a close enough racial background to provide safety and a new start.

  • Ironically, most minority professionals are being told to leave the south, mainly Louisiana if they want to begin or build on their talents.

  • These stories of migration are all good; people in search of a better life. But as an American Indian living on a South Dakota reservation, there is no place for people like me to migrate to. There are people like me who are highly educated but it seems like we are not highly valued. So do we continue to live in places where education is not a prized quality, or do we migrate elsewhere looking for our version of the American Dream. I say this because its difficult for American Indians to migrate because our cultures are tied to specific places. But I am glad that people like Toni Morrison migrated to another place, it gave me an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of black people in America.

  • So, how about if Tiffany Alston (D- PG County MD) never went back on her word for marriage equality? How about women and blacks treat gays as equals?

  • This article is of no surprise to me and it’s been clear that throughout history this has been the case in regards to the ‘american’ diaspora condition when a race of people are engaged in the freedoms this country has afforded ‘us’ (all-of-us)
    by the few who have sacrificed much more…

  • I had recently purchased Ms. Wilkeron’s book and just finished reading “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America” by Nicholas Lemann. I am anxious to understand, from Ms. Wilkerson’s perspective, if the need for maintenance of wealth and power were the driving forces for the forced migration. We all should look at the true tyrannical impacts of greed-based opression and control.

  • I appreciate the article and how Wilkerson has portrayed this part of the ongoing African-American experience in this country. My comment is directed to the American Indian living in South Dakota. Thank you for reminding us that while our experience has been the horror it began and travesty it continues to be, it does not compare to the yours. I do hope the true story of the Native American/American Indian experience is someday told. I hope it will one day be more than a few pages in American social studies books (as is still the case for Blacks) and that your people will someday gain the stature and dignity stripped from them so many years ago.

  • Yes, many blacks did flee the South in the 40’s and 50’s …… some of it was to prevent being lynched and the other reason was to find a better environment than the oppressive South. Some of black folk learned after we left that we could run but we couldn’t hide. Our culture has been strained through generations of fracturing of the black family structure, substance abuse and domestic violence. The most recent Census shows a large migration of blacks returning to the South, many to get ripped off by mortgage fraud and lack of employment in this failing economy. I sometimes ask why we hang around this United States. In a country where your ancestors were raped, chained and forced into free labor, pride and identity stripped away, denied an education….and once the chains were cut, we still hung around??
    With the exception of the most destitute parts of Africa, Black people with more favorable histories are doing a lot better. Maybe some of us should look around more, beyond the borders of the U.S., humble and respect ourselves more. We too can live a good life.

  • I am currently reading this book and it is very interesting. As is common in African-American history, my maternal grandfather brought my mother up from the South in 1948. She was just 18 at the time. I certainly can relate to some of the psychological phenomena Wilkerson outlines in the book. It is truly very interesting. It gives me a deeper understanding of what drove our people to seek better opportunities and their behavior towards the other ethnic groups outside of their sphere.

  • I agree with the writer that said maybe Blacks / African Americans should look elsewhere on this earth to migrate and begin to govern ourselves as a true freed peoples. The longer we hang around this country, the more of us will drown in its demise because of the real reason this country was constructed. (Upon a lie)

  • I am looking forward to reading your book. I am in the process of continuing my research in Contributions By Blacks To Social Welfare History In The Early west, Our people along with others have worked so hard to build this country and to make our country a better place for all people. Climbing as we builded to enable all people to earn the goodness of our country together. Our history is always evolving. History is very important and should be taught in our schools system.

  • So what about the brave, fearless Blacks who REMAINED in the South; did not flee the South; stayed and fought for our rights in the South; marched with King in the South; boycotted, bleed and died in the South???

    As a Girl Raised in the South (G.R.I.T.S.) I have extended family that migrated to the Mid-West, Northeast and West Coast back during the time mentioned in her book, but my immediate family (Grandmother, Great Aunts, Uncles) all stayed and fought for a better life in the South. If everyone leaves then who is left to make it better?

    The irony now is that most of the family and friends that I know who are in the Mid-west, Northeast and out West are desperate to move to Atlanta and other modern southern cities with lower cost of living and great affluent Black communities.
    No thanks necessary. Y’all are welcome and Welcome Home :-)

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