Northern Experiences through Southern Lenses
James Grossman. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
In Land of Hope, Grossman explores the Great Migration from the perspective of southern black migrants as they adjusted to their new lives in a new industrial environment, Chicago. Whereas many historians have focused on black urban communities and/or race riots, Grossman shifts his focus to the culture of the migrants. He argues that the scholarship of the Great Migration is lacking in the analysis of how the migrants represented a crucial transition in black history, American cities, and America’s working class. He is interested the new social history tradition which led him to focus on how the migrants’ southern upbringing and experiences have influenced their responses and reactions to the North and in turn, how the North responded and reacted to the migrants. To shape his narrative, he utilizes manuscript collections, government collections and records, newspapers and newsletters, interviews, books, pamphlets, and reports, dissertations, theses, and unpublished manuscripts, and articles. These sources reveal that the decision to migrate north was not due to structural forces but by the migrants themselves.
For the migrants, moving to the North was based on their realities in the South and not based on hopes of equality. The city of Chicago was for them the land of hope, the “Promised Land.” As opposed to the South, Chicago offered higher wages, rights to the ballot, autonomy, and better schools for their children. Many historians viewed the migration as a structural shift from rural environments to urban environments. Grossman argues that black southerners migrated to the North with hopes of gaining opportunity and freedom.
Although the migrants moved away from the South, they interpreted their experiences in the North in terms of race not class. Their conditions in the South informed their experiences in the North as they found themselves facing discrimination in housing, community building, and employment. As a result, in the 1920s, black workers were hesitant to unionize stockyards. In the black community, class was a differentiating factor. One of his weakest arguments is that class divisions in the black community did not affect the relationships among workers or their actions outside the community. In terms of public institutions and politics, their experiences were shaped by race. Grossman’s exploration of the Great Migration through the lens of the migrants’, he demonstrates how and why race shaped and influenced the lives of the southern black migrants in Chicago.
In The Promised Land, historian Nicholas Lemann also studies the Great Migration, tracing migrants from Mississippi to Chicago. He demonstrates that migrants’ moving to Chicago in the hope of a better life was a largely a myth, not everyone had success stories. Migrants soon learned that their lives were not improved. For some of the migrants, life in Chicago was just as bad if not worse than it was in the Mississippi Delta. For many migrants, life was hard as they worked long hours in factories that paid meager wages and were far from home. Home for many were small rooms in the Black Belt ghetto located in Chicago’s Southside. Not only was employment an issue but also healthcare, schools, and labor unions. The migrants found that here too, race would keep them from fulfilling the hopes they carried with them from the south.