This Article is first in a series discussing race, history, rural and urban life and their intersections
The Interdependence of Urban and Rural Black Folk
I just finished watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Levee moved the shit out of me. Set during the 1920’s, the film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name. It follows blues singer Ma Rainey as she navigates her agency while recording of music for white record executives.
The film references black people moving from the South into the North and it made me think about some of the work we are doing today in agriculture. There is a monologue that Chadwick delivers so resonantly that talks about his fathers land, his mother’s rape and the what his fathers response to the act taught him about interacting with white folks. This scene was powerful. So much so that it made me want to write about the Great Migration.
The Great Migration is a term used to describe the mass exodus of black people from out of the black belt south after slavery. From 1910 to 1970 it is estimated that at least 6 million African American left the South for Northern states. Sometimes broken down into waves, the Great Migration can be chronicled by US Census Data with the first wave being from 1910-1940 and the second wave from 1940-1970.
Obviously the question we first gotta deal with is why were black people leaving the rural South? The obvious answer was living in the rural South was hell for black people. Slavery had taken on a new name in the post Civil War South and despite the Union having won the battle – racism / white supremacy had won the war. Convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow, racial terrorism and lack of protections for Africans in America by county, state or federal government equated to poor living conditions for our ancestors.
Often people talk about the Reconstruction era being this amazing boom for Black people in the US with hundreds of Africans in America holding public office across the South including over a dozen House Representatives. This is true. Also true was the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that ended chattel slavery but not slavery altogether, granted African Americans American citizenship even though there was no consensus of whether that is what all Africans in America wanted at that time and said black men could vote but not black women nor did it protect their capacity to vote.
What is also true is that immediately after the civil war many Africans had seized the plantations that they had been held in bondage. Despite the 40 acres and mule promise, President Andrew Jackson took the land from them and gave it back to the plantation owners. He also turned his back on protecting our formerly enslaved ancestors as white racists literally went on killing sprees massacring African people throughout the South. I guess they were mad the South lost the war or something.
It might help drive the point of how savage wild and murderous white people were in the wake of the losing the Civil War in the South. In Wilmington N.C. in 1898, a coalition black and white politicians were elected in what was called the Fusion party. Significant numbers of the party members were black and enough of were elected to office to trigger the white folks to form a mob, murder over 300 black folks and even bring out a Gatling gun to do it. 2000 black people were displaced as a result of the coup d’etat by white supremacists. The government did nothing. Not on a local level, state level or federal level and it was all over the newspapers at the time.
At the same time, the dominant system run by white people were enthralled by the concept of black people working for them instead of working for themselves. Convict leasing and sharecropping acted as two institutional techniques that white business owners kept themselves rich at the expense of black people. While chattel slavery was outlawed – Black Codes and Jim Crow laws perpetuates the continuation of slavery in the form of locking black people up for as many reasons as possible. Vagrancy laws – meaning if you didn’t have a job and were just out in the world could get one locked up. Once incarcerated, ones labor was sold to whoever needed it including prison plantations and to build out the railroad system across the country. In most instances there was no recourse and many Africans were worked to death.
Keep in mind the racial terrorism of Lynch mobs and the lynching of African Americans as entertainment for white people in the South was commonplace. So common, pictures of lynched Africans were sold as postcards, severed body parts sold as souvenirs and decorations that were hung in homes of white people. Sexual violence against African American women were considered a coming of age moment for white men. The scene in Wilmington, NC was no anomaly; African people being ambitious and successful were deemed as forbidden. The racial terrorism was used to inhibit black people from becoming independent and developing parity with whites.
The wild part about it though is that despite how much white folks said through their actions that they hated black people – they did everything in their power to try to keep black folks from leaving the South. White folks blamed communists and communism for recruiting black folks out of the south to go to the North. In reality; as a result of the industrial growth of World War 1, Northern Industries were desperate for war labor and of course because of the war – European immigrants weren’t coming over to the US at the rates they were before. Black people saw the opportunity to renegotiate their lives experience in this country by moving to all points North of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Today, we hear many that advocate for the return to the black rural agrarian society that our ancestors of generations past were rooted in. I agree, we must return back to the land, especially by owning and controlling because it is through land that we find independence as a people. At the same time, it is important to remember why we left the South in droves and ensure that we create interdependent bridges and systems that support the connection between our work in the rural county and the urban city.
As it pertains to agricultural systems; the city has the mass of our black populations in many cases across the South. According to the census the majority of black people in this country STILL live in the south despite 98% of rural farmland being owned by white people. Connecting supply chains, distribution and processing infrastructure and most importantly markets that can ensure that jobs that pay can be created to support the quality of life and lived experience that we left the South looking for in the first place us essential.
Now this is not to say that moving up North turned out to be some utopia filled with bliss and racial harmony. Of course not. Studies showed that moving to the North resulted in black folk dying faster than their counterparts in the South. Black people experienced housing, wage and racial violence in the North as well. Jim Crow didn’t just live below the Mason Dixon line. In all reality, things were just as racist in the Northern ghetto as it was in the South just in different ways some less overt and more covert – some still in your face and blatant. Irrespective of either Northern racism or Southern, black people have worked tirelessly generation after generation negotiating our freedom on our own terms within the ever constricting and reflexing boundaries of America or wherever you might find black folks wrestling against white supremacy. It’s not about where we are from as black people, as much as it is where we are going as black people and whether that is back to the country, reclaiming the quickly gentrifying city or even back to Afrika – we all gonna get there together because if one of us ain’t free ain’t none of us free.
Duron Chavis is the founder of Happily Natural Day; a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to holistic health, culture and social change.