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Revisiting the Great Migration

Senior citizens remember the mass exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities in the early to mid-20th century

Sunday, February 25, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Her memories come slowly at first.

Ruth Ward holds a photo of herself as a child in Kentucky, where she is flanked by her uncle, Noble White, and his friend. In 1941, Ward became part of The Great Migration of black people who left Southern roots to make a new life in the North. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Then they spill forward, much like the photographs from her family album, all dusty and sepia-toned.

She points out Uncle Gus and Uncle Noble, handsome men sporting mischievous grins.

And there she is, a small girl, smiling, posing in front of the big Ford that sits next to a coal bin.

In an instant, the picture takes her back to a simpler time.

Though the world was at war and men from her town were leaving to fight it, all that mattered to the 6-year-old from Lynch, Ky., was that she was wrapped in the bosom of kinfolk.

About a year later, she and her family were headed out, too, on her first train ride, going north.

Ruth Ward was a skinny little thing. She was wearing Shirley Temple curls and a cottony dress when she pulled into Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Station in the summer of 1941.

She came with her stepfather, Will C. Philan, and her mother, Ina Mae.

They had left the rural life to pursue big dreams in the big city.

Ward knew she had arrived.

The station's grand rotunda and the swirl of soldiers in their crisp uniforms left her wide-eyed.

Imagine how much more awe she would have felt had she known her family was in the sweep of the Great Migration.

A mass exodus of black Americans away from their roots in the South, the migration rolled on for half a century.

From roughly 1916 until the late 1960s, it jam-packed cities in the North and the West, laying the framework for the transformation of 20th-century life for black Americans.

It spurred upward mobility, gave many access to education and stirred the rumblings of civil rights protests.

As a boll weevil epidemic chomped away at the South's cotton empire, 6 million black people boarded trains, cars and buses and rode their way to a new life. The lure of Northern industrialism and a desire to escape Jim Crow were too strong.

A 1915 survey of black life in Pittsburgh quoted a newcomer as saying the migration "gave the rank and file the belief that they could move to another part of the country and succeed in gaining a foothold in its industrial life and activity."

So they left.

Between 1950 and 1960 alone, even as the migration was winding down, it is estimated that 1 million blacks bailed out of the South.

Some were lured by black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, which constantly urged black people to go north. Others followed family and friends who boasted of newfound opportunities. Some were fleeing oppressive race laws. A few didn't even know they were part of history until it was over.

"I dunno anything about a Great Migration," said David Blakely, 84, of Homewood. "All I know is I left because I was tired of not being able to vote and not being treated like a citizen."

In 1947, Blakely left Pensacola, Fla., for New York City. Manhattan was too big and too noisy, so he stayed only a year before relocating to Pittsburgh.

Boarding up, pulling out and going north mostly represented an isolated, singular experience.

Yet, Ward, Blakely and millions of others like them created an ocean of black folks who flowed out of their rural communities and into the heart of one of America's most defining movements.

They drifted into Harlem, Chicago, Detroit. They went to Oakland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia. And, they came to Pittsburgh.


Eighth-grade journalists research what made the migration 'Great'

Some notable Western Pennsylvanians whose families arrived here in search of opportunities unavailable in the South


According to Pittsburgh History magazine, beginning in 1916 and continuing until the Depression of the 1930s, Pittsburgh received thousands of Southern black migrants.

Between 1910 and 1930, the black population of Pittsburgh more than doubled -- growing from 25,623 to 54,983. During this same period, the number of black American iron and steel workers in Pittsburgh went from 786 to 2,853, a more than 600 percent increase.

By comparison, between 1900 and 1914, 2 million European immigrants came to Pennsylvania. Most of the new black American arrivals in Pittsburgh came from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. They moved North basically for the same reason the southern and eastern European immigrants had come to America: to seek jobs in the iron and steel mills.

There was one main difference, according to historians.

No war forced them to leave. For many, their decision was seen as ordinary and random.

Except for a few Northern preachers who went South to recruit workers, no black Moses came to lead them out. Most were beckoned by relatives and friends.

Ward's family came in the footsteps of a cousin. He had found his future in the mills.

Ward's stepfather, who left the Army when he turned 40, got a job at the Dravo shipyard, and her mother went to a pot factory in McKees Rocks. Since so many men were fighting in World War II, jobs for women were plentiful, and it was easy for her mother to find work.

Ward, 67, still lives on the North Side, where her family first settled, living with an uncle before buying a home of their own.

Slowly, the little girl from coal-country Kentucky made her way in the big city.

She went to an integrated school. She rode the electric streetcars -- sitting wherever she liked -- and marveled at the nighttime street lights and indoor toilets.

It was all so different from segregated Kentucky. There the schools, restaurants and even the water fountains were colored or white.

Ruth Ward, 67, of the North Side still has vivid memories of making the transition from coal-country Kentucky to urban Pittsburgh. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Even as a child, a bus ride revealed a divided society.

"We all got on the bus one day," said Ward, speaking of her aunt and cousins. "They all went to the back, and I decided I just didn't want to go." At the time, Ward didn't understand why, but a stern look from her aunt meant she dare not rebel.

In Lynch, eight people had lived with her in a two-story, four-room wood-frame house. Upstairs, the bedrooms were divided by blankets and sheets that hung across the walls. The outhouse resided on top of a hill behind their home, and anyone who needed it had to make the long climb.

Still, city life in post-Depression America wasn't without its stings.

Sent to the corner store on errands, Ward recalled that war rations limited what she could bring home.

"I didn't have to deal with that in Kentucky," she said, "because the stores were farther away, and grown-ups had to do the shopping." Also, she added, families made ends meet by having their own gardens, and many kept a pig or two for butchering.

At about the same time that Ward was settling in on the North Side, young Joe Howard was moving into the Hill District.

Howard's father, Westley,was an itinerant coal miner.

"Dad was almost like a Gypsy," said Howard, now 82, of Homewood. "He moved his family across the country to keep a job."

They traveled mostly on the train, where the family sat in a back corner with the windows up to keep out black smoke.

Before he came to the Hill, Howard grew up in the mountains of West Virginia.

There he lived in wooden shanties, befriended native Americans and witnessed the bitter justice called lynching.

It was common in those days, he said, "to leave out of the house and see a body burned." In the back hills of West Virginia, said Howard, a man would be tarred and feathered for stealing a chicken.

Even as a child, he recalls that Pittsburgh was different -- not better, just different. The schools were integrated, and so were the neighborhoods. The black folks worked in the local mills, in menial but well-paying jobs, and the white folks worked Downtown, he said.

Joe Howard, 82, of Homewood arrived in Western Pennsylvania after spending much of his childhood in West Virginia, where his father worked as an itinerant coal miner. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

The times were hard and people had to stand in soup lines at the churches. When his father died of gangrene poisoning, Howard, then 16, lied about his age and lined his lip with a dark pencil to fake a mustache to get a job in the coal mines in Washington County. He had to help his family out.

The migration picked up steam during World War II. The war effort opened up jobs, and the road North was rumored to be paved with gold.

As many would discover, it was no ticket to the Promised Land.

For one thing, it was crowded. Those who could, slept on a friend's sofa or shared a back room with a relative. Others lived in boarding houses. They were lucky.

Many of the new arrivals were forced into migrant camps and shantytowns set up by the industrial companies.

Black men were the last to be hired or accepted in the unions and were the first to be let go during the Depression. When the steel industry began its decline in the 1930s, blacks were the first to join the unemployment lines.

It was during this time that the Urban League and the NAACP also set up shop. The civil rights organizations went on to battle health issues and inadequate housing and to address the problems of people adjusting to the North.

Together they pushed to desegregate unions and to end discriminatory hiring in businesses and department stores.

These organized struggles didn't mean that Southerners wouldn't continue to wage their own, silent battles.

Beatrice Vasser grew up in Henderson, N.C., a tiny hamlet near Raleigh-Durham, where she was cocooned by a family of teachers and a tight-knit black community.

You weathered segregation, said Vasser, because your family taught you to survive. The rules included knowing when to say "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir" to white people and knowing when to move off the sidewalk so they could pass.

"Black men had to walk even more of a chalk line than black women," said Vasser, of North Point Breeze.

After college, Vasser met her husband, Theodore, while teaching on Virginia's Eastern Shore in the late '50s.

She was soon with child. Virginia wouldn't allow pregnant women to teach, and Vasser and her husband wanted to seek better pay. So they moved to his hometown, Pittsburgh.

The young mother and teacher quickly discovered a key distinction between the South and the North.

"In the South, they stood in your face and said, 'I hate niggers.' [In Pittsburgh], they smiled in your face and said it behind your back."

The Downtown department stores and hotels openly discriminated, she said, and the public schools had few black teachers.

But two incidents stand out for Vasser, who's now in her 60s. She and her husband wanted to buy a home in Penn Hills in the 1960s. She changed her mind when a neighbor drove by and tried to run over her and her son as they walked across the street.

And, she discovered when she wanted to attend the University of Pittsburgh, she had to get a recommendation from someone white who had gone there.

In the late '60s, "You could almost count the number of black people at Pitt," she said.

Joe Howard, center, arrived in Pittsburgh and settled in the Hill District in the early 1940s. To help his family after his father died, Howard went to work in the coal mines of Washington County at age 16, lying about his age to get the job.

Vasser went on to survive her early days in Pittsburgh, eventually earning her doctorate at Pitt and becoming one of the first black teachers at a local private, all-girls school.

How did she do it?

"I was very lucky," she said.

Black life in 20th-century Pittsburgh was influenced largely by two groups: those who streamed North before World War I and those who came after, said Laurence Glasco, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

The pre-World War I migrants arrived with a regiment of blacks who came in from the Shenandoah Valley and other central Virginia communities.

Census figures show that in 1900, their numbers swelled to 20,000, making Pittsburgh's black community the sixth largest in the United States. By 1910, 25,000 blacks were living here.

The post-war years, with their factory jobs and assurances of a sweeter life, lured another 25,000 blacks to the Steel City. Many in this second wave were first-generation city dwellers who traveled up from Georgia and Alabama, where mill workers dispatched Northern black ministers to recruit workers, said Frank Bolden, a local historian and former reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier.

The world they found at the three rivers was vastly different from the one inhabited by black neighbors and co-workers who came before the war.

For one thing, the pre-WWI migrants were from a South that was more genteel. Many were mixed-race, skilled or semiskilled workers from small farms, not plantations. They enjoyed and supported classical music and literary societies. Because race relations weren't as abrasive, many were not as beaten down by racism, said Glasco.

By contrast, the black migrants from the depths of Dixie -- Georgia and Alabama -- didn't fare as well. Many were sharecroppers escaping harsher racial restrictions that allowed them limited interaction with whites.

Nevertheless, they changed the face of Pittsburgh.

Arriving before and after the Depression, they boosted the vitality of such industrial towns of McKeesport, Braddock and Homestead. In 10 years, from 1910 to 1920, the black population of Homestead surged from 867 to 1,814, becoming 11 percent of the borough's total population.

Thenia Croom's dad, John Ruse, kicked the red clay off his boots and left his Georgia farm to move to Rankin in the 1920s. He worked in a wire mill and sent for his eight children one at a time. Croom came up in 1923. She was 6 years old.

Life in Rankin was fairly easy, recalled Croom, who now lives in Homewood. Most whites were receptive to their new black neighbors. The kids often became playmates.

Despite swelling the outlying industrial centers, most of the second wave of black migrants stuffed themselves into the Hill.

There they settled in among the Italians, Germans, Irish and other native-born whites and lived in relative harmony.

As the number of black newcomers slowly grew, they began to uproot the black elite -- the preachers, butlers and service entrepreneurs -- who then moved to Beltzhoover, East Liberty, Homewood and Schenley Heights, which they called Sugar Top.

The worlds of the two groups of migrants collided in Pittsburgh, where surveys show that in 1920, more than half of the blacks living here had white neighbors. While they worked in steel mills and held other blue-collar positions, many became middle-class in their outlook.

"They had a piano in the parlor, even if they couldn't play it, wore nice clothes, belonged to temperance societies and enjoyed classical music," Glasco said. Others, especially those from the Deep South, stayed connected with the juke joint and blues music.

The fusion of the two music forms sparked the birth of the jazz explosion that flourished in the Hill, Glasco said.

The rivers of newcomers and the social and political groups they formed didn't end discrimination -- its bitter restrictions went on to reshape the Hill, allowing it to flourish with black businesses. The Hill District had black drugstores, restaurants, barbershops, furriers, jewelers, physicians and a cab company.

As many blacks would find, moving out of this insular community wasn't always so easy. But no matter where they landed, the journey North meant a chance to nurture a dream.

"It became a place," said Ward, "of great hope for my mother," who left Lynch and never looked back. She had escaped the dead-end fate that awaited most black women in that Kentucky town: being a domestic.

"She was getting out of a situation," said Ward. "She wanted to get a home. To have something of her own."

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