Rita Flanagan’s father left Yazoo, Miss., after his family collected enough money to get him a bus ticket out of town. He “did something,” she said, that could have gotten him killed – a glance at a white woman, or not crossing the street to clear a path for white people – she guesses.
Dixya Acharya left Nepal five years ago after spending 17 years in a Bhutanese refugee camp in squalid and cramped living conditions. She was 4 when her parents abandoned their 30-plus acres of land fleeing violence in their homeland to keep their 10 children safe.
Both their journeys brought them to Lansing, an unlikely destination given their histories but where safe haven and prosperity was possible.
Migration, resettlement, immigration: these are terms that carry stories of strife and survival. They are weighted with politics and prejudice. They are the foundation of our country, yet the source of so much fear and resistance.
Today we can see the dynamics of migration being played out in the reaction to the arrival of the Central American child migrants, and even in the racial tension in Ferguson, Mo., according to Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which chronicles the Great Migration of African Americans from the South.
The Great Migration bears a trifold of lessons:
• Escaping atrocities and injustices
• Community reactions to the newcomers
• What they created in their new communities
Wilkerson will discuss the impact of the Great Migration as a guest lecturer Thursday with Soledad O’Brien at the Wharton Center as part of the Signature Lecture Series produced by the Michigan State University College of Arts & Letters. Thursday's lecture is part of the year-long 60/50 Project which is meant to help people respect and value differences.
Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 as the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times for a series of stories about survivors of Midwest flooding. Her journalism career began at the Detroit Free Press, which she says makes returning to Michigan special.
“Michigan is so critical in talking about the Great Migration,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Atlanta. “It’s one of the suns people fled to.”
It’s fair to say had the Great Migration not occurred Motown, a rich part of Americana and the fabric of music for the nation, would have never been born.
“Where ever I go, Motown is one of the revered touch points throughout the world,” Wilkerson said. “It’s almost incomprehensible that it would not have existed.”
Berry Gordy Jr.'s parents were from Georgia, she said. His father migrated to Detroit and the family came into some land that was not prime but affordable and was being sold to blacks. It was on that land that Gordy began his business that hired and promoted black music, giving birth to a genre and opportunity for countless artists.
But the impact goes deeper than music. Urban neighborhoods and language as we know them sprang forth. Dearborn, Mich., was born of white flight in the 1950s. Idlewild, the black resort town near Baldwin, would not have thrived.
Escaping a “caste” system
The Great Migration was “one of the largest internal migrations in our nation’s history,” Wilkerson said. “It was the complete redistribution of an entire population.”
More than 6 million African Americans fled the South from World War I to the 1970s, according to her research.
“It’s hard to talk about the migration without talking about the reason for their desire to flee,” Wilkerson said.
African Americans were “defecting from a caste system that was so extreme, so repressive.”
It was against the law to play checkers together in Birmingham, she said as part of a long list of “could nots.”
“Anything you could imagine was separate. It was all encompassing and suffocating.”
There were “so many rules to memorize with penalties that would mean your life.”
“Every couple days an African American was lynched for some perceived breach of this caste system,” she said. “It’s a nerve dangling experience to live under the repression that was the caste system.”
The Great Migration “began because people had always wanted to flee the South but there was not the catalyst for a mass migration until World War I.”
The North recruited in the South to fill “the lowest-paying, least wanted jobs in the harshest industries – iron and steel foundries and slaughtering and meatpacking,” Wilkerson details in her book.
That fueled a dream that prosperity and peace would be found.
Mississippi to Michigan
Rita Flanagan’s voice takes on hushed tones in her own dining room as she describes why her father, Charles Tucker, left the South.
“His family raised up enough money to put that young man on the bus to take him as far as the money would go,” she said. “He ended up in Hampton, Va.”
Tucker was rushed out town because “he did something,” she said.
Flanagan said she believes his family was protecting him from being lynched.
That’s what sent her father from his home. He would go to school in Virginia. He became a Pullman porter to raise money in order to attend Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). He served in World War I. He eventually moved to Detroit after getting married and held two jobs, one a secretary for Ford and the other as a postal clerk.
He bought a home in the Conant Gardens subdivision.
Flanagan said the development was a source of pride for black people. They owned nice homes. Their children could get a good education. They were a part of a growing, vibrant city.
But they were not welcome. Flanagan can remember holding her brother’s hand as she walked a mile to school and back in the time leading up to the Detroit race riot in the 1940s. She can remember the police on their horses.
She remembers the fear and knowing it was because of the color of her skin.
She flips to a page in a history book about her neighborhood bearing a poster: “Help the white people to keep this district white. Men needed to keep our lines solid. We need help. Don’t be yellow. Come out. We need every white man. We want our girls to walk on the streets not raped.”
According to the book: “In February 1942, when the city and federal authorities opened Sojourner Truth Homes to house black workers in North-central Detroit, the Seven Mile/Fenelon Neighborhood Association distributed this leaflet calling on whites to block the moving vans. The rioting that followed delayed opening of the project until April, when 1,800 soldiers and police finally escorted black tenants into their homes.”
Wilkerson said that type of scene was played out across the nation.
Fear of losing at times fueled loathing that holds lasting impact on race relations to this day.
“At every leap forward in this search for freedom and search for citizenship, you run headlong into further resistance and isolation,” Wilkerson said.
Black neighborhoods sprung up in less-favorable sections of towns. White flight to suburbia began.
“They left with the hopes of a freer life, being able to raise their children in safer spaces, have their children go to school, complete an education,” she said. “They ended up being furrowed into the worst neighborhoods.”
In Lansing, the neighborhoods were on the west side, according to Jesse LaSorda, a trustee with the Historical Society of Greater Lansing and past president of the Lansing Area African American Genealogical Society.
The black neighborhood was from West St. Joe and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard going south to the river. He said it was a part of the Oldsmobile factory space at the time.
“It was a four or five block area south to the river,” he said. “They would not have them in any other blocks in any direction in Lansing.”
The auto industry and state government were employment attractions in Lansing for African Americans, he said.
But the environment was less than warm.
William Thompson was the first African American to graduate from Michigan State University in 1904, LaSorda said. Thompson could only get a job as a janitor at the Durant Motors plant.
When Thompson got pneumonia in the early 1920s, LaSorda said “no physicians would treat him. His son said the only person who would treat him was a veterinarian.”
In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan marched in the Labor Day parade down Michigan Avenue sending a clear message against having African Americans working in the auto plants, LaSorda said.
“Mysteriously, the microfilm copy of the Lansing State Journal of that march disappeared,” he said.
When there’s a “large influx of people who may look different there’s a resistance to their arrival,” Wilkerson said. “It happens in every migration.”
Go back to where you come from
There are always newer newcomers. Lansing is growing a reputation as sanctuary and a safe place to settle for a growing refugee community. According to Erika Brown Binion, director of the Refugee Development Center, there are 70 countries and 51 languages represented in the Lansing School District.
Acharya works for the RDC as a family liaison. She moved to Lansing a year and a half ago with her husband. They recently bought a house and have her in-laws living with them.
She loves Lansing and the community, often calling it “awesome.”
But there are bittersweet moments.
“I feel welcome and not welcome,” she said. “I was over in a store with my family, the Kmart. We put the stuff in the car and a homeless man came over asking for cans. He started shouting, ‘you Indian people go back to your country.’” Even though the man spoke from ignorance – they are not Indian – the assault stung.
“But a man came out from the store and yelled at him to leave us alone, he said these people are legally here and contributing. What are you contributing?”
It’s hard to imagine Detroit without Motown, or Chicago without Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey, or television with "The Cosby Show."
But those are just some of the larger, more noticeable contributions to culture as a result of the Great Migration.
The deep layers can be felt in local innovations in business, education, sports and more.
In Lansing, the auto industry helped give rise to a middle class of blacks who could buy lakeside cabins. A professional class developed because of the state government jobs available.
Rita Flanagan’s husband, Luther Flanagan, took a job with the state as assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, in 1971 that moved their family from Detroit. The in-state migration was “culture shock,” Flanagan said.
She went from the most densely populated African American communities to Lansing.
“Where are the black people?” Besides numbers, she said attitudes were different too. She said she felt the black community “had no fight to them.”
She said she had come from more turbulent times and a more active demanding community.
And it wasn’t just about black or white.
It was about equality and opportunity for everyone.
“If the library didn’t have the books you want, you need to fight to get more books. If you want bus service, speak up and get the bus service.”
We all have similar dreams, Wilkerson said.
“I believe that empathy and being able to put ourselves in the experiences of others lets us recognize we have a lot more in common,” Wilkerson said.
Today’s newcomers also have a lot to offer.
Binion said a big part of her job is “educating our community about who our refugees are and what they bring to our community. Entrepreneurship, restaurants, clothing stores, teaching.”
The Great Migration shows us “we all have so much more in common than we have been led to believe,” Wilkerson said.
Every migration has proven we are more alike than different, she added. And, uncovering the stories from our past help steer us in the right direction in the future.
“When you know the history, it’s almost as if you have X-ray vision. You can look past what you’re looking at and see the underpinnings of it.”