Our motto says City Pulse is a “newspaper for the rest of us,” and here former editor Belinda Thurston shows us what that meant to her.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.
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.
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.
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.”
… 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.”
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 K-mart. 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?”