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THE GREAT MIGRATION: WHEREVER PEOPLE MOVE, HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS


I am posting for the first time an iBook I wrote for 3rd graders in the Omaha Public Schools. As explained below, the book is one of two I wrote for a series of Nebraska Department of Education iBooks that paired local authors and artists with educators in exploring various aspects of African-American history. This was all part of the OPS program Making Invisible Histories Visible. The book I’m sharing here covers the Great Migration. Many elements of the book are missing from this post but suffice to say that the actual iBook is a graphic-heavy, interactice experience meant to be used by teachers in classroom settings with their students. I am making a separate post with my second series book that looks at Civil Rights through the lens of the effort that integrated the Peony Park pool.

You can access the Great Migration book in PDF format at-

Click to access great_migration.pdf

Or you can download this and other books in the series at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebook_library.html

 

MAKING INVISIBLE HISTORIES VISIBLE

THE GREAT MIGRATION: WHEREVER PEOPLE MOVE, HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

©ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTORIA HOYT

DEVELOPED BY OCTAVIA BUTLER

 

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

During the summer of 2013, eight Omaha Public Schools teachers each developed an iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American history. I wrote two of the 3rd grade books: Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference and the one shared here, The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home Is Where the Heart Is.

Each book paired an Omaha author and artist. Not included in this post are photographs, documents, and other artifacts provided by local community members and through partnership with the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Each book in the series provides supplemental information on the role of African Americans in Omaha and Nebraska history topics.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home is Where the Heart Is describes the Great Migration as it pertains to Omaha’s history. Topics covered include jobs, culture, historical events, and local figures. The piece itself is written similarly to a newspaper article, and interviews with local community members inform the majority of the story.

This book is meant to encourage students to compare the experiences of the people in the story to their own lives. There are several activities along the way that allow students to reflect critically on the content of the story. They will explore and analyze photos, newspaper articles, maps, and graphs. Students will examine not only the period of the Great Migration, but also the culture brought to Omaha and other parts of the North because of the Great Migration.

FREEDOM

Freedom means many things to many different people. For some, freedom means the right to be treated equally under the law. Others value the importance of being free to speak one’s mind. Freedom also means the ability to move and travel without limits. Indeed, freedom is about all of these things.

For African Americans, it was important that they be free to move to a place they would be able to express their beliefs, be treated equally under the law, and enjoy other benefits of an open society. With the end of slavery, African Americans began leaving the U.S. South for greater freedom and opportunity in the North and West.

There’s a long history of masses of people moving from one area of America to another. One of the largest internal movements occurred from the 1910s through the 1960s when millions of African Americans fled the South for other regions during the Great Migration.

During both World Wars, the movement of African Americans out of the South rose to such high levels that it became known as the Great Migration. One of the destinations for black people leaving the South was Omaha. African Americans came here not only to enjoy greater freedom but also to take advantage of employment and educational opportunities.

Imagine living some place where you’re made to feel less than a full citizen or even less than human simply based on the color of your skin. For many years African Americans living in the South were treated unfairly and cruelly because they were the black minority and whites were the ruling majority.

The discrimination blacks faced were remnants from the days of slavery. Blacks were denied the same educational, housing, job, voting, and recreational opportunities as whites. The threat of physical violence was real.

These were reasons enough for blacks wanting to leave the South. Other reasons included the hard times that the South experienced in the first half of the 20th century, where most blacks made their living working the land. When crop failures and natural disasters occurred there, some blacks felt they had no choice but to leave to find better fortune in other parts of the country.

Reflect: Can you think of a time you were treated unfairly?

How would it feel to have less rights than someone else because of how you look?

COMING AND GOING

JOBS

Blacks left the South to take advantage of the better paying jobs open to minorities in other parts of the nation. In Omaha, the railroads and the packinghouses were the main job magnets that pulled people here.

Black men could find work as Pullman Porters, baggage handlers and cooks with the railroads, and as laborers in packing plants. Porters dressed in crisp uniforms and prided themselves on giving great customer service to passengers on trains. Packinghouse workers performed physically demanding and dangerous duties. These jobs paid well enough that a black man could support his family and even buy a home.

The Omaha Monitor would promote businesses that hired members of the black community.

The railroad industry provided many jobs for black men

Black women found work as domestic help in well-to-do people’s homes, where they worked as maids, housekeepers, or nannies. Some cleaned offices. Black women were also employed as cooks, laundresses, cleaning help, and aides in hospitals and nursing homes.

It was very important for the black community to promote businesses that not only would serve black customers, but would also hire them for jobs.

Reflect: Why was this important to members of the community when looking for a job?

How did writing about these businesses in the newspaper help the black community?

OMAHA’S GROWTH

The Great Migration had dramatic effects on the communities African Americans left and the communities they moved to. For example, the first wave from 1910 to 1920 doubled Omaha’s black population.

Newcomers were not always warmly welcomed where they moved. Early on in Omaha, blacks lived in multicultural neighborhoods throughout the city. However, outbreaks of racial violence, including the 1919 lynching of a black man, Will Brown, gradually confined blacks to a few neighborhoods on the North and South sides.

Migrants came to Omaha as individuals, couples, families, and groups. They came by bus, train, and automobile. Often, one family member would make the move, find employment and housing, and after getting settled would send for another relative.

 

looking to Omaha Looking to Omaha out of agricultural despair in the South, African-American men “stepping up” from share-cropping to the meat-packing plants.

The vibrant, yet increasingly isolated, black community in North Omaha.

Feeling the effects of destructive segregation and racism from the same Omaha that offered new opportunities.

 

ESTABLISHING COMMUNITY

Blacks largely came here from Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A group of Christians from Brewton, Alabama, established Pilgrim Baptist Church in Omaha in 1917 during that first big migration movement. These church founders helped build a thriving congregation, which their descendants kept alive. Today, Pilgrim is nearly a century old and still going strong.

A half-century later the migration had slowed quite a bit, but was still in progress. Two women who left the South in the 1960s to make new lives for themselves in Omaha are Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson. Moore came from Boligee, Alabama. Jackson came from Brookhaven, Mississippi.

SEEKING A BETTER LIFE

Exactly why migrants left, the mode of transportation they used to get here, and how they did once they arrived differed. But generally speaking everyone wanted a better life, and most found it too. They were motivated to go by the chance for greater equality and freedom and glad to leave behind reminders of slavery.

In the South there were separate facilities and sidewalks for the races. “They had one side colored and the other side white,” Moore recalled. “You just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. There were some stores we couldn’t even go in in my hometown, like exclusive stores that sold very fine clothes. It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening.”

Jackson, whose grandparents were sharecroppers, said blacks would go to town and head right back home because “we were expected to stay in our place. There was no hanging out downtown. You did what you had to do and left because you didn’t know what might happen. I mean, you really had to walk careful.”

Moore wanted to join the civil rights protests happening then but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her father transported demonstrators from their rural homes into town to participate in marches and demonstrations. It was a brave thing to do because if the Ku Klux Klan caught him doing it he could have been in serious trouble.

Moore left Alabama for Omaha after graduating high school and marrying. “I had never left the South before,” she said. “I came here on the bus. When I left Alabama I had to sit in the back of the bus and then by the time we got to St. Louis (Missouri) we could sit anywhere we wanted.”

Venturing North to start a new life stirred “mixed emotions” in her. She was recently married at the time, and her husband moved ahead of her to get work at a packinghouse.

Reflect: Have you ever moved to somewhere new before?

What plans did you have to make before moving?

MAKING A NEW START

Moore found life far different here than it was down South. “The integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the (colored only or white only) signs we saw in Alabama. You could just go anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store.”

However, not everything was open to everybody. Until the 1970s blacks could only live in certain areas and some businesses refused to serve or hire them. But things were far more limiting in the South.

Jackson said the stories she heard about the way things were up North made enough of “an impression” she decided “it was right for me to go.” She came by train. From Mississippi to Illinois, blacks had to ride in separate cars. When they reached Chicago, they could sit anywhere on trains headed West, East or further North. Lorraine headed West to Omaha.

Both she and Moore became beauticians and raised families here. The women, who were able to go into business for themselves here, say they encountered some racism in Nebraska, but overall they feel they made a good choice in coming to the Midwest.

Both have returned to the South almost every year. Their families still own land there. They marvel at how the South has changed. “I can’t believe all the mixed marriages there. And the white people are at the black church,” said Jackson. “I never dreamed I would be seeing this. We’ve got a black mayor there in our hometown. I’m just shocked because I never thought it would ever happen, but it has.”

DRAWING ON THE OLD TO MAKE NEW

African American migrants often feel a strong connection to the South, where their roots are. Their families hold regular reunions, sometimes in their childhood hometowns. Many blacks who left the South have reversed their migration and moved back. Moore said, “Boligee means so much to me because of how my dad risked his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. He always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting.”

Jackson, Moore, and their siblings all finished school and some went on to college. Looking back on how much they overcame, Jackson said it’s “amazing we’re successful – I think it was our upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong and respectful. Faith was a big factor, too.”

Migrants brought their culture wherever they settled. Traditional African American music and food are now staples in the larger culture. North Omaha became a haven for jazz, blues, and gospel music, soul food, stepping, and Southern slang. Emma Hart of Omaha still uses the treasured family recipes for sweet potato pie, candied yams, collard greens, and cornbread dressing brought here from Arkansas by her family. The hospitality southerners are famous for was also brought North.

Similarly, migrants and immigrants of other races and ethnicities have brought and continue bringing their own sounds and flavors. This infusion or blending of cultures has created a richer stew than what existed before.

The Great Migration changed America by dramatically increasing the black population in cities across the land, thus creating a more diverse society.The migrant experience continues to play out in many locales around the world.

SPOTLIGHT: DAN DESDUNES

Dan Desdunes was one of the first major musicians to play in Omaha, and played a major role in North Omaha’s jazz scene and musical culture. He is considered the father of black musicians in Omaha.

Desdunes was born in 1873 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He started studying music when he was 17 years old. He learned to play the violin, cornet, trombone, and trap drums. In 1894, at the age of 21, Desdunes traveled as a musician with different theater companies. During this time, he began to learn to play wind instruments.

After he got married in 1904, Desdunes decided to settle in Omaha. He felt there were good musical opportunities in the city. Since Omaha was in the middle of many bigger cities along the Union Pacific Railroad, many musicians would stop here to perform.

In Omaha, he started the Desdunes Band and the Desdunes Jazz Orchestra. The Desdunes Band started in 1915, and Dan Desdunes led the band until his death in 1929. They played annually in the Ak-sar-ben Parade, and other events for the Chamber of Commerce. The Desdunes Jazz Orchestra was one of the first black orchestras to perform in Omaha.

Desdunes also trained many young musicians. He was a music teacher and bandleader for Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys during the last eight years of his life. He believed that the study of music made people better citizens.

Take a Stand

There were many positive reasons to leave the South and move North. However, the black community still experienced some discrimination in the North.

Make a list of the positive reasons to move North. Then list the struggles still faced in the North.

Think about each list. Next, decide whether you would choose to move North or stay in the South.

Defend your choice by explaining why you chose to move North or stay in the South.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author-journalist- blogger best known for his cultural writing-reporting about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is the first comprehensive treatment of the Oscar- winning filmmaker. Biga’s peers have recognized his work at the local, state and national levels. To sample more of his writing visit, leoadambiga.com.

MEET THE ARTIST

Victoria Hoyt is an artist working in Omaha, Nebraska, the city she grew up in. She received her BA from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota and her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. You can find her making paintings and things that make her laugh in her North Omaha home studio, or teaching part- time at Metro Community College. To see more of her work, please visit her website at victoriahoyt.com.

Leo Adam Biga authors civil rights IBooks on the Great Migration and Peony Park

November 26, 2013 Leave a comment

I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.

You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebook_library.html

You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-

Click to access great_migration.pdf

You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-

Click to access peony_park.pdf

Great Migration Stories: For African Americans who left the South for Omaha, the specter of down home is never far away

July 30, 2013 4 comments

No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect.  Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) offers a small window into a few migration stories.

A variation of this story is told in a new iBook I recently authored for the Omaha Public Schools and its Making Invisible Histories Visible project.
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of my ibook about an integration effort at Omaha’s Peony Park at-

And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebook_library.html

Great Migration Stories: For African Americans who left the South for Omaha, the specter of down home is never far away

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.

The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.

The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.

Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.

“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.

“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”

The family still retains the property today.

Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.

“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.

The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.

Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.

“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”

When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.

“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.

“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’  It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.'”

Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.

Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.

Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.

Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.

Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.

The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.

Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.

Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.

“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.

“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”

Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.

“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”

Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.

Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.

Both women continue doing hair today.

Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.

Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”

“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”

Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.

“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”

She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.

In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”

Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.

“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.

When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.

Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.

“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.

This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.

“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to  plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”

Isabel Wilkerson

Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.

Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.

But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.

“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.

“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”

Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.

Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.

“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”

She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.

“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”

Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.

“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.

“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”

Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.

“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”

Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”

Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.

Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived  strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.

“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.

On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.

Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”

Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.

Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”

Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.

She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.

“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”

Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.

Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.

Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”

Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.

The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”

March 31, 2012 9 comments

No story is an island.  That’s never been more true than with the vast story told by Isabel Wilkerson in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a meticulous chronicle of the successive waves of African-Americans who migrated from the South to the North and West during the first three quarters of the 20th century.  These migrants went everywhere, including my hometown of Omaha, Neb., where the black population surged in the 1910s and ’20s and occasionally peaked again over the next few decades as blacks left the South for the meatpacking and railroad jobs once plentiful here.  By the early ’70s the migration largely came to a halt and in Omaha at least a kind of reverse migration began that’s still going on today as many blacks left here for better opportunities elsewhere and, ironically enough, they often left for the New South, where cities like Atlanta and Birmingham offered far more employment and cultural opportunities for blacks than Omaha.  But the following article is not so much about that as it is about how Omaha once was a secondary but important receiving center for blacks from the South.  I attempt to balance Wilkerson’s work with the lived experience of a couple men who came here from Evergreen, Ala. – Rich Nared and Rev. Frank Likely.   So while Omaha did not get nearly the influx of black migrants that Chicago or Detroit or a lot of other cities did, it got it’s share to sufficiently alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape here and really that’s beside the point anyway, because the migration’s greatest effects were on the people who participated in this great upheaval from one environment and way of life to another.  The piece will appear soon in The Reader as a sort of preview of Wilkerson’s April 12 talk at Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, a faith community with a long history of social justice work.

NOTE: Rich or more properly Richard Nared has seved as a source, reference, referral, and liaison for me on several stories.  He hails from a big family, he’s highly personable, and he’s a longtime track coach (he was a high school track star), all of which gives him instant entree with a lot of people, which in turn makes him an invaluable resource for someone like me.  On this blog you’ll find several stories that deal with various elements and experiences of his family, including one – The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days – about the reunion his family holds during the city’s biennial black heritage celebration.  Mr. Nared is is also related to a bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, and you can read about the mega reunion she sometimes comes back here for in my piece – A Famil Thing, Bryant-Fisher Reunion.  For that matter, you’ll find numerous stories about Native Omaha Days and other aspects of African-American culture here, past and present.

A sharecropper in the Deep South

 

 

The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement Author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The 20th century migration African-Americans made from the South to the North and West expanded black enclaves across the nation. While Omaha didn’t experience a huge influx like Chicago or Los Angeles, it was enough to alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape.

This epoch movement went little examined outside scholarly circles and literary works until Isabel Wilkerson‘s 2010 nonfiction book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will discuss her book in an April 12 talk at Countryside Community  United Church of Christ, 8787 Pacific Street.

The 7 p.m. program is free.  A free-will donation of $10 is suggested.

Rich Nared and his uncle Rev. Frank Likely migrated here separately from their shared hometown of Evergreen, Ala. The many branches of their large extended family includes the Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, all of whom are a presence in Omaha.

Unorganized, with no discernible leader, the Great Migration played out over generations on backroads and rail lines, by auto, truck, bus and any means necessary. From the 1910s through the 1960s millions pulled up stakes for their chance at self-determination.

A family relation, Clinton Nared, says families like his came North  for “a new freedom” and “a better life.” Different lines of the family settled in different parts of the North and over the generations spread all over the country.

The sheer numbers of those migrating meant a demographic shift whose profound consequences persist. Many receiving cities, says Wilkerson, did not make proper provisions for the new population, with blacks relegated to poor, overcrowded districts abutting immigrants. Limited available employment led to tensions, further flamed by racism. Blacks were refused housing and denied jobs. Outright discrimination, protests, strikes, riots and other acts of violence further isolated blacks.

“That in and of itself is a tragedy because much of this happened as a result of a complete misunderstanding of who the people were,” says Wilkerson. “The people who had arrived in these cities came from different parts of the world but they were all people of the land who had made this great leap of faith that life might be better far from home. They landed in these big, forbidding, anonymous cities where their labor was wanted but there wasn’t clarity as what to do with the people. All of them were struggling, trying to make a way in this alien place.

“One group was pitted against the other as if they were direct competition to one another and what one got the other one was losing. We are still living with that to this day.”

Likely and Nared  did well here. Each married and raised children in designated black northeast neighborhoods. Despite segregation and discrimination, they thrived compared to the conditions they left behind.

They estimate hundreds of relatives and friends ventured North. It’s not by accident or coincidence so many residents of a small, backroads Ala. town uprooted themselves from their sharecropping life for an unfamiliar Midwestern city. Transplants would return with news of better jobs and more opportunities. Expatriates not only extolled the North’s virtues, they often made a show of their improved fortunes.

Likely recalls former Evergreen resident Aaron Samuels coming back in style to tout Omaha’s “booming packing houses.” He was hooked.

“This guy was down there bragging and I decided I would go with him to make some of that big money.”

Likely got on at the Cudahy packing plant. Before long he, too, returned South, strutting his own success, encouraging others to follow.

“I looked successful and I was successful. dressing nice and driving a nice car. I had money in my pocket. Some of them rode back out here with me. Quite a few of them. They just liked what they seen of me.”

Until the ’70s blacks traveling to the South “had to be very careful,” Likely says, to mind lingering Jim Crow attitudes and practices.

He says the motivation to migrate was not to chase some promised land but to pursue a better life. Down South families like his could never get ahead, always in debt to owners. He recalls earning 35 cents an hour as a farm hand and a few dollars for picking 350 pounds of cotton versus making ten times that laboring in Omaha.

Wilkerson says the economic imperative is what drove most black migrants: “They saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom. For the first time in their lives these people were the master of their own fate.”

The South’s cruelty and treachery were added motivations to flee. The man Nared’s named after, Richard “Bud” Nared, began the family’s exodus when he fled for his life. As his nephew tells it, Bud’s mother was riding home in a mule-pulled wagon from the local general store when several white men stopped and harassed her, tearing her blouse. When she got home, Bud extracted the men’s names, grabbed his Winchester and tracked them down, shooting and killing two of them. Under imminent threat of lynching Bud’s family and friends hid him in the woods before secreting him out at night. He went to Omaha, where Evergreen natives preceded him.

“Most of us came here because we had to. We had to leave the South in the middle of the night,” says Rich Nared.

Likely says some met their end or went missing. “I known ’em to get beat up, I known ’em to get killed, and some we don’t know what happened to ’em. Disappeared. Nobody’s seen ’em since. Had an uncle who left. Don’t know where he went.”

Wilkerson often encounters such stories. “I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North,” she says.

Likely himself had reason to fear for his safety. He says he once got into an altercation with a white store owner and rather than be hit with a stick the man brandished Likely clanged a can of beans off his head. When the owner came looking for him, firing a pistol in the direction of his home, Likely got a shotgun and sprayed a buckshot warning towards the man, who fled. Another time, Likely was in his car headed to a dance when he came upon a group of Klansmen barricading the highway. The mob tried pulling him from the vehicle but Lively managed to navigate a ditch and outrace his pursuers to Bruton, Ala., where he was arrested and jailed.

When the North beckoned, he went.

“I was tired of the South. I heard about up North you didn’t have to tolerate the white people as we done there. I had enough of that. I would have been dead now anyway because I just wouldn’t take it.”

The prospect of escaping Jim Crow constraints and Ku Klux Klan dangers and making decent living wages proved a powerful lure. Exiled Bud Nared persuaded family to join him North. Rich Nared came with his family at Bud’s urging.

“He sent for us,” Nared says. “He’s the reason we came up here.”

It’s much the same pattern immigrant families followed.

Picking up and moving was harder for some than others. Strong attachment to family and land is why many stayed put. White bosses could make leaving difficult. Then there was the fear of the unknown.

Other migration patterns saw blacks recruited to fill wartime work shortages. The Omaha Public Schools brought black teachers from the South through a federal program offering new hires graduate studies.

Nared was 4 when he arrived but the South was never far for him and his brothers as they spent every summer in Ala. with their grandparents.

“I loved the South,” says Nared, who walked behind his grandfather as he plowed. “I’m a country boy at heart.”

He’s proudly kept his country ways, too.

Likely notes some blacks who migrated here later returned home for good. Many adult children relocated to the South, where, he says, “They’re doing better than we are. It’s changed a lot.”

The Evergreen exiles are holding a July reunion in Ala. God willing, Nared and Likely will do their elder best to educate the young’uns about what once was.

Wilkerson’s talk is part of an annual lecture series by Countryside’s Center for Faith Studies.

Part IV of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

March 11, 2012 4 comments

This is the final installment of my four-part Q&A with author Isabel Wilkerson about her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Here, she explains in more detail some of the things that distinguished the migration of African-Americans from the South to all points North and West and why it was an event of such momentous impact in the nation’s history.  Wilkerson speaks April 12 in my burg, Omaha, Neb., and I for one plan to be there.

Part IV of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

The conclusion of my four-part interview with author Isabel Wilkerson explores some distinguishing features of the the migration experience covered in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street.

LAB: Blacks migrated to the North and West the way immigrants arrived.

IW: “The only way they could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”

LAB: Resistance to black migrants led to segregated enclaves that still exist. 

IW: “That in and of itself is a tragedy because much of this happened as a result of a complete misunderstanding of who the people were. The people who had arrived in these cities came from different parts of the world but they were all people of the land who had made this great leap of faith, the decision of their lives, and left all that they knew to take this great gamble that life might be better far from home. They landed in these big, forbidding, anonymous cities where their labor was wanted but there wasn’t clarity as what to do with the people.

“All of them were struggling, trying to make a way in this alien place. One group was pitted against the other as if they were direct competition to one another and what one got the other one was losing, and that’s one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, and we are still living with that to this day.”

LAB: Black migrants didn’t think in terms of participating in a movement, but they did.

IW: “It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themelves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom

“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me, and where things did not turn out as they hoped there’s a bittersweetness to the outcome for some people because they had made this great leap of faith and basically given up everything in order to take a chance on this place that had become a symbol of freedom for them. When it didn’t work out as they had hoped they then had to sort of regroup within their own minds and figure out how can we make this work in spite of the challenges.”

LAB: What about the black migration do we still not appreciate?

IW: “I came to the conclusion we often ask the wrong questions of any migration.

Was it a success or not a success cannot be answered in totality because each individual family would have a different answer to that question. Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration.

“For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to  plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self determination and an act of courage.”

The Omaha Star and The Reader (www.thereader.com) are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

Part III of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 29, 2012 5 comments

The most significant book I have read in the past few years is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  I recently interviewed the author in advance of a talk she’s giving in Omaha, where I live.  The Omaha Star newspaper is running the Q&A I did with her in a four-part series, and I am sharing the series here.  If you’re anything like me and you thought you knew what African-Americans faced in the South that compelled so many to leave and migrate North and West, well, you soon find out in her book that there is a great deal about that experience that you didn’t have any clue about or any real undestanding of.  She tells this important story in a way that will capture your mind and your heart and prompt you to ask, “Why have I never heard of this before?”  I highly recommend the book and if you have a chance to hear her speak, I heartily recommend you listen.

Part III of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

Part III of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson describes how she came to focus on three protagonists in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The late Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling represent the major migration streams from the South.

Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in Omaha.

LAB: These three figures provide an intimate, inspiring prism into the migration.

IW: “I actually get inspired when I hear readers say they feel a connection to them because the goal was to have the reader see themselves in these people and imagine what would I have done had I been in this situation they were in.

“It’s a leap of faith to even settle on one person…that their story will carry forth in this narrative. I interviewed over 1,200 people. I narrowed it down to about 30, any of whom could have been the three, and then I narrowed it down to these three on the basis of multiple things. I needed to have one person to represent each of the migration streams. I needed to have people who left during different decades. And I needed to have people who left for different reasons.

“And I also needed people who would be distinctive on the page, people who you would recognize when you first get to them. I needed to have three beautifully flawed and yet accessible and full human beings through whom to tell the story. And people who were at the point in their lives when they would be willing to tell their story. And finally there had to be this connection between them and me because I was going to be with them for a very long time. It actually ended up being years. So you might call it chemistry.

“They were just delightfully full human beings who had a great sense of humor despite all they had been through.”

LAB: What do you most admire about them and what do you carry from each?

IW: “Each of them had distinctive survival techniques that gave a window for how anyone could survive any challenge they might face, even today. And I think I took something away from each one of them as a result of how they discovered what worked best for them to get through what they were enduring.

“For George it was this stalwart effort to confront and question and deal with the challenge head-on, no matter what the consequences. He chose the path of integrity whenever he was confronted with injustice and I think that is a tremendous lesson for anyone. It takes a great deal of courage to do that, to stand up for what you believe is right and to stand up against what you know in your heart to be wrong, and he did that, and he paid something of a price for it. He ended up having to flee for his life. He knew when to let go of a fight that was not winnable. The gift of perseverance and integrity I take from him.

“From Dr. Foster one learns the importance of excellence in all that you do. His view was it’s not worth doing unless you do it the best. He took it to an extreme.

“And from Ida Mae it’s a completely different message. It’s the one I often find myself turning to. I often hear people say, ‘I love Ida Mae,’ and I think they’re saying that because she’s the one who had the least resources of the three. She was born poor. She was a sharecroppers’ wife. They worked from sun-up to sun-down with very little in the way of renumeration. Her clothes were burlap sacks. She knew poverty beyond what most people can even imagine. The unpredictability and dangers faced on a daily basis would be beyond  the comprehension of modern day Americans

“And in spite of all that she had a way of looking at the world that was without judgment and rancor and bitterness and a sense of shame. She lived every day in the moment. It was second nature to her. She had a way of walling off negative emotions. She always looked at the world as the best it could possibly be in spite of all that she had seen, and I think that’s a lesson for everyone.”

Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 19, 2012 6 comments

Part II of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, follows.  Wilkerson, who makes many appearances to speak about her book and its subject of the 20th century’s Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West, will present a free talk and signing April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in my hometown and place of residence, Omaha.  After reading her book and interviewing her there is no way I am going to miss her speak.  She has done a great service to the nation with her work connecting the dots of this epoch movement in history that so changed the face of America.  If you have not read her book, do so.  If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, go.  Her insights into how the migration proceeded and the impact this experience made on the participants and on the cities they left and settled in are fascinating and revelatory.

Building Networks for Leading Change - Day 2 - Isabel Wilkerson Book Signing 2 | by W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Isabel Wilkerson at a book signing

 

 

Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

LAB: What interest in the Great Migration do you note in the wake of your book?

IW: “When I go out and talk about the book, wherever I go, there are people of all    backgrounds who show up. There was a woman who brought her father and they both came up and spoke with me and the daughter said, ‘Now that I’ve heard what you’ve said and I’ve got this book I’m taking him right now to a coffee shop and he’s going to tell me what happened.’ She was determined, and he agreed he would do so. So those are the kinds of things that are happening. Stories that had never been told or shared before people are feeling comfortable enough to talk about them.

“When I was in Columbus, Ohio a woman said after she read the book it made her think about how her family had gotten to Ohio and she immediately called her mother and said, ‘How did we get here?’ It turned out an uncle had been lynched and almost the entire family left as a result. Here she was in middle age and she had never known that, no one had ever sad anything. I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North. They had to get out immediately and they went to Cleveland or Detroit or New York or I’m assuming even to Omaha. The fact that people hadn’t talked about it meant there’s a whole world that has existed but no one knew about it and this book attempts to uncover that.

“This is a universal human story. I like to say black history is truly American history, For one thing much of black history involves white Americans. White abolitionists helped get black americans out of slavery. In the book there’s a case of white southerners who helped ferry a single black person out of Mississippi and it could not have been done without the involvement of white Mississippians and Alabamans who helped in this elaborate effort.”

 

Ida Mae Gladney Ida Mae Gladney Ida Mae Gladney

 

 

 

LAB: Did you grow up knowing about your family’s migration?

“No one in my family talked about the Great Migration in those terms. I knew where my mother and father had come from and I didn’t know why they did what they did or what the circumstances of their lives had been where they were from. In hindsight I am aware their circle of friends were all people from the South. But no one talked about it. It’s only in the course of the research for the book that I came to know things about my own family I didn’t know before.

“My mother was the most difficult interview of all. She did not want to talk about it. Her attitude was, ‘This happened a long time ago, why do you want to dredge up the past? what has this got to do with what were doing now? I left that a long time ago.’ The only reason she began to talk about it was I was working on the book and I told her things I was hearing and I read to her parts of the book, and then it would trigger some memory in her and make mention of something I had never heard of before.”

LAB: I imagine this suppressed history exacerbated the great open wound of race?

IW: “I completely agree with you. I talk to people all the time who have read the book…On my Facebook page I get a chance to see how it’s affected people or how they’re moved by the stories or to maybe do more research in their own family life or they see their grandparents or great grandparents and come to a greater sense of gratitude over what their forbearers did. Regardless of their background, migration is a human universal experience. It’s just a matter of knowing who and how and why they did what they did. The book triggers lots of memories.”

The Star and The Reader (www.thereader.com) are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South and ended up in Omaha or Greater Nebraska, then please email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

 
 

Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 15, 2012 7 comments

One of the best nonfiction reads of my life is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A journalist by trade, Wilkerson proves herself a historian of the first order with her exhaustive, compelling, always insightful, and often moving work about the sprawling, decades-long migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, West and points in between.  This epoch movement of people and culture  transformed the nation but went largely unreported in the mainstream media because it was not organized in any formal sense and it played out quietly in countless streams and currents and eddies over such long time and across such a vast expanse.  The Great Migration had no leader or organization.  Instead, each individual, couple, family, and group that made the courageous leap of faith to leave Jim Crow for a strange promised land far away acted independently in  asserting their self-determination. The mere act of leaving was as brave and militant a thing to do as any recognized civil rights action. The book has been out now for more than a year, but it took me awhile to catch up with it.  I am so glad I did.  As Wilkerson will be speaking about her book April 12 in Omaha, where I live, I recently interviewed her.  I am presenting the interview here in a four-part Q & A that will also run in The Omaha Star.  If you haven’t read the book, do so.  It  manages to do the seemingly impossible by taking on this epic story in all its complexity and scope and yet makes it an intimate journey by focusing on three individuals, Ida Mae, Robert, and George, who become the prism through which we experience the migration journey alongside them.  I thought I knew a lot about the black experience until she immersed me in this world, and now I realize how little I really do know and how much more I have yet to learn.

Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the Omaha Star

 Isabel Wilkerson

This is the first of a four-part interview Leo Adam Biga conducted with award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her 2010 best-seller, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Her critically praised book explores the mid-20th century African-American migration from the South to all points North and West.

Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, is giving a free book talk April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street. She’ll sign copies afterwards.

LAB: What were your hopes for the book?

IW: “I have many hopes for the book when it comes to the potential impact on the reader. This migration and demographic experience had been discussed primarily in scholarly terms until recently. My goal was first to try to understand what people who never spoke about what they had endured had actually been through. I really wanted to be able to hear the stories and make it possible for anyone who would listen to know what they had endured so it wouldn’t be lost to history.

“I felt the migration had such magnitude and impact on our country and yet it was not an entire chapter in 20th century history books. It did not command the attention I felt it deserved given how massive it was and how much it affected our culture. I find it surprising even now if you look at a high school history book that it’s just a paragraph if mentioned at all. I felt it needed to take its rightful place in history and that perhaps one way to do that would be to actually go back to the people who lived it and to convert their stories into a narrative people would want to read and live through the journey with them.

“I wanted to hear the stories before it was too late and to in some way validate the experiences of the people who lived it but who had been unwilling or unable or in too much pain to even talk about it.”

LAB: Has the book sparked more migration inquiries?

IW: “I have been reading newspaper stories from around the country where journalists have been inspired to go and interview people in their own communities who were part of this. Every single city in the North, the Midwest and the West was affected by this migration, so there would be people alive in all these cities that have been part of the migration. They’re getting up in years and their stories would need to be captured soon if they’re to be captured at all, and that’s the urgency with which I went about interviewing the 1,200 people I did. Because I was aware with each passing, day, month, year we were losing them, and with each person passing away you’re losing part of the archives before it can even be recorded.

“The interviews were in some ways like a casting call. I was auditioning people for the role of protagonist in the book, but in doing so I was also hearing many stories and building my own understanding and archive of what people endured. Not all of them clearly made it in the book but they all helped to inform the work and provided insight into some aspect I otherwise wouldn’t have understood. Hearing these things many times from different people helped make it a more authentic, richer work.”

LAB: Did the fact your parents were migrants add import for you?

IW: “Yes, my mother was from Georgia and my father from Virginia and they would never have met had there been no Great Migration, which is one of the realities that really inspired me to want to write this book. The majority of African-Americans and Americans on the whole had somebody in their backgrounds do what the people of this book did. Whatever the migration stream, whole new lineages and cultures were created. That’s what happens in a migration.

“I became really inspired by the idea a single decision can literally change certainly a family line but also even a country. I realized this was so much bigger than a simple move and I think perhaps it’s been misunderstood as that.”

NOTE:
The Star and The Reader are collecting African-American migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference


South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the melting pot South Omaha subcultures.that Ellen Struve’s new play EPIC dips into is the Maya. The Omaha playwright’s original work will premier in three free performances May 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus, ITC Building 120, at 2909 Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.

EPIC is part of the PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries program in MCC’s Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). Program works are developed through community engagement that playwrights and directors do with residents. Struve met with several South Omaha groups in researching EPIC.

Abstract Mindz Collaboration was one.

“They’re an artists collective of very creative, talented young artists,” Struve said, “They have a fabulous amount of energy that sort of pops right off the walls.”

Additionally. she met with the artists behind the South Omaha Mural Project, whose works depict various South O cultures. The group’s prepping a Maya mural to be completed this year.

 

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Ellen Struve

 

Finally. Struve reached out to Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, an organization of indigenous Mayans whose oral histories inform both the mural and EPIC.

“Witnessing people overcome trials with bravery and compassion is incredibly inspiring and certainly every one I’ve met at Comunidad Maya Pixan Oxim has done that time and time again while exhibiting an overwhelming sense of compassion,” Struve said.

“I have found there a wish for well-being for our shared humanity despite many obstacles. Executive director Luis Marcos, for example. came to America from Guatemala at 16. He taught himself English and Spanish. He’s trilingual. His people have been persecuted. There was a genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. To not only survive but to maintain such a strong sense of community and compassion and a deep appreciation for the arts is inspiring and connects with my own values and interests.”

 

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Maya community members

 

Struve already volunteered at the Maya community center when GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler asked her to create an original PlayFest piece.

“I immediately thought of Luis and how much I admired Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim,” Struve said, “and asked if he would be interested in partnering with us. He was.”

The project dovetailed with related interests that bleed into Struve’s life, including a passion for immigration rights. Her play The Dairy Maid-Right examines issues about immigration in Nebraska. She’s advocated for DACA rights through the Heartland Workers Center. She interfaced with Dreamers while working at a Chicago music school. More recently, she’s discovered a Latino ancestry she never knew. She’s still deciding “how to creatively process” her own family story.

EPIC draws on the Popol Vuh – an ancient book of sacred Mayan stories – and it’s intersection with stories of first and second generation Americans.

Luis Marcos asked her to adapt it.

“It’s a beautiful epic poem I was unfamiliar with prior to working on this,” Struve said. “It tied in beautifully with the artist narratives and the idea of murals. I developed a narrative about a company of young artists creating a mural in South Omaha that turns out to be about the Popol Vuh and the way it speaks to our current moment and the ways we can make a better world.”

Struve and director Michael John Garces from Los Angeles conducted story circles with artists and Maya community members. The resulting script dramatizes ancient sagas and personal tales of South O natives, migrants and refugees who, Struve said, “are experiencing events in their lives reflective of events in the Popol Vuh. “Some of their stories are definitely impacted by the current immigration policies in the U.S.,” she said. “There are also timeless family stories of sons and daughters having second generation issues with first generation parents and timeless issues of artists coming into their own and connecting with a really important piece of art, the Popol Vuh, that is part of our hemisphere.”

 

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Popul Vuh

Struve considers the Popul Vuh “a fabulous document of a great civilization akin to the The Odyssey or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” She even learned a Mayan language. “It has been a complete joy for me.”

Her play is in Maya, Spanish and English.

“Not only is it exciting to bring these community stories to the stage, but we’ll do it with production elements that are exciting for me to work with.”

In addition to community members acting on stage, certain things will be represented via shadow puppetry.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a puppeteer and we have a wonderful puppeteer and designer in Lynn Jeffries.”

Jeffries, who works with Garces at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, enjoys bringing the Popul Vuh to life. “It’s a fabulous story just on the level of storytelling. It’s funny and complex and has a lot of things that lend themselves to puppetry,” she said. “There’s a lot of action. It’s a very fluid mode of storytelling with multiple layers and characters who are often one thing and another at the same time.”

The production will use overhead projectors to make small shadow puppets manipulated on stage. Local artists will bring their own aesthetic to the figures.

Rather than a limitation, puppetry is a luxury.

“You can create a lot more with shadow puppetry because you can make a bunch of small things out of paper and fill the room with them,” Jeffries said.

Garces called puppetry “a wonderful theatrical device.” “Particularly for any element on stage that is supernatural,” he added, “it gives it life theatrically in a way that doesn’t feel forced as sometimes it does when people wear costumes. Audiences will accept things that puppets do and will really go on a journey with them in a way that’s harder to achieve with actors embodying those same features. Shadow puppetry allows us to more evoke things than do them. It’s quite a supple medium. I like that a lot about it.”

Technical aspects aside, Struve aims for audiences to have their curiosity peaked about Maya culture.

“I hope people learn more about the literature and the contribution the Maya community is making to make our city a more vibrant and exciting place to live.”

 

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Michael John Garces

 

Garces became familiar with Maya culture and the Popul Vuh years ago working with a theater company and writers collective in Chiapas. Mexico.

“The experience of working on Mayan-themed shows had a big impact on my career. It’s part of what led me to work at Cornerstone and it’s a reason why I embraced theater community engagement work.”

This marks the fourth time Garces has come to Omaha to flesh out a South Omaha-based play for the Great Plains festival.

“All the plays are an attempt to answer the questions, how did we get here and where do we go from here. These are vital origin questions. All these folks in the community are, like all of us, trying to figure out how to move things forward.”

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South Omaha Mural Project

 

Collecting the stories of EPIC fed his already “intense curiosity about South O denizens and allowed him to “delve much deeper into a wider range of this community where I’ve developed relationships.”

“If you’re going to be a serious theater practitioner,” he said, “you have to genuinely cultivate the part of you that is curious because if you don’t you’re just not going to have quality engagements with the subject matter you’re working on.”

There’s nothing he’d rather do than community engaged theater that grabs audiences.

“I’m very blessed to do the work I do and I’m grateful for it. It is hard work, but it’s satisfying and joyful.”

As for Struve, she said, “This has been a really humbling way to approach theater for me because my job is to serve the people who have contributed their stories and experiences to the project. It’s incredibly rewarding. It takes it out of your ego and it gives you a different kind of purpose than perhaps you had before.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfest.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side

May 6, 2015 2 comments

Omaha’s various geographic segments feature distinct charecteristics all their own. South Omaha has a stockyards-packing plant heritage that lives on to this day and it continues its legacy as home to new arrivals, whether immigrants or refugees. The free May 27 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest show South Omaha Stories at the Livestock Exchange Building is a collaboration between playwrights and residents that shares stories reflective of that district and the people who comprise it. What follows are two articles I did about the event. The first and most recent article is for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it looks at South O through the prism of two young people interviewed by playwrights for the project. The second article looks at South O through the lens of three older people interviewed by playwrights for the same project. Together, my articles and participants’ stores provide a fair approximation of what makes South O, well, South O. Or in the vernacular (think South Side Chicago), Sou’d O.

 

South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show

Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream.

Everyone with South O ties has a story. When some playwrights sat down to interview four such folks, tales flowed. Using the subjects’ own words and drawing from research, the playwrights, together with New York director Josh Hecht, have crafted a night of theater for this year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries.

Omaha’s M. Michele Phillips directs this collaborative patchwork of South Omaha Stories. The 7:30 p.m. show May 27 at the Livestock Exchange Building ballroom is part of GPTC’s free PlayFest slate celebrating different facets of Neb. history and culture. In the case of South O, each generation has distinct experiences but recurring themes of diversity and aspiration appear across eras.

Lucy Aguilar and Batula Hilowle are part of recent migration waves to bring immigrants and refugees here. Aguilar came as a child from Mexico with her undocumented mother and siblings in pursuit of a better life. Hilowle and her siblings were born and raised in a Kenya refugee camp. They relocated here with their Somali mother via humanitarian sponsors. In America, Batula and her family enjoy new found safety and stability.

Aguilar, 20, is a South High graduate attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha. GPTC associate artistic director and veteran Omaha playwright Scott Working interviewed her. Hilowle, 19, is a senior at South weighing her college options. Harlem playwright Kia Corthron interviewed her.

A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit recipient, Aguilar is tired of living with a conditional status hanging over head. She feels she and fellow Dreamers should be treated as full citizens. State law has made it illegal for Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses.

“I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals, in my case trying to open a business,” and be successful in that,” Aguilar says.

She’s active in Young Nebraskans for Action that advocates restrictions be lifted for Dreamers. She follows her heart in social justice matters.

“Community service is something I’m really passionate about.”

She embraces South O as a landing spot for many peoples.

“There’s so much diversity and nobody has a problem with it.”

Hilowle appreciates the diversity, too.

“You see Africans like me, you see African Americans,, Asians, Latinos, whites all together. It’s something you don’t see when you go west.”

Both young women find it a friendly environment.

“It’s a very open, helpful community,” Aguilar says. “There are so many organizations that advocate to help people. If I’m having difficulties at home or school or work, I know I’ll have backup. I like that.”

“It’s definitely warm and welcoming,” Hilowle says. “It feels like we’re family. There’s no room for hate.”

Hilowle says playwright Kia Corthon was particularly curious about the transition from living in a refuge camp to living in America.

“She wanted to know what was different and what was familiar. I can tell you there was plenty of differences.”

Hilowle has found most people receptive to her story of struggle in Africa and somewhat surprised by her gratitude for the experience.

“Rather than try to make fun of me I think they want to get to know me. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in a refugee camp or that we didn’t have our own place. It made me better, it made me who I am today. Being in America won’t change who I am. My kids are going to be just like me because I am just like my mom.”

She says the same fierce determination that drove her mother to save the family from war in Somalia is in her.

About the vast differences between life there and here, she says, “Sometimes different isn’t so bad.” She welcomes opportunities “to share something about where I come from or about my religion (Muslim) and why I cover my body with so many clothes.”

Aguilar, a business major seeking to open a South O juice shop, likes that her and Hilowle’s stories will be featured in the same program.

“We have very different backgrounds but I’m pretty sure our future goals are the same. We’re very motivated about what we want to do.”

Similar to Lucy, Batula likes helping people. She’s planning a pre-med track in college.

The young women think it’s important their stories will be presented alongside those of much older residents with a longer perspective.

Virgil Armendariz, 68, who wrote his own story, can attest South O has long been a melting pot. He recalls as a youth the international flavors and aromas coming from homes of different ethnicities he delivered papers to and his learning to say “collect” in several languages.

“You could travel the world by walking down 36th street on Sunday afternoon. From Q Street to just past Harrison you could smell those dinners cooking. The Irish lived up around Q Street, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians were mixed along the way. Then Bohemians’ with a scattering of Mexicans.”

He remembers the stockyards and Big Four packing plants and all the ancillary businesses that dominated a square mile right in the heart of the community. The stink of animal refuse permeating the Magic City was called the Smell of Money. Rough trade bars and whorehouses served a sea of men. The sheer volume of livestock meant cows and pigs occasionally broke loose to cause havoc. He recalls unionized packers striking for better wages and safer conditions.

Joseph Ramirez, 89, worked at Armour and Co. 15 years. He became a local union leader there and that work led him into a human services career. New York playwright Michael Garces interviewed Ramirez.

Ramirez and Armendariz both faced discrimination. They dealt with bias by either confronting it or shrugging it off. Both men found pathways to better themselves – Ramirez as a company man and Armendariz as an entrepreneur.

While their parents came from Mexico, South Omaha Stories participant, Dorothy Patach, 91, traces her ancestry to the former Czechoslovakia region. Like her contemporaries of a certain age, she recalls South O as a once booming place, then declining with the closure of the Big Four plants, before its redevelopment and immigrant-led business revival the last few decades.

Patach says people of varied backgrounds generally found ways to co-exist though she acknowledges illegal aliens were not always welcome.

New York playwright Ruth Margraff interviewed her.

She and the men agree what united people was a shared desire to get ahead. How families and individuals went about it differed, but hard work was the common denominator.

Scott Working says the details in the South O stories are where universal truths lay.
“It is in the specifics we recognize ourselves, our parents, our grandparents,” he says, “and we see they have similar dreams that we share. It’s a great experience.”

He says the district’s tradition of diversity “has kept it such a vibrant place.” He suspects the show will be “a reaffirmation for the people that live there and maybe an introduction to people from West Omaha or North Omaha.” He adds, “My hope is it will make people curious about where they’re from, too. It’s kind of what theater does – it gives us a connection to humanity and tells us stories we find value in and maybe we learn something and feel something.”

The Livestock Exchange Building is at 4920 South 30th Street.

Next year’s Neighborhood Tapestries event returns to North Omaha.

For PlayFest and conference details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

 

South Omaha stories to be basis for new theater piece at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Historically, South Omaha is a melting pot where newcomers settle to claim a stake of the American Dream.

This hurly burly area’s blue-collar labor force was once largely Eastern European. The rich commerce of packing plants and stockyards filled brothels, bars and boardinghouses. The local economy flourished until the plants closed and the yards dwindled. Old-line residents and businesses moved out or died off. New arrivals from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa have spurred a new boon. Repurposed industrial sites serve today’s community needs.

As a microcosm of the urban American experience it’s a ready-made tableaux for dramatists to explore. That’s what a stage director and playwrights will do in a Metropolitan Community College-Great Plains Theatre Conference project. The artists will interview residents to cultivate anecdotes. That material will inform short plays the artists develop for performance at the GPTC PlayFest’s community-based South Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries event in May.

Director Josh Hecht and two playwrights, Kia Corthron and Ruth Margraff, will discuss their process and preview what audiences can expect at a free Writing Workshop on Saturday, January 24 at 3 p.m. in MCC’s South Campus (24th and Q) Connector Building.

Participants Virgil Armendariz and Joseph Ramirez hail from Mexican immigrant clans that settled here when Hispanics were so few Armendariz says practically everybody knew each other. Their presence grew thanks to a few large families. Similarly, the Emma Early Bryant family grew a small but strong African-American enclave.

Each ethnic group “built their own little communities,” says Armendariz, who left school to join the Navy before working construction. “There were communities of Polish, Mexicans, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish. Those neighborhoods were like family and became kind of territorial. But it was interesting to see how they blended together because they all shared one thing – how hard they worked to make life better for themselves and their families. I still see that even now. A lot of people in South Omaha have inherited that entrepreneurial energy and inner strength. I feel like the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants is in the soil of South Omaha.”

Armendariz, whose grandmother escaped the Mexican revolution and opened a popular pool hall here, became an entrepreneur himself. He says biases toward minorities and newcomers can’t be denied “but again there’s a common denominator everybody understands and that is people come here to build a future for their families, and that we can’t escape, no matter how invasive it might seem.”

 

 

He says recent immigrants and refugees practice more cultural traditions than he knew growing up. He and his wife, long active in the South Omaha Business Association, enjoy connecting to their own heritage through the Xiotal Ballet Folklorico troupe they support.

“These talented people present beautiful, colorful dance and music. When you put that face on the immigrant you see they are a rich part of our American past and a big contributor to our American future.”

Ramirez, whose parents fled the Cristero Revolt in Mexico, says he and his wife faced discrimination as a young working-class couple integrating an all-white neighborhood. But overall they found much opportunity. He became a bilingual notary public and union official while working at Armour and Co. He later served roles with the Urban League of Nebraska and the City of Omaha and directed the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). His activist-advocacy work included getting more construction contracts for minorities and summer jobs for youths. The devout Catholic lobbied the Omaha Archdiocese to offer its first Spanish-speaking Mass.

He’s still bullish about South Omaha, saying, “It’s a good place to live.”

Dorothy Patach came up in a white-collar middle-class Bohemian family, graduated South High, then college, and went on to a long career as a nursing care professional and educator. Later, she became Spring Lake Neighborhood Association president and activist, helping raise funds for Omaha’s first graffiti abatement wagon and filling in ravines used as dumping grounds. She says the South O neighborhood she lived in for seven decades was a mix of ethnicities and religions that found ways to coexist.

“Basically we lived by the Golden Rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – and we had no problems.”

She, too, is proud of her South O legacy and eager to share its rich history with artists and audiences.

MCC Theatre Program Coordinator Scott Working says, “The specifics of people’s lives can be universal and resonate with a wide audience. The South Omaha stories I’ve heard so far have been wonderful, and I can’t wait to help share them.”

Josh Hecht finds it fascinating South O’s “weathered the rise and fall of various industries” and absorbed “waves of different demographic populations.” “In both of these ways” he says, “the neighborhood seems archetypally American.” Hecht and Co. are working with local historian Gary Kastrick to mine more tidbits.

Hecht conceived the project when local residents put on “a kind of variety show ” for he and other visiting artists at South High in 2013.

“They performed everything from spoken word to dance to storytelling. They told stories about their lives and it was very clear how important it was for the community to share these stories with us.”

Hecht says he began “thinking of an interactive way where they share their lives and stories with us and we transform them into pieces of theater that we then reflect back to them.”

Working says, “This project will be a deeper exploration and more intimate exchange between members of the community and dramatic artists” than previous Tapestries.

The production is aptly slated for the Stockyards Exchange Building, the last existing remnant of South O’s vast packing-livestock empire.

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