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Michelle Obama's Ancestors: The Great Migration

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This is the second in a series about the ancestry of the First Lady. The introduction can be found here:

Michelle Obama's Ancestors: Chicago Beginnings (part 1)

The Great Migration was the mass exodus of millions of African Americans from southern states to industrialized cities in the North, mostly during the early decades of the twentieth century, and the reasons behind it were compelling. Discrimination and segregation were the norm across the country, but less pronounced and overt in the North than in the South where Jim Crow laws ensured a second class existence for African Americans and racially-motivated violence remained disturbingly commonplace. Mother Nature contributed with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and a seemingly unstoppable boll weevil infestation that marched steadily through the cotton-growing states, both of which forced countless agricultural workers -- many of whom might have preferred to stay in their hometowns -- off the land. Once that happened, work options in the predominantly rural South were limited at best.

If this potent combination of forces was the push factor for the Great Migration, the pull side of the equation came from economic circumstances in the North, trumpeted by several black newspapers, but most aggressively by the Chicago Defender. World War I created new job opportunities just as the United States began tinkering with its immigration policy to restrict the profusion of arrivals considered to be less desirable, such as those of Southern or Eastern European origin. The squelching of this cheap labor pool prompted some industries that had once been closed to African Americans to open their doors, even if reluctantly so.

America entered World War I on April 6, 1917 in the midst of the Chicago Defender's call for a "Great Northern Drive." Though much of the focus was on a single day -- May 15, 1917 -- the initiative was on-going. Launched in 1905, the Defender was the most influential black newspaper in the U.S. by the time of the war. Perhaps it was appropriate that a paper that railed so loudly against racial injustice should also largely be distributed by rail with the help of black Pullman porters and others who traveled frequently, such as entertainers. This unconventional but effective system resulted in a readership that spread throughout the South. In fact, around the time of the Great Northern Drive, two-thirds of its readers resided outside of Chicago. The pass-along rate was impressively high and it was not unusual for the latest issue to be read out loud at churches, barber shops and other gatherings.

In addition to encouraging members of "the Race" -- the Defender's preferred designation for African Americans -- to move to northern cities, the newspaper facilitated the process by providing train schedules, job openings, apartment listings and other practical information. Names of churches and other organizations willing to help migrants were also published, resulting in floods of appeals for assistance such as that of Cleveland Gaillard of Mobile, Alabama to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago. In April 1917, after five months of unemployment, he pleaded, "I can fill the positions as a porter in a grocery store or run an elevator or drive a team or do most anything . . . please help me to get up there please and get me a position please and I will pay you the expense back when I get up there . . ."

In some respects, the drive was similar to earlier immigration-promotion schemes used to attract inexpensive workers from abroad to build railroads, mine coal, and perform other dirty and dangerous jobs, but it differed considerably in its intentions. Yes, the meatpacking, steel and other industries would benefit, but so would the migrants, and much thought was given to helping them adjust and settle in their new environment.

The benevolent underpinning of this campaign invites comparison to the Underground Railroad, the network that had developed in the previous century to help slaves escape to free states and Canada, but the ability to operate openly translated into an entirely new scale. Whereas thousands had gained their freedom through the Underground Railroad, the Great Migration ultimately brought about seven million people to the North. Of this, Chicago attracted an estimated half million with the result that its African American population would surge from roughly two to 33 percent by 1970.

Though the fabled North undoubtedly provided many migrants with previously unimagined possibilities, all was not rosy by the time of Michelle's birth. With the massive influx into Chicago came change, and as always in the course of human history, there were plenty who resented and resisted it. The first of Michelle's ancestors had arrived in Chicago almost 60 years earlier, but headlines in the Defender the day after her birth made it clear that the crusade for civil rights was still very much a work in progress. Her practical, disciplined family would provide something of a protective bubble for Michelle, but swirling just outside the door was a world of social upheaval.

One article entitled "School Boycotts Sweep U.S." declared that "The Freedom Struggle has now been transferred to the schools of America," and informed readers that "225,000 school pupils, the majority Negro, stayed out of school to register their protest against their segregated school system and inferior education." Another recounted the success of a boycott of stores in Chicago's downtown Loop area. Called the "Stop, Don't Shop Campaign," organizers said it would continue "until the Chicago schools are integrated." Still another spoke of opposition to a proposal for an integrated housing project in what was the then almost all-white South Side area -- a harbinger of events to come. By 1970, Michelle's family would move to the South Shore portion of South Side, and by 1980, the white flight to the suburbs was so intense that the neighborhood would become 96 percent African American.

Perhaps more revealing than the headlines of the day were the opinion pieces which reflected the mood of those weary from the never-ending struggle for equal rights. A reader named Joseph Watkins shared his thoughts on Kennedy's assassination. "It's not yet clear whether John F. Kennedy's death had brought a change of heart in white people," he wrote. "A death as significant as this great President's should change men from bigots all over the country. Are we sure that the murder of President Kennedy was not also the murder of the Negro's rights?"

Commenting about the recent bestowal of Presidential Medals of Freedom on renowned singer Marian Anderson and Dr. Ralph Bunche, noted diplomat and first African American winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, columnist Al Duckett offered advice to help Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, who had just delivered his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech the previous August, avoid being overlooked in the future. Relating the remarks of a character dubbed "Big Mouth," he observed that singers and world-travelers apparently had the desired credentials, so the conclusion was obvious: "If Dr. King would learn to sing and not keep going to them nearby foreign countries like Bam, Sip and GA, he might get one of them Freedom Medals too."

(to be continued)