Labor Day 2011: Getting Americans Back to Work!

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Labor Day is approaching and families will be returning from vacation, kids will be going back to school and those who have jobs will be resuming their regular work week schedule.  This summer has been fraught with extremes.  The heat wave with record-breaking temperatures that stretched from the Midwest to parts of the eastern and southern U.S., made this past July the fourth hottest month on record.  The fractious debate between Congress and the Administration over raising the debt ceiling that pushed our economy to the brink of collapse before reaching a compromise caused immeasurable damage that could most certainly affect job growth, the cost of borrowing money and slow the economic recovery.

A. Philip Randolph and Labor Leaders at the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

And now the stock market, impacted by Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ fueling uncertainty in the global financial markets, has Wall Street gyrating from extreme highs to extreme lows. With all of the challenges we are facing today, Bette Davis’ famous line comes to mind – “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going be a bumpy night!” – which might be an appropriate foreshadowing to prepare us for the “bumpy ride” ahead.

Americans are incredibly resilient in times of crisis and we have witnessed this on many occasions in our history.  With the overall unemployment rate reported by the Department of Labor for July at 9.1 percent and 15.9 percent for African Americans, President Obama is crafting a major speech to be delivered right after Labor Day on jobs creation and deficit reduction.  According to White House sources, the speech is expected to include proposed tax cuts and tax incentives, job creation through infrastructure construction projects and targeted help for the chronically unemployed.

This is a step in the right direction, but we need more.  Whenever I’m searching for solutions for difficult problems I look to history for answers and inspiration.  As my very cool Uncle Brenton would often say, “Ain’t nothin’ changed but the date!”  So, I decided to go back and revisit the history of the Great Migration (1910-1930) to remember how my people dealt with tough times.

After slavery was finally abolished with the passage of the 13thAmendment on January 31, 1865 and the Civil War ended that April, African Americans were faced with life-altering challenges.  Where were they going to live?  How were they going to make a living and take care of their families?  What did this new world without slavery look like?  Some of the displaced Freedmen and Freedwomen established all-Black communities in Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.

Ho for Kansas! Flyer

These homesteaders were called Exodusters and migrated to the western territories to build homes, farm the land, escape discrimination and the white vigilante groups seeking revenge after losing the war.  Others remained in the South and tended small plots of land as tenant farmers and sharecroppers growing cotton that farm owners would sell at market and then deduct living expenses including housing, food and clothing, before paying the tenant farmers a small wage.

By the early 1900s, African Americans began to slowly migrate from the South to northern and western states because of the harsh discriminatory practices and the boll weevil infestation of the late 1800s that destroyed the cotton crops in the South, eliminating most of the agricultural jobs.  Already economically devastated by the Civil War with the destruction of rails, roads, bridges, and the loss of their unpaid workforce, the cotton catastrophe was the last straw for the southerners.

The Great Migration began for real when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 depleting the nation’s workforce of white workers by sending them off to war.  African American workers, mostly young males, were recruited in droves by white agents to work on the railroads and in the industrial factories in the North, while African American women were given train tickets by white employers to come North and work as domestics.  From 1916 to 1918, between 400,000 and 500,000, African Americans migrated to the North and Midwest for employment, educational opportunities for their families and the hope of a brighter future.

A Family migrates from the South during the Great Migration

My mother and father migrated from Florida in the mid-1920s.  My Dad traveled to Pittsburgh with his younger brother and worked in the steel mills when he was in his late teens.  He then relocated to Harlem and eventually settled in Westchester, a suburb of New York City. My Mom and her siblings took a boat from Florida to New York.  Her family was encouraged to come North by her older sister, Annie, who worked as a domestic for a white family.  Annie told my Grandmother that life would be better in New York.  After a short stay in New York, the family moved to Massachusetts where my Mom grew up.  My Mother and Father met years later, in a small town in Westchester, and married in Harlem in 1931.

A most amazing network developed during this massive population shift of African Americans from rural communities to urban centers that would eventually bring an estimated 1.5 million African Americans to the northern and western cities of the U.S. between 1910 and 1930. The churches, the Black press, families, friends and word-of-mouth conveyed information about the best locations, job opportunities, and housing.  Money for train tickets and living expenses was often collected from relatives and friends to stake individuals until they got a job and a place to live in their new locale.

Organizations assisted newcomers from the South

For me what is extraordinary about this historic event – the Great Migration – is the collaboration and cooperation of a massive group of people toward a single goal that facilitated the transplantation of a large segment of the population for economic opportunity. The outpouring of support from family, friends, and Black institutions that sustained the move to the North, Midwest and West for countless African Americans is a testament to our ability as a community to come together and change our lives for the better.  That is the type of spirit and resolve we need now to face the challenges ahead, a collective sensibility to solve a difficult situation.  We may not have to move away from family and friends, but we certainly need to move forward.  Helping each other in times of need by passing on leads for jobs, referrals to affordable housing and information that will help us survive this economic downturn are necessary elements to regain our footing in these tough times.

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2 Responses to Labor Day 2011: Getting Americans Back to Work!

  1. Janell Walden Agyeman says:

    “Whenever I’m searching for solutions for difficult problems I look to history for answers and inspiration.” Lovely commentary and a poignant reminder that we DO have the tools to go forward, in faith, and that knowing history is so important to finding one’s way. I hope everyone who reads this commentary will share it. Very timely commentary.

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