Making the Great Migration

Making the Great Migration

travelers-tales By Sarah Enelow

An American woman makes a pilgrimage to Mississippi, where her black family lived during slavery and segregation, then retraces their 1941 exodus to Detroit by train.

I stared up at a concrete obelisk streaked with black dirt. It bore an etching of a confederate flag and read, “The men were right who wore the gray and right can never die.” A dozen people, black and white, milled around on a sunny, 60-degree afternoon in January. This tiny town consisted of a central square, a few roads leading away from it, and not much else.

I’d come to Lexington in the Mississippi Delta to finally see the town where my late mother was born in 1939. Six million black people fled the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, during which Mama’s family traded Mississippi for Detroit in 1941. I’d never been to either place.

Mama’s family had always been a mystery to me. I’d never met any of her relatives, I’d heard only a few stories about them, and I didn’t even find photos of them until after Mama died. Many of Mama’s close relatives passed away before I was born, but she lost touch with the others when she left Detroit to pursue her education. Though Mama and I were close, she really never spoke of that painful decision, and I didn’t press her.

Three years ago, at the age of 73, Mama died of cancer under my care in Chicago, where she’d lived for many years. So suddenly, at age 30, I felt like my maternal roots were slipping away, and maybe a piece of my biracial identity with them. For the last three years I’d been exhausted from care-taking, grieving, and the perpetual to-do list of death (handling her remains, doing her taxes, emptying her apartment), but I finally summoned the energy for a pilgrimage. I wanted to visit Mississippi, then take the train up to Detroit, like so many migrants did, hoping to recover a piece of Mama and feel rooted in my own blackness.

Upon arriving in Lexington, Mississippi, I had trouble locking my rental car—typical New Yorker—which was coincidentally a Chrysler, the company that employed my grandfather after the family settled up in Detroit. I stopped an older black man walking by to help me; he looked to be from Mama’s generation, and when he cordially introduced himself as Otha Redmond, my ears perked up. In my wildest dreams for this trip, I’d mysteriously bump into some distant relative, so I asked if he was related to an Alga Mae Redmond, my grandmother.

“Oh I don’t know ‘bout that, there are lots of Redmonds ‘round here,” Otha said, tenderly taking my hand and noting with a smile, “I’d sure like to go up North and see some of these pretty ladies like yourself!” I beamed, squeezed his soft wrinkled hand, and thanked him for his time. I thought with the minuscule size of this town, he could be a second or third cousin after all.

I felt eyes on me as I wandered around Lexington, photographing faded brick buildings with my phone, breathing deeply to smell the clean, floral air. I stuck out with my knee-high boots, big sunglasses, and brisk pace: clearly a city-girl. I grew up in rural Texas with my parents and older brother, but I’d been living in New York for ten years and it showed. I left the South as soon as I graduated from high school and never lived there again. Even a half-white-half-black girl like me yearned for the urban North. Despite being light-skinned, my curly afro and “black girl ass” had gotten me bullied and ostracized in white rural Texas, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I’d made a series of phone calls and emails to people in Lexington—the City Clerk, the one-woman Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce—before being connected with a man named Phil Cohen who had the information I sought: the location of the former Lexington Colored High School, from which my grandfather graduated in 1938. That graduation was a big deal; his predecessors only completed a few grades of school or none at all, and if you go back into Reconstruction and slavery years, his ancestors were documented as farm laborers who could neither read nor write.

Phil Cohen, white and seemingly in his 70s, owned a clothing store on the square. We sat down toward the back, next to the work boots and men’s plaid shirts, and he showed me an old binder containing research on the area. In an age when I expect everything to be digital, this was a rare bit of hard-copy material, and I felt lucky that this history buff cared enough to share it. Then again, there were Cohens in my father’s Jewish family, so right off the bat, Phil and I had this tiny scrap of common ground.

Phil reported to me that the Lexington Colored High School changed hands after integration began in the 1960s and became the Ambrose School, but that was later knocked down and made into a Head Start. He said there was a plaque on-site noting the former Ambrose School, and that would be the only hint of past segregation.

After two minutes behind the wheel, I was at the Head Start. The building was closed and there were a couple of trailers and an AME church across the street. I parked on the side of the road and walked over to photograph the smooth marble plaque, trying to imagine the old segregated institution using the only tools at my disposal: a black-and-white photo of my grandfather, the tissue-thin paper program from his graduation ceremony, and my imagination.

Standing there in a cool breeze, I smiled and felt a sense of accomplishment, like I’d fit a piece into the half-assembled puzzle of my background. I hadn’t actually brought any photos or heirlooms with me—they were too few and precious to risk losing them. At home I had only one tiny photo of Mama as a baby, with smooth brown skin and short kinky hair, in a diaper playing happily in the dirt, but I wasn’t sure where in Lexington it was taken.

I’d planned to drive from Lexington to Yazoo City, where my great-grandparents had lived, and I actually had their address from 1920—a rare detail. Government record-keeping for black Americans was often poor to nonexistent during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. I’d been digging through Ancestry.com, reviewing census records and burial records and war draft forms and marriage licenses to complement what my parents had told me (my father still being alive), but most of the Mississippi addresses I encountered (e.g. house #4, dwelling #577, family #637) didn’t exist in the present day, according to City Hall in the state capitol, Jackson. In addition, 209 Third Street in Yazoo City might have moved in the last 100 years, and I couldn’t confirm whether East or West Third Street was the one. This kind of research made me think twice about all the times I lazily abbreviated my address on a government form.

Researching my father’s white family had been far easier. More records existed; these relatives were allowed to marry, vote, and take part in other documented institutions when black people could not; education was available to them, so they could fill out their own forms; and despite some relatives anglicizing their Jewish names, the names were still more uniform in spelling and easier to follow. My father’s Jewish ancestors made their own migration in 1892, going from Russia all the way to Pennsylvania, Kansas, and then Los Angeles over the course of several generations, spanning an ocean and two continents, yet my mother’s family was more difficult to trace over just a few states.

On the local radio, James Brown was keeping my spirits up as I drove west toward the Mississippi River, deeper into the Delta. The land turned marshy and smelled of wet grass, and I passed several cotton plantations. From the two-lane road I saw signs for these farms, but no people, partly because January wasn’t harvesting time (the fields brown rather than white), but also because the industry now used machines to do the work of former sharecroppers and slaves. It seemed this land had hardly developed since slavery days: the fields looked untouched, the houses were deteriorating, the population was sparse, there wasn’t a big-box store in sight, and cotton was still a staple crop.

Pulling into Yazoo City, which was much bigger than Lexington, I found West Third Street. The worn, one-story houses were pale yellow and mint green, and it appeared to be a majority black neighborhood. I drove along Third Street several times and reached the sad conclusion that house number 209 didn’t exist anymore. Feeling disappointed, I snapped photos of the block and felt the sun warming my shoulders. I drove over to East Third Street, which was physically cut off from West Third Street by trees and the railroad tracks, and I got the feeling that East Third was on the white side of town.

Having chased century-old ghosts all day, I felt exhausted and unsettled. I left Yazoo City as quickly as possible, as though someone was chasing me out, and I sped back to Jackson, where I was staying during these few days in Mississippi. By the time I arrived back at my hotel, which was the former site of the state’s first integrated swimming pool, I was feeling heavy pangs of loneliness.

At age 33 I was single with no kids and I badly wanted to start my own family. Losing Mama had intensified my desire for children, who would add to what little family I had left: my father in Texas and my older brother in Oregon. My father’s relatives were nearly strangers to me; I’d only met them a couple of times while growing up because my father wasn’t close with them. In Texas we lived thousands of miles from them on the west coast, and they were Jewish, which felt so foreign because I was raised Christian.

In my silent hotel room, with Judge Judy wagging a disapproving finger on mute, I flopped down on the soft flowery bedspread and cried. I was hoping that Mississippi would mysteriously soothe my loneliness, but what did I expect? I had no family there, only the shadows of ancestors. I ate takeout fried catfish from down the street and slept fitfully that night, fighting off a searing migraine.

One morning in Jackson, I made it my business to tour the capitol building. This was the same capitol that existed during Mama’s and my grandparent’s Mississippi years, i.e. the spot where so many Jim Crow laws had been passed, requiring my relatives to use segregated restrooms and yield the sidewalk to white people; to answer to “boy” and avoid white lunch counters; to have access to just a few degrading, low-paying jobs; to know that the police would not keep them safe from rapes and lynchings.

The capitol’s halls were filled with portraits of local politicians, including former Governor Ross Barnett from the early 1960s, who gained huge local popularity with his white supremacist platform, and famously denied James Meredith entry to the University of Mississippi in 1962. In the capitol’s dome there’s a bust of blindfolded Lady Justice right alongside a painting of Confederate soldiers raising their flag. The mural that honors Mississippi’s roots includes a European explorer, a Confederate soldier, and two Native Americans, but no one of African descent. Even the Mississippi state flag contains a Confederate flag therein. In rural Texas, I was raised around these symbols and accepted them as status quo; only after living up north did I gain some perspective.

After touring the capitol, I walked through downtown Jackson and felt it was only half alive. Jackson was the state’s pride and joy, yet so many of its downtown storefronts were empty and gathering dust, there was practically zero foot traffic, and just a couple blocks west of the capitol building, the city looked totally bombed out, houses singed black, literally cracking in half and sinking into the ground. Mississippi is consistently ranked one of the poorest states in the country, with about 22% of its residents living below the poverty line. It seemed like the state never really recovered from the post-Civil War collapse of the Southern economy, which hung on slave labor, not to mention how expensive it was to maintain twice the number of public facilities during segregation.

Ready to leave Mississippi, having returned my rental Chrysler, I walked to the Jackson Amtrak station around 5pm with my old black Jansport backpack. I waited on a long wooden bench to board the northbound train to Chicago, where I’d transfer to ultimately reach Detroit, a 31-hour trip in total. Jackson’s station was busy, filled mostly with black people with packages and rolling suitcases, and I thought about how many sharecroppers left the South in secret, under the cover of darkness, for fear of retribution from their white overseers. And there I was, doing this voluntarily on paid vacation time from my steady retail job, looking forward to putting my feet up and eating my veggie sandwich.

Jackson’s evening sky was deep blue and soon enough, the train started chugging north. We hit Yazoo City, whose station was just a couple of outdoor benches, and as night rapidly fell, we passed dozens of beat-up houses, a rough looking bar. Two more stops brought us up to Memphis, Tennessee around 10pm, a far larger city than Jackson, but still firmly Southern. After Tennessee we’d pass through just a sliver of Kentucky, then Illinois.

Once upon a time, crossing into Illinois meant freedom, meant that those confined to the “colored” car could theoretically (if not practically) move freely about the train, which I’d been doing this whole time. I badly wanted to know what Mama’s family was thinking when they passed that border between south and north. Mama was too young to remember, but were her parents too nervous to walk into the white car? Did they walk in confidently? What kind of food did they bring for the long ride? Was it the same perfectly fried chicken that Mama used to make, taught by her grandmother? Did they have winter coats already? I didn’t know for sure whether Mama’s family took the train when they migrated; a few of them probably drove because my great-grandparents were lucky enough to have a car, but for those who took the train, it would have been a very similar route to mine.

I began to fall asleep wrapped in my soft black scarf with my head of tight frizzy curls against the window. I deeply breathed the train’s cool recycled air, feeling anxious to visit Detroit for the first time, thinking my relatives must have been more than anxious about starting their new lives. I woke up at 6am firmly in the north, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and I smiled because I knew the glittering beacon of Chicago was near. I always felt more at-home in the urban North, as did Mama, and I felt her presence around me.

I had a five-hour layover in my beloved, familiar Chicago. Mama passed away there—my brother and I scattered her ashes over Lake Michigan as she’d wanted—and she lived in Chicago for nearly twenty years total, first in the 1960s and then the final years of her life in the 2000s. She also had a few family members living there at various points. I’d never lived in Chicago myself, but I visited Mama there many times and knew that more than Detroit, cosmopolitan Chicago was her true love.

I walked out of Chicago’s stately Beaux Arts station, heading into the gusty, 20-degree downtown loop to stretch my cramped legs and find some steamy black tea. I was now shivering inside the cornflower blue winter coat I’d ignored down in Mississippi, but a cold winter felt happily like home to me. I already felt more in my element than I had in Mississippi, trading hot for cold, country for city, car for train.

I boarded the train from Chicago to Detroit and settled in for a six-hour ride, and a high-cheeked young woman asked to sit next to me. Naomi was just 22 to my 33 and we slipped easily into a familiar conversation: how to care for our tight, coarse, dark curls; which products to use; how to wrap it at night; how to respond when people ask you point-blank about being mixed or light-skinned. Naomi’s parents were both light-skinned black, and at times she had to justify her own blackness to ignorant white people who assumed she had a white parent.

“I always thought I was regular black,” she said.

“You are!” I replied. “White people don’t understand what they’re saying. Just tell them firmly what you are and be proud.”

“Yeah, I hate those conversations.”

“They have no right to ask you to prove your blackness. White people always think they can decide who’s black and who isn’t, based on fake criteria they invented themselves.”

“I know, right?”

Naomi’s smile was broad and toothy, and we looked pretty similar—for a minute she felt like the sister I never had.

Naomi was born and raised in Detroit and had family in Mississippi she’d never visited. I quickly suggested, “Go see them, while they’re still alive!” to which she said “You’re right, I really should,” as she stared out the window, trying to picture it. Talking to her made me feel less lonely on this trip, like I was part of a larger metaphorical family, the children of the Migrants, of the global African Diaspora.

Naomi reminded me of that divide between the members of a black family who stayed behind in the South and those that fled North. She knew little about her relatives’ Southern lifestyle and it seemed they knew little of her city-savvy upbringing. In Mama’s case, everyone went North or West, but either way, there was immense pressure to succeed once you got there, to prove that you’d made the right move, that it was worth it and your life was demonstrably better.

The train passed Ann Arbor (where my parents fell in love at the University of Michigan), Naomi disembarked with a hug in Dearborn, and eventually I pulled into snowy Detroit after midnight. I caught the shuttle van to my B&B, consisting of several red brick Victorian houses, looking the way I’d imagined Detroit in its 1950s heyday: booming from post-war industry, looking ahead to Motown.

The following day, I asked the shuttle service to take me to a house that once belonged to my great-aunt, who’d raised Mama. I was surprised to learn that I couldn’t walk to the house, due to a massive highway and lack of sidewalks, nor could I take the bus, nor was there a subway, and apparently the B&Bs free shuttle service would take me anywhere within a few miles. The shuttle driver was a young, black, doe-eyed artist named A.G. whose back-story was like Naomi’s: raised in Detroit with some family still down in Mississippi. Finding yet another Mississippi-to-Detroit story helped me feel connected anew to my surroundings.

A.G. was describing his drawings of Detroit as we rolled up to Virginia Park Street. I climbed out of the van and walked down the block before circling back to number 1710. It was a red brick house with a yellow door under a simple arch, one apartment downstairs and one upstairs. There was a red bicycle lying on its side on the patchy front lawn, a rundown yellow garage in the back, and the house looked boarded up.

Just before A.G. and I pulled away, a 20-something white guy in a sedan drove up alongside us. “You lookin’ at that house?” he asked unsmiling, leaning stiffly out his window. “My relatives lived there decades ago,” I said. Apparently he’d owned the house for a year and a half, before which it was abandoned for four years. Honestly it looked abandoned right then, but I could still feel Mama with me.

A.G. and I drove on to Central High School, from which Mama graduated in 1957. I climbed out of the van and lurked around the school, closed for the weekend, taking pictures of its trimmed hedges and red brick, patches of crunchy snow on the ground, the air cold and crisp. With the help of her old yearbook, I tried to imagine Mama as a promising senior, member of the French Club, Feature Editor of the school paper, and singer in the choir. I imagined her in her crisp white collared shirt, her kinky hair painstakingly ironed straight and plaited into two innocent braids, her glowing brown skin and broad nose and high cheek bones, sitting in classes with both black and white students, many of them Jewish. There was something extra painful about picturing Mama as a young woman—I couldn’t believe her entire life had already come and gone.

The school itself had been kept up cleanly, though the surrounding neighborhood felt different. As we drove off, some houses looked like they’d been torched. One had busted-in walls, a caved-in roof, and Bible quotes hastily painted on the sides. It dared me not to come back and I felt motion-sick in the van.

Mama’s Detroit years were among the last great ones for the city, which declared the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy to-date in 2013. Upon migrating there back in 1941, my grandfather went from little to no work prospects in Lexington to working steadily on a Chrysler assembly line in Detroit. My great-grandfather went from working in a whites-only barber shop in Lexington to owning his own barber shop in Detroit. Mama went from the maximum possibility of a colored high school education to earning a master’s degree in French Literature at the University of Michigan.

But still, in the urban North, the family struggled at times. Even in the Promised Land, black people were still at the bottom of most ladders, only offered low-level jobs, targeted by greedy real estate brokers, and they encountered racism from white northerners who resented their new black refugee neighbors, who were appearing in droves, often unaccustomed to big-city life. I have a friend whose white grandparents lived in Detroit during the Great Migration and they openly blamed the city’s decline on black people. Mama’s family arrived in Detroit just two years before the city’s massive 1943 race riots, sparked by this very tension, and I wish I knew how that affected them.

On my last night in Detroit, having visited all the places on my list, I lay down on my four poster bed at the B&B with a relaxing sense of completion. This pilgrimage had finally put images and sensations and emotions into my brain that I could connect to the old stories I’d heard from Mama, and connect to the biracial identity in my heart. And I could tell my future children about this trip, tell them about their roots, and take them to my own homeland in rural Texas, and show them how I found my true home in New York. At the end of the day, both the South and the North were part of me, and even though Mama was gone, those puzzle pieces of my background would always be securely in place.


Sarah Enelow was born on Long Island with biracial roots but grew up in rural Texas. She now lives in New York City. She received degrees from Vassar College and Indiana University, followed by a Fulbright Grant to Argentina. Her writing has been featured by Salon, Skift, Ducts, The Huffington Post, Not For Tourists, and Go! Girl Guides, among others.

2017-04-24T02:31:54+00:00