A push to save landmarks of the ‘Great Migration’ — and better understand today’s racial inequities

By Mark Guarino

March 13, 2021 at 7:00 a.m. CST

CHICAGO — As a child in the 1950s, Amelia Cooper lived in a multigenerational home in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood that often served as a settlement house for friends of her grandfather, the blues musician Muddy Waters. Many were musicians, arriving from the rural South as Waters had, and they needed a place from which to launch a new life.

“They would all gather and play music and talk about how they finally made it. They were all willing to help each other out,” she said. “The house was so overcrowded, but I didn’t think it was unusual. It became a way of life.”

Cooper’s memory is a classic snapshot of the Great Migration, the period between about 1916 and 1970 when Northern cities drew millions of Black Americans seeking greater economic opportunities and fleeing the racial violence and Jim Crow laws of Southern states. 

It was a seminal event. Yet many of the sites that played so significantly into those years have fallen into disrepair or worse, the memories they held forgotten. That is now changing.

Projects underway across the Midwest are aimed at saving these structures and sharing the Great Migration’s complex story with a country again confronting the deep roots of systemic racism. Amanda Lewis, director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes they are “gestures in the right direction” and critical for connecting the present with the past.

The Great Migration, she said, “reminds us of the fact that the main thing that Black folks in this country have been trying to do for their entire existence in the U.S. is striving for access to all the opportunities other folks have.”

Chicago, which saw its Black population grow by more than 500,000 over those five decades, is the epicenter of the preservation efforts. Renovation is about to begin on the Waters house, which went unoccupied for years until it was purchased by Cooper’s daughter. With the help of the city and local civic organizations, the musician’s great-granddaughter is shaping it to become the Muddy Waters MOJO Museum. The house “is significant beyond the blues,” Chandra Cooper said. “It tells the story of how this Black African American made it here and changed the world.”

Central to understanding the period is the red-brick two-flat that was the childhood home of Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder helped launch the civil rights movement. Late last year, the organization Blacks in Green announced plans to turn it into a pilgrimage site to tell the migration story through the lens of the Till family. In February, the city declared the house an official landmark.

Not far away, a Bronzeville mansion owned by pioneering Black journalist Lutrelle “Lu” Palmer and Black community activist Jorja English Palmer is under restoration after sitting vacant for two decades. It will soon feature a library, museum and the Obsidian Collection — a digital archive of photographs, videos and documents that will include images from the historic Black newspaper the Chicago Defender.

Perhaps the largest development is the Pullman National Monument, established by President Barack Obama in 2015 and set for its grand opening on Labor Day weekend. The site is the former home of the Pullman Co., which employed thousands of Black men as porters, a role that helped create the city’s Black middle class.

“This ends up a great teaching place and catalyst for getting people to think and see how problems were dealt with in the past and how they can be dealt with in the future,” said Mike Shymanski, founder of the Historic Pullman Foundation.

For living descendants, the Great Migration is an integral part of their legacy. But for many Americans with no direct connection, it’s a fading or even unknown chapter. Years ago, Illinois, New Jersey and New York established commissions to review how the historical period spanning slavery through the Great Migration is taught in classrooms, but the one in Illinois never fulfilled its promise and is now defunct.

Sherry Williams, who served on that panel, says it should be revived given the period’s relevance now. The Black Lives Matter movement in particular has “elevated” interest in the Great Migration, she notes, especially among young people “wanting to get a real understanding as to how the legacy of racism and white supremacy has continued.”

Activists have linked current issues to the problems that Blacks from the South faced after arriving in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and other cities. Real estate redlining and discriminatory bank lending persisted for decades, predatory practices that Lewis connects directly to lower homeownership today, poor access to fresh food sources and continued inequities in public services. Just last month, local media reported that some Black neighborhoods in Chicago went weeks without getting their streets cleared of snow, compared with streets in predominantly White neighborhoods. (The city disputed the results of its own online snow tracker.)

Another benefit of the renewed interest, Lewis and others hope, is the spotlight it will shine on key Black figures. Chicago is considering landmark status for the Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home, one of three sites that housed and educated young women from the South between 1915 and 1967. The sites honored Wheatley, an emancipated enslaved person who in 1773 became the first African American woman to publish a book of poems.

“None of these stories we’re protecting and celebrating and raising visibility for are in the books” used to teach schoolchildren, said Williams, executive director of the Bronzeville Historical Society.

The society raised $5,000 last year to pay for the headstone of Nancy Green, a former maid and chef whose likeness long served as the iconic image of Aunt Jemima on syrup bottles and boxes of pancake mix. Green is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, close to Bronzeville, which holds other prominent figures of the Great Migration, such as musician Roebuck “Pops” Staples and Ebony and Jet magazine founder John H. Johnson.

Farther south, in the Pullman neighborhood, is a museum dedicated to A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black union to win a collective bargaining agreement. Under Randolph, the porters earned employment equality with the Pullman company, and its leader also was instrumental in persuading Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to end discrimination in the military and defense industries.

“People don’t know it, but the Brotherhood was the backbone of the civil rights movement,” said David Peterson Jr., executive director of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. For young people, he says, Randolph demonstrates how “you can have impact speaking truth to power if you do it in an organized matter.”

In other industrial cities of the Upper Midwest, related endeavors are seeing new momentum. America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee is anticipating the grand opening of its first permanent home after 12 years of transience. And the Motown Museum in Detroit is undergoing a $50 million expansion that will cover an entire city block. Its ties to the Great Migration start with the founder of the famous record label, Berry Gordy, whose father relocated his family from Georgia in the early 1920s. Many of the musicians who in the 1960s would help Gordy create the distinct Motown sound also came from families drawn north by jobs in the auto plants.

Some places remain a living legacy. In Chatham on Chicago’s South Side, Black-owned banks played “a huge role in creating pathways so Blacks could buy homes,” said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, an organization promoting local development.

Sims Fears grew up there and considered the community, with its tidy bungalows and trim lawns, a “Black Mayberry.” Her neighbors were middle-class families — headed by postal workers, teachers, bus drivers and police officers. Residents “think of themselves as descendants of the Great Migration and are proud of having produced a rich history of titans in business and arts and culture,” she said.

Chatham and other Black neighborhoods in Chicago have been buffeted since the start of the new millennium — by the loss of jobs, the national foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession, ongoing violence and concerns over the public schools. The collective impact has been a reverse migration, with about 240,000 Black residents fleeing the city between 2000 and 2017.

Still, many of those families are not going far, settling just over the state line in Indiana and Wisconsin. Chicago demographer Rob Paral said that suggests they want to stay closely connected to their roots. To him, “that’s the nuance to this story.”



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