More than 20 million black and white Americans poured out of the South in the first seven decades of the 20th century, sweeping north and west in two parallel, but largely separate, migrations that transformed politics, culture and religion in the United States.
These twin migrations are examined and assessed together for the first time by UW historian James Gregory in his new book, The Southern Diaspora.
“The Southern diaspora compares to other great migrations that rearranged America — people coming from across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and across the Mexican border. It is one of the big hidden engines of historical change in the mid to late 20th century. Ultimately, this diaspora made the West and the North more like the South and the South more like the West and North,” said Gregory, whose book has just been published by the University of North Carolina Press.
Tracing the movements of black and white migrants, Gregory interweaves the experiences of such disparate individuals as singers Loretta Lynn and Aretha Franklin, evangelists C. L. Franklin and Billy Graham, politicians Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown, boxer Joe Lewis and comedienne Lily Tomlin into the larger story of how America has changed.
While the nearly 15 million white southern migrants vastly outnumbered the 6.5 million blacks who left the South, Gregory believes that the black diaspora has had the greater impact on American history.
“Blacks moved to the great cities of the North and it helped them achieve what they couldn’t have imagined if they were only living in the South,” he said. “The geography of settlement was important.”
They settled in such cities as New York, Chicago and Detroit when cities had considerable political and cultural power. Even though they moved into ghettos, the black migrants eventually got access to those levers of power, according to Gregory.
Concentrated in cities, black migrants built strong communities and institutions, paving the way for the civil rights movement that began in the north in the 1940s, before spreading to the South. White migrants, who could settle anywhere, tended to pick small cities and suburbs. These communities tended to be less well connected politically for decades.
Gregory said the migrants exerted tremendous influence on American music and religion. Southern migrants were central to changes in 20th century music. Blues, jazz, gospel, soul, country and hillbilly music all had their roots in the South, but depended on musicians and audiences living outside the region.
Migrants also brought with them Baptist and Pentecostal churches, Southern origin faiths that have spread across the United States. These churches meant different things politically. Black Baptist churches were important to urban liberalism, playing a key role in the civil rights movement. Conservative evangelical white churches became a part of a white working-class conservatism espoused by politicians such as George Wallace in his presidential campaigns in the 1960s and 70s.
One of the surprising things that Gregory found while researching the book was the impact of white southern liberals.
“Most people think whites went north and contributed to racial conservatism. However, a large white southern liberal intelligentsia moved north and took up residence in New York and at Ivy League schools. Authors such as Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren and Willie Morris did most of their writing while they were in exile in the North, writing that helped the South focus on its identity and on race and class,” he said. “Caldwell wrote Tobacco Road in a Maine cabin and Warren spent 30 years at Yale.”
Author appearance: James Gregory will discuss The Southern Diaspora at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21 in 206 Communications. The event is sponsored by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and the Simpson Center for the Humanities.
- Joel Schwarz, News & Information