Another Place, Another Promise, Another Paradise? Another Perspective on Black Migration, Promised Lands, and Paradises

By J, Thomas | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Another Place, Another Promise, Another Paradise? Another Perspective on Black Migration, Promised Lands, and Paradises


J, Thomas, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Another Place, Another Promise, Another Paradise? Another Perspective on Black Migration, Promised Lands, and Paradises

Like other Americans, African Americans have ever been on the move. That is how blacks got to America to begin, after all. As in the infamous Middle Passage from Africa to America, blacks moved not always by choice. Nevertheless, almost from the start of European colonies in North America, blacks took part in the mobility that became characteristic of America. In the aggregate and as individuals, blacks moved to and fro, from region to region, from countryside to city, and betwixt and between. Not in unison with the general population, but not necessarily in contrast to it, blacks moved to dodge dangers and to meet desires.(2)

Blacks' geographic movement too often has been less than explicitly or fully integrated into what scholars and commentators have described as African American history.(3) The shift of the bulk of black population from the upper South to the lower South, for example, formed a major development in African American history from 1800 to 1860. King Cotton's rise in the Gulf and southwestern states pulled blacks from tobacco planting on the Atlantic seaboard. While commonly noticed as occurring, what the shift south and west meant for blacks in the aggregate and as individuals has been less commonly noted as a prominent pattern. The horrors of being "sold South" and the terrors of black life in the "Deep South" early became axioms in African American history, but the connection between the black population movement and the detailed development of black reality has itself not been sufficiently developed.(4)

Similarly, the movement of thousands of blacks out of the South to the North and West from 1800 to 1860 has received mention. But too often it has stood as a separate phenomenon, not as something integral to black life and development. This more voluntary movement in flight from slavery, while occurring with increasing intensity between 1830 and 1860, represented a persistent flow that certainly affected the shape and substance of black life. Such effects have been less noted than the so-called Underground Railroad that helped some slaves beyond slaveholders' reach. Who ran from where to where certainly affected the character of the black population at both the point of departure and point of arrival. Yet massive as it was, blacks' stealing themselves out of the South and the Peculiar Institution has appeared isolated from its demographic impact and its shaping of blacks' internal and external social realities.(5)

Another major movement occurred at the end of the Civil War (1861-1865). Indeed, major changes occurred in the location of the African American population and concomitantly in its structure. Moving was a means for many blacks to measure their emancipation, and part of their mobility entailed restructuring their lives particularly in regard to family, work, and church. As historian Peter Kolchin noted in his study of blacks' responses to emancipation in Alabama, their immediate priorities attached to "forming their own churches, seeking to improve their position vis-à-vis their planter employers, becoming active politically, acting to strengthen the family as a social unit" and "supporting the education of their children".(6)

General emancipation fostered a city-ward movement for blacks.(7) However the black population had already evidenced a significant urban leaning that cast the post-bellum move to cities more as a recovery from an interruption than the start of a wholly new pattern. Blacks were at least as urban as whites during the new nation's first generations. Indeed, during the colonial period, blacks were even more urban than the white population. Cities, North and South, were prime sites for slaves.(8) And free blacks strongly preferred urban areas: They were probably the most urbanized of any group. It appeared that when given choice, blacks chose city over countryside, although from 1840 to 1860 a relative decline appeared in blacks' urbanization. …

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