Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970

Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970

Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970

Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970


Luther Adams demonstrates that in the wake of World War II, when roughly half the black population left the South seeking greater opportunity and freedom in the North and West, the same desire often anchored African Americans to the South. Way Up North in Louisville explores the forces that led blacks to move to urban centers in the South to make their homes. Adams defines "home" as a commitment to life in the South that fueled the emergence of a more cohesive sense of urban community and enabled southern blacks to maintain their ties to the South as a place of personal identity, family, and community. This commitment to the South energized the rise of a more militant movement for full citizenship rights and respect for the humanity of black people.

Way Up North in Louisville offers a powerful reinterpretation of the modern civil rights movement and of the transformations in black urban life within the interrelated contexts of migration, work, and urban renewal, which spurred the fight against residential segregation and economic inequality. While acknowledging the destructive downside of emerging post-industrialism for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Adams concludes that persistent patterns of economic and racial inequality did not rob black people of their capacity to act in their own interests.


Roughly 140 miles southwest of Louisville, a Confederate flag flew over the center of the small town of Russellville. The son of sharecroppers and the grandchild of slaves, James Wright was seventeen and recently married. Like many other Americans in 1936, he struggled to find a job. While his wife Gladys worked as a cook in a white home, James alternately cut corn, worked at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and washed cars at the local Chevrolet dealership in an attempt to make ends meet. Of the latter job he recalled, “You worked like a dog” and the owners, Henry and George Page, “called you nigger.” Over the next few years Wright made no less than three trips to Louisville to find work but returned to Russellville each time without success.

But the Wrights did not give up. As James Wright recalled, “I left Russellville on the first day of September 1941, and I never went back no more. I said, “I’m going to stay in Louisville if I have to dig ditches, get put in jail, steal somebody, rob, cut their head off.’ So I stayed.” According to historian Toni Gilpin, Wright worked a number of odd jobs in Louisville, carrying cross ties for the railroad and doing menial labor for a moving company before he was hired by a construction company owned by DuPont. With the growth of defense industries in the area, he was employed briefly by the Vultee Aircraft factory prior to being drafted and sent to Burma. In 1946 Wright chose to return to Louisville, where he found a job with International Harvester and settled into his new environment.

Like Wright, Rebecca Smith was one of the many African Americans nationwide who acquired their first industrial work experience by migration. The oldest of four children, Smith was a twenty-eight-year-old single mother when she arrived in Louisville in 1945 looking for work. Though born in . . .

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