Academic journal article Journal of Social History

'But It Is a Fine Place to Make Money': Migration and African-American Families in Cleveland, 1915-1929

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

'But It Is a Fine Place to Make Money': Migration and African-American Families in Cleveland, 1915-1929

Article excerpt

At the peak of the World War I movement of Southern blacks to Cleveland, a migrant wrote a letter to relatives in the South informing them he found the city "a fine place to make money." But the letter also expressed his reservations about what the city had to offer his children: he could not care for them "like they should be" since he now lived in a city of strangers. He lamented that he lacked "surrounding friends" to help him and he had "seval nochants (sic) of" returning south. While he and his wife earned good wages in the North, leaving the South had torn him away from those who had given him support, comfort and advice.(1) No evidence remains about how this migrant resolved the struggle between higher wages and the needs of his children, or how he recreated the dense networks of support. But his letter provides important insight into the concerns that migrants faced beyond their search for work, as they sought to care for families and retain kin and friend connections which had shifted, or had been lost during long moves north.

The experience of Flowree Robinson and her family amply displays the intricate work of caring that extended across regions and the resulting changes in family dynamics over the course of two decades. After her mother died in 1915, Robinson's father moved his children from the rural town of Edwards, Mississippi, to nearby Greenville. Leaving twelve year-old Flowree in the care of an older daughter, he took his older sons and their young families to Gary, Indiana, where they found work. Despite the higher wages, Robinson's father grieved over the separation from his youngest child and constantly worried about her well-being. He returned to Mississippi gravely ill and soon died. Robinson married at sixteen and moved away from her sister; her brothers migrated to Cleveland, though the family remained connected through letters. While the vagaries of the early 1920s' economy made visiting impossible, the siblings used the mail to loan money, dispense advice, and offer support. When Flowree's husband suffered from alcoholism and became abusive, her brother urged her to join him in Cleveland. Despite the drain on his own limited resources, over several years he shared his small home, gave her money, helped her find a job, and introduced her to a fellow worker from the South, whom she later married.(2)

The oral histories, narratives, and autobiographies of migrants to Cleveland, a primary destination for African Americans between 1910 and 1930, richly demonstrate the role of kin and friendship networks during and after the move north. Once migrants became established in Cleveland, connections with families and friends served as adaptive strategies to offset the precarious economic conditions that many regularly faced; these networks lessened the sense of isolation from the South. But these accounts also reveal that this process of family and household formation and adaptation was often a long process. Darlene Clark Hine has asserted that for many migrants, women especially, relinquishing ties to the South was an "incomplete process" because they had left immediate family members behind.(3) She suggests that when migrants left loved ones in the South, "psychological and emotional relocation was much more convoluted and, perhaps more complicated than heretofore assumed."(4) Many migrants left parents and children behind, sometimes taking years to reassemble, but did their relationships change? If so, how? What, if anything, can we learn from revisiting the migration process?

The new studies on African-American migration to cities have shown how family and household reformation in the North and the continued links with family and households in the South provided critical resources for migrants as they moved out of the South.(5) Works by Peter Gottlieb, Earl Lewis, and Darlene Clark Hine have documented the ways kin and friend connections served as initiators and maintainers of the process. …

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