Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

From Mississippi to Milwaukee: A Case Study of the Southern Black Migration to Milwaukee, 1940-1970

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

From Mississippi to Milwaukee: A Case Study of the Southern Black Migration to Milwaukee, 1940-1970

Article excerpt

Traditional scholarship on African-American life in the twentieth century has centered on protest and resistance to racial oppression, with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s serving as the pivotal event.(1) A case can be made that the strength of this movement depended in part on the spectacular urbanization of the black population during the 1950s and 1960s. The group's migration to Northern cities in the 1920s and 1930s attracted the attention of social scientists like Robert Weaver, Kenneth Clark, and E. Franklin Frazier who emphasized the negative impact in those northern communities. They depicted the black "peasant," fleeing the South, as iii prepared for northern urban life, and inflaming racial tensions. This "urban adjustment" model was the prevailing framework of analysis in the works of these pioneering social scientists.

In the explosive period of racial conflicts between 1964 and 1968, urban scholars paid particular attention to the problems of central cities and specifically black urban neighborhoods. In these turbulent years two important studies by historians appeared on black migration, one of Chicago by Allan Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto (1967), and the other of New York by Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (1966). Both emphasized the initiatives and dynamic growth of black communities, but they ultimately created models of ghetto formation and pathology.

This research model views the migrants as being unprepared in general for urban life, working in manufacturing occupations or forming urban institutions. This was Charles E. Silberman's argument in his book Crisis in Black and White (1964), published at a time of heightened black migration and racial tension. More recent work, such as Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land (1991), represents southern black migrants to Chicago differently, as powerless victims of discrimination, and the root cause of the problems of Mayor Richard Daley's city. Lemann described the group as uneducated and unskilled, a people unprepared to adjust to a post-World War Two urban, industrial environment.

A contemporary departure from this model, Joe W. Trotter's The Great Migration in Historical Perspective. New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender (1991), discusses the need to emphasize the dynamic role played by southern blacks in their urban movement, resettlement, and subsequent experiences.(2) James Borchert had already demonstrated that despite adverse conditions, black migrants to the nation's capital constructed viable communities.(3) Richard Thomas's work, Life for Us Is What We Make It (1992), examines how the black industrial working class influenced the structure of black leadership, and the economic, social, and political development of the larger black community. Trotter, Borchert, and Thomas then noted the power that black migrants held over their own lives in the process of migration. Milwaukee's black migrants had this kind of positive effect on their own lives.

Joe Trotter's pathbreaking book, Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1985), looked at Milwaukee's pre-World War Two migration and shed light on the economic and social process of "proletarianization" of black industrial workers in Milwaukee. Trotter's idea of proletarianization would have been strengthened had he continued his study into the 1950s and 1960s, the climax of southern black migration. It is this later period where the real story of the proletarianization of black Milwaukeeans takes place. It is during the 1950s and 1960s that industrial jobs open up on an unprecedented scale, and black labor union activities reached unparalleled heights. Trotter's examination ends at a critical time in black Milwaukee's history, and this essay is an attempt to strengthen and complement Trotter's earlier work, and build on Thomas's notion of empowerment through the unionization of the black industrial workingclass. …

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