"Headed for Louisville:" Rethinking Rural to Urban Migration in the South, 1930-1950

By Adams, Luther | Journal of Social History, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

"Headed for Louisville:" Rethinking Rural to Urban Migration in the South, 1930-1950


Adams, Luther, Journal of Social History


Roughly 140 miles southwest of Louisville, Kentucky a confederate flag flew over the center of a small town called Russellville. A son of sharecroppers and the grandchild of slaves, James Wright was seventeen and recently married, and like many other Americans in 1936 he struggled to find a job. While Gladys Wright worked as a cook in a white home, her husband 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 that the owners Henry and George Page, "called you nigger." (1) 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.

However, the Wrights were not willing to give up so easily. 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 the historian Tony Gilpin, Wright worked a number of odd jobs in Louisville, carrying cross ties for the railroad, doing menial labor for a moving company before he was hired at a construction company owned by DuPont. With the growth of defense industries in the area Wright briefly secured a job at the Vultee Aircraft factory prior to being drafted into the military and sent to Burma. In 1946, Wright chose to return to Louisville, where he found employment with International Harvester and set about the work of settling into his new environment. (2)

Nearly ten years after the process that brought James Wright to Louisville began, Maurice Rabb and his family arrived in the city from Shelbyville, Kentucky. Although they came to Louisville, from a small town thirty miles away, Rabb was a native of Columbus, Mississippi. Between Columbus and Louisville, Rabb had lived in Nashville, Tennessee where he studied medicine at Meharry Medical College, one of the few medical schools African-Americans could attend in the South. Although Dr. Rabb was a native of Columbia, Mississippi, by the time he landed in the "River City" he had lived in Nashville, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; Frankfort, and Shelbyville, Kentucky.

During the era of the Great Depression Rabb was the only Black doctor treating people of color in Shelbyville. The Depression was not only a difficult time for agriculturalists and industrial workers, but also for the doctors and lawyers that served them. Black lawyers and doctors, reliant on these impoverished communities, struggled to support their own families. For Rabb, the "depression was rough;" his patients could seldom afford to pay him in cash, and one family settled its debts each year by razing a hog. Instead of money, Rabb recalled that he was most often paid with "chicken eggs, fish frog legs [or] duck ... we could eat, but we didn't make a lot of money." (3) The opportunity to provide a bit of economic security for his family helped propel the Rabbs toward Louisville.

Within the personal histories of James Wright and Maurice Rabb there are a number of threads which can be woven into a larger narrative of African-American migration within the South during the era of Second Great Migration. During the period between 1930 and 1970 more than 17,000 migrants moved to Louisville in ever increasing numbers hoping to find a better life or at least better jobs. (4) The experiences of Louisville migrants like Rabb and Wright raise a number of critical questions concerning our understanding of the origins and periodization of Black migration as a whole and the historical emphasis on rural to urban migration in particular. African American migration in Louisville, Kentucky, challenges us to rethink the centrality of rural to urban migration narratives during the era of the Second Great Migration. …

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