The movement picked up steam—quite literally—in the fall of 1916, as tens of thousands in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states boarded northbound trains. The front-page photograph of The Defender on September 2, 1916, shows a crowd of neatly dressed black men and women waiting for a train in Savannah, Georgia, under the headline “The Exodus.” The migrants were leaving, according to the caption, because they were “tired of being kicked and cursed,” and their departure was causing great consternation to the overlords of the South.
An editorial cartoon in that same issue, under the headline “Desertion,” shows a black man with a broken ankle chain, the word “labor” on his back, running toward a car labeled “northern industries” whose driver is a smiling white man, his hand stretched out in welcome. Chasing the black man, meanwhile, is another white man, dressed in a hat and cloak, gripping a shotgun, and accompanied by hounds labeled “lynchers,” with the soil underneath their feet branded “The South.”
Observing how the flight of African Americans from the South was damaging its economy, and persuaded that there were actually jobs for the new migrants, Abbott finally embraced the movement, calling it a “Second Emancipation.” In October, a Defender editorial titled “Farewell Dixie-Land” posited migration as a militant, manly act of defiance against the South’s propaganda. “Every black man for the sake of his wife and daughters especially should leave even at financial sacrifice,” the editorial urged. “We know full well that would mean a depopulation of that section and if it were possible we would glory in its accomplishment.”
Faced with this dangerous drain on its human resources, the white South reflexively resorted to brute force. In November, police in Savannah arrested 125 people among the hundreds waiting on the train platform, including many who were not migrating, such as a Pullman porter on his way to work, as well as two editors from The Savannah Tribune, an African American newspaper, who had come to the scene to investigate the commotion. That same month, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, police officers spent days searching for an agent representing one of Chicago’s packinghouses who had recruited 200 men and women. When the officers couldn’t find him, they blocked access to the train station’s ticket booth on the scheduled day of departure. But the migrants boarded the train anyway and were met by the packinghouse agent, who emerged from a hiding place once the trip was under way and handed out tickets.
In November, as Woodrow Wilson won a narrow reelection victory, The Defender’s editorial page published “Bound for the Promised Land,” by M. Ward, a then-unknown poet whose portrait photo shows a nattily dressed young man with a satin bow tie. The poem reflects the experiences of those who had already migrated north, found jobs, and sent for their wives, as well as of the Southerners’ efforts to ban the work of Northern labor agents:
From Florida’s stormy banks I’ll go, I’ll bid the South goodbye; No longer will they treat me so, And knock me in the eye,
Hasten on my dark brother, Duck the Jim Crow law.
No Crackers North to slap your mother, or knock you on the jaw.
No Cracker there to seduce your sister, nor to hang you to a limb.
And you’re not obliged to call ’em “Mister,” nor skin ’em back at him.
The poem was so popular that the issue sold out, prompting The Defender to reprint it a few months later. “This poem caused more men to leave the Southland than any other effort,” the newspaper proudly noted.