‘Bound for the Promised Land’

African Americans devised a mass exodus from the Jim Crow South, largely at the urging of The Chicago Defender.

A group of African Americans seeking extension work in 1920 (Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr)

In the spring of 1916, incumbent President Woodrow Wilson began a difficult presidential campaign. Wilson was facing a reunified Republican Party and an electorate skeptical of his pledge to keep the United States out of World War I—he was also facing obstacles from the African American electorate, which though small could be decisive in several key states. During his first run for office in 1912, leaders from the African American community had supported Wilson even though he was the son of a Confederate chaplain who, as a historian, had helped manufacture revisionist histories of the post–Civil War years. But black voters now felt betrayed by Wilson’s conduct as president: He segregated the federal government for the first time ever, and he screened the racist film Birth of a Nation in the White House.

The Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading African American newspaper at the time, was all too happy to heap on the criticism, declaring Wilson a “colossal failure” and challenging his foreign policy—both over the invasion of Haiti the previous year and for sending troops into Mexico to pursue revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. “If President Woodrow Wilson is so anxious to teach the world good morals,” read one editorial on the subject, “let him begin by placing the U.S. Army in the South; institute a chase of the lynchers as earnestly as the one he is now carrying on in Mexico.”

By most measures, the total number of lynchings was, in fact, down from prior years; it was the severity of the incidents that had increased. In May, The Defender printed a letter from a white resident of Waco, Texas, a witness to the horrific murder of a 17-year-old named Jesse Washington. The letter writer was outraged by what he had seen: A mob of “fifteen to twenty-thousand men and women intermingled with children and babies in their arms” gathered to torture Washington and then burn him at the stake. Accused of the murder of a white woman several miles from his home, Washington was convicted by a jury despite scant evidence. Then, as happened all too often, Washington was dragged from the courtroom, hung from a tree, and burned on a funeral pyre. “The crowd was made up of some of the supposed best citizens of the South,” the letter writer noted. “Doctors, lawyers, business men and Christians (posing as such, however). After the fire subsided, the mob was not satisfied: They hacked with pen knives the fingers, the toes, and pieces of flesh from the body, carrying them as souvenirs to their automobiles.” The correspondent went on to conclude that it was absurd to send soldiers to Mexico “when the troops are needed right here in the South.”

For several years, The Defender had demanded federal intervention as the only meaningful solution to the brutality of Southern whites. But that summer, as hundreds of African Americans arrived at Chicago’s train stations every week, The Defender’s position on the migration northward evolved. In August, under the headline “Southerners Plan to Stop Exodus,” the newspaper reported that recruiters for one of the Pennsylvania-based railroad lines had convinced all of the workers on one steamship line in Jacksonville, Florida, to quit and move to the North en masse, leaving the steamship owners suddenly without a crew. The Jacksonville City Council responded by passing a law requiring labor agents from Northern companies to pay $1,000 for a license.

Incidents like this convinced The Defender’s publisher, Robert Abbott, that migration was at once an effective tactic for hurting the white South and a real opportunity for African Americans to live in freedom. Abbott had experienced discrimination from labor unions himself when he first arrived in Chicago from Georgia less than 20 years earlier, and he had been reluctant to invite his fellows to the city if there were no real job opportunities.  He became positively enthusiastic about migration, however, when he saw the mounting evidence that the departure of African Americans was negatively affecting the Southern economy.

“The bars are being let down in the industrial world like never before in this country,” observed a Defender editorial. “Unless we spread out to the four corners of the earth and accept every chance for advancement, we will continue to vegetate, as many drones in the southland are now doing.”

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.

On the letters page, readers praised The Defender’s role in the exodus. “We have one or two little papers here but they dare not say what you say,” read a typical letter from Atlanta. “They are trying to say everything they can to change the Race man’s mind so he will not leave Georgia, but they are leaving Atlanta every day, and I am proud to see it, for I am expecting to do the same thing in short.”

* * *

The Defender estimated that 250,000 black people had left the South by the beginning of that winter; it also noted that a shift was taking place in white public opinion. White-owned Southern newspapers that, just a few months earlier, had been enthusiastic about lynching or that had advocated for the expulsion of African Americans to Africa or Mexico began to print editorials and letters to the editor that reconsidered the Jim Crow system. The Defender reprinted these anxious columns with relish, including a letter originally published in New Orleans’s The Times-Picayune, which The Defender ran under the headline “Getting the South Told.” The letter acknowledged the harassment of African Americans by police, the denigration of their labor and pride, and the reality of sexual interaction between the races. “Dogs, horses, monkeys, pets of all kinds,” the author lamented, “receive more thoughtful consideration at the hands of indulgent masters than does this product of God’s handiwork no less a degree cast in the image of his Maker than his lighter-hued brother—and in many cases a kinsman.”

A Defender columnist, whose byline was “The Scrutinizer,” quoted an editorial from The Telegraph out of Macon, Georgia, that described farmers who awoke to find “every male negro over 21 on his place gone—to Cleveland, to Pittsburgh, to Chicago, to Indianapolis. Better jobs, better treatment, higher pay.” Labor agents, The Telegraph editorial asserted, were “stealing” blacks from the South; the paper warned that the migrants would freeze to death in the North. Forced, however, to admit that the Southern economy needed cheap African American labor, the newspaper demanded that state authorities use every method at their disposal to keep blacks from leaving. “We must have the Negro in the South,” the editorial read. “He has been with us so long that our whole industrial, commercial and agricultural structure has been built on a black foundation. It is the only labor we have—if we lose it, we go bankrupt.”

The Scrutinizer scoffed at the idea that blacks were climatically unsuited for the North, writing that he had checked The Defender’s “statistics department” and found no recorded deaths of African Americans in the region. As for work, he wrote that there were 1.5 million open jobs, a virtually unlimited demand for labor. “Better a thousand times, even if it was true, to run chances of being nipped by the fingers of Jack Frost,” he wrote, “than to shake off this mortal coil at the end of the lynchers’ rope, or to the crackling of the lynchers’ fire brand.”

And so the migrants kept coming, even as temperatures continued to drop. In 1917, The Defender, which had predicted that the arrival of migrants would slow down during Chicago’s frigid winter, was surprised to find groups of men turning up in the middle of January. A front-page story under the headline “Northern Invasion Starts” reported that 31 men from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had come into the city the week before—properly prepared for winter with overcoats and rubber overshoes. Several days after that, 35 men from Mobile, Alabama, arrived and immediately visited The Defender’s office. Both groups had found jobs by the time the newspaper went to press; some worked in the slaughterhouses, while others were hired by manufacturing plants in Detroit. Those who stayed in the city found places to live at the Wabash Avenue YMCA and at apartment buildings that specialized in rooms for single working men.

The newspaper subsequently ran articles about African Americans dying from cold temperatures in the South, accompanied by editorials that asked: “If you can freeze to death in the North and be free, why freeze to death in the South and be a slave? The Defender says come.”

This article has been adapted from Ethan Michaeli’s book, The Defender.