African American Migration in the South, an Interview


Editor's note: Luther Adams teaches history at the University of Washington -Tacoma and is the author of Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970. Listen to the audio version of this interview here.

PA:  What inspired you to undertake this project on the city of Louisville and its African American community?

LUTHER ADAMS:  Well, my inspiration was both personal and professional.  Professionally, as a student and scholar of African American migration, I was struck by how little attention the South or southern culture has been given outside of a few studies that primarily looked at the impact of southern culture in northern cities like Chicago, Cleveland or Oakland County, Michigan, and also how little attention was given to the role of  the South and southern culture in terms of African American migration within the South itself.

Then personally, my family has been in Kentucky for generations and generations, and I grew up in part in Kentucky in Louisville, and at the same time I had a portion of my family that left Louisville during the period that I study and moved to Dayton, Ohio. So I was always curious not about the people that left but out the people that stayed, and why they chose to stay at a time when so many Black people were moving to the North seeking better jobs and seeking political and economic freedom, social freedoms – but these people had chosen to stay. I was also struck by the way in which, whether they had stayed or left, people in my family and people in my community commonly described the South, commonly described Kentucky, as home. So that was really the motivation that led me to this topic, really hoping to direct attention to an important topic that many historians have seemed to just overlook.  

PA:  Has that created a kind of gap in our thinking about the impact African Americans had, say between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, when we start to think about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South? Has the failure to treat this topic left us with a gap about the political struggles as well?

LUTHER ADAMS:  I think so. I think the public often neglects the consistent and ongoing struggles within the South, and in that I think sometimes they are also aided and abetted by historians. At the same time, increasingly scholars are devoting more attention to the ongoing struggles within the South, the work of people like Tera Hunter, who has looked at the Black washerwomen strikes in southern cities like Atlanta or Jacksonville and across the South, or the work of Leslie Brown, who has looked at the Black middle class in Durham, North Carolina, or Robin Kelley’s classic study, Hammer and Hoe, that looks at African American Communists in Alabama.

Yet at the same time, I think, despite those scholars who are looking at this topic, the myth of Black inactivity has died hard. So for most people, both publicly and also professionally in terms of the historiography written about the South, there is not as much attention to this subject during that time period, which I think is a grave injustice. It obscures the complexity of Black life in the South, and also perpetuates the idea that Blacks as a whole were passive, fearful, accommodating, or, at worst, accepting of the inequalities. For instance, recently one scholar, Laurie Green, has described this ethos as a “plantation mentality” that kept African Americans from fighting for freedom, and at the same time kept whites in Memphis and Tennessee expecting deference and submission from African Americans.

I think that while you cannot discount the fear and physical violence, or the economic and political systems that upheld white supremacy, Black people did act, and they consistently acted, in their own interests, whether in terms of migrating to the North and West in the hope of creating better lives for themselves and their children, or through what some scholars have called everyday forms of resistance, that is by quitting jobs, with jokes, music and dissemblance. Whether people went to church or politically organized, African Americans consistently acted throughout the South to gain equality. They established clubs, they established women’s clubs, they established branches of the NAACP, and their concerns were specific. They had specific demands for equality around housing, around jobs, around police brutality, to secure a voice in politics, to get better education, for respect.  

I think the failure to address those histories prior to the Civil Rights era really paints a false picture of Blacks in the South and really of America as a whole. I often fear that behind this is an idea that if Blacks didn’t protest, then either things were not truly that bad, or that they didn’t have anyone else to blame for their poor condition except themselves. Whereas I think even a cursory view of the history of the South shows that African Americans consistently acted, and I think the failure to really direct attention to that popularly or historiographally obscures the complexity of Black life in the South.  

PA:  I wanted to ask you about the concept of "home" which you introduce at the beginning of the book as a sort of guide for the reader’s thinking about African American responses to white supremacy. It seems to be much more than just a response to white supremacy, in explaining why so many millions of people stayed in such a bad system. Could you talk about that?  

LUTHER ADAMS:  I think you’re absolutely right when you say that it’s not simply a response to white supremacy, and for me that’s one of the most important aspects of this notion of home, that it is, of course, a response to white supremacy and oppression in the sense that Black people are resisting, and that many come to see the South as home, as a site of resistance, as a place where historically African Americans have challenged the idea and the praxis of white supremacy.

But, as you say, it’s also more than that. It’s also about how they think of themselves, how they identify themselves in their connection to a place – that they think of themselves also as Southerners. When we think of a Southerner it’s often a shorthand for white, but these are people who are also Southern and see themselves as very much tied to the land through history and through their labor, both in the era of slavery and in the era of emancipation. These are people who literally see their blood as tied to the land in terms of their families, their communities, their culture, and their identity, and this becomes for many of them, of course, a paradoxical issue. On the one hand, they are tied intimately to a place that is also horrific in terms of the treatment of African Americans, that is tied to lynching and Jim Crow and disenfranchisement, and yet at the same time they are attempting to claim it as their own.

For many of them, that contradiction becomes resolved through their activism, their attempts to make the South a better place. For instance, there is one migrant I talk about in the book, Lyman Johnson, who was from Tennessee. He had moved around quite a bit actually before he decided to settle in Louisville. He often talked about his other relatives who had gone to places like Detroit and New York, and he would say that he was “glad that he didn’t tuck tail and run” like most of his kinpeople, and said to them that they ran away from the problem. So for many this idea of home really led them to stay in the South, to fight for equality, and this idea was something that was not just present in Louisville but was shared by African Americans elsewhere.

For instance, Medgar Evers in 1958 had a wonderful interview in Ebony Magazine called “Why I Still Live in Mississippi,” and in it he says, on the one hand, that Mississippi is part of the United States and he wants to stay there and try to change the things that he doesn’t like, but he also said in the interview that “It may sound funny but I love the South,” and he said “This is home.” I think that’s an ideal that many African Americans shared. On the one hand, it’s about challenging white supremacy, but it is also about how they saw themselves, how they saw their families, how they saw their own history, and really how they saw their identity as rooted in this place, and felt that they had a right to equality in the South, that they didn’t have to leave, they didn’t have to flee, and they didn’t have to go somewhere else to have the kinds of freedoms that they believed were rightfully theirs.  

Again, this is an idea that I think is generations old, although not much attention has been given to it historiographically. For instance, Frederick Douglass wrote an essay entitled “We Have Decided to Stay.” This was in the era of the great exodus of 1879 where many African Americans in the era of lynching and the emergence of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement left the South attempting to move to Kansas of all places, and were called the Exodusters. Frederick Douglass challenged that idea, saying that we should stay, African Americans should stay in the South, that they should attempt to gain protection by right rather than by flight. So I think this idea of home is a powerful idea, an idea that few historians have looked at. And many of those migrants, who have been studied by historians, who ended up in Cleveland, Chicago, Oakland or Detroit, still often refer to the South as home, no matter how many years they may have been away from that place.  

PA:  How did urban development impact the African American community in Louisville, and how did they attempt to influence its direction?

LUTHER ADAMS:  Limited economic opportunity has been a constant in the African American struggle for freedom and equality. However, I think this period represented a radical change in the way in which urban development was intertwined with economic issues, in the sense that many African Americans during this period saw and understood the era of the 1940s and 1950s as what some scholars describe as the “making of the second ghetto” or the origin of the urban crisis.

African Americans at that time described it as the creation of a ghetto. They saw that Black business was being decimated by urban renewal. They saw that Black populations were increasingly becoming spatially isolated, and they believed, on one hand, that this was something that would have an incredibly detrimental impact on almost all facets of African American life. Economically, they saw that it was destroying Black business. They saw that residentially Black people in Louisville were increasingly becoming more segregated in the era of the civil rights movement than less segregated. They saw that the schools had rising rates of segregation, and deindustrialization for many was clearly exacerbating the limited economic opportunities that African Americans had.

On the other hand, they didn’t believe that these changes were inevitable. They believed that they could make a radically different America, that they could make cities completely different, and they really acted during that period on this ideal – on the idea that cities could be a radically different place than they were. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Louisville during the Open Housing Campaigns to secure Black access to housing wherever they wished in the city, wherever essentially they could afford it (and ironically African Americans in this growing ghetto paid more for rent than elsewhere in the city, than the rents on average in the city). But when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the city to speak on this issue, he was in fact invited by his brother, Alfred Daniels Williams King, who was a minister and a central figure in the open housing campaigns. Martin Luther King gave a speech entitled “Upon This Rock,” and here he used a biblical metaphor that you would build on a rock, and the winds and the rains would not prevail against it. There was the idea that you could build a new foundation for urban America, a foundation that had equality at its root, that meant African Americans could gain equal access to housing, to jobs, and to education, and so when they saw this period of dramatic change underway, they also saw it as an opportunity.

Now obviously when we look at it historically, it didn’t turn out that way, but I think it’s important that we not read history backwards – that we see that at that moment for African American they believed that through their activism – through their actions – they could really make a city in their own image, an image that would not just benefit them, but which they believed would benefit urban America as a whole.  For me, today, I think that’s an important lesson – that rather than looking at things and saying, as people popularly do today, “It is what it is,” they looked at it and said “This is what it is, but what could it be?,” what could we make this city, what kind of vision could we make real about the world that we live in? They didn’t just simply accept the status quo, even as they recognized the challenges they faced, but really had the idea that they could make things better and that they could radically transform the urban landscape.  

PA:  Related to that is this photo of an aerial representation of the city of Louisville that uses census data to give a color-coded image of where the population is in the city based on race. It seems like there is a large concentration of African Americans in West Louisville, but all this other area is white. What are your thoughts about the historical development of this as an expert on Louisville? Is this map an accurate depiction?

LUTHER ADAMS:  You know, I hadn’t seen that specific image until you  sent it to me. However when I did see it, it wasn’t surprising and in fact that photographic image, taken, I think, in September 2009, ties in closely with both the Index of Dissimilarity, which is a measure of residential segregation I am familiar with, and it is also really similar to the material I present in the book which shows, through a series of maps from 1950-1970, how the Black population came to be concentrated primarily in the West End, with another smaller pocket in Newburg, and that this process was that very process of ghettoization, the making of a ghetto, that African Americans recognized as underway in the 1940s and in the 1950s and 1960s, some of it due to urban renewal and city planning and some of it due to “white flight,” as whites left the city of Louisville proper, often moving to the surrounding counties of Jefferson and Oldham and Bullitt throughout the 70s and into the 80s.

So the map is an important map, because it signals something that I think is often overlooked, which is that residential segregation has actually been increasing in the United States since the era of the civil rights movement. Cities have by and large become more segregated – certainly Louisville has become more segregated since the era of civil rights movement. In fact, if you look at it nationally, ironically the most segregated cities are not in the South but in the North. Many of the cities that African Americans migrated to, attempting to find better lives during the second Great Migration, cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, are by far the most segregated cities.

I think this map of Louisville really represents that kind of shift, the way in which urban renewal, white flight, and limited economic opportunities created, in the city of Louisville at least, a ghetto, and by ghetto here I mean not culturally or in terms of people’s behavior or characteristics, but really in a classical sense, in the sense that people are spatially isolated with very little choice about where they live in a city. Here I think the map really reflects some of the real limits to the success that occurred during that period.

I wouldn’t say the period was unsuccessful or that there was no change, but I think that just as there was progress, there was also retrogression. There were people actively fighting for equality and freedom, but there were also people actively fighting to maintain the status quo of white supremacy, of unequal economic opportunity, of disparate education and housing. I think in many ways this map reflects that. It also, I think, reflects, for the city of Louisville particularly, that when the city proper and the larger county merged in 2003 it really signaled a kind of dilution of political power for African Americans, because as they became a larger portion of Louisville’s population, they obviously had more political power, but when the city and county merged, they became a lesser percentage of the population of Metro Louisville.

This is an issue that points to problems in education and problems in housing. Louisville, of course, was lauded during the period of the 1950s for being one of the largest Southern cities to peacefully integrate. Yet as late as the 1960s, African Americans were lamenting a lack of integration, and in the 1970s Louisville was perhaps only rivaled by Boston for the violence busing and equal education engendered in Louisville, which later labored under a consent decree until 2000. And when that consent decree finally lapsed, then Louisville along with Seattle became the two cities that were engaged in the Supreme Court suit that was largely seen as undoing the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. For many cities, although I guess luckily not Louisville, this decision has meant a return to neighborhood schools, and neighborhood schools which, as this map indicates, are largely residentially segregated – which then has the effect of segregating the schools that those kids attend. So these problems, as the map demonstrates, are ongoing, and the very struggles that the people in Louisville were engaged in for better jobs, better housing, and political participation, are still underway. It’s not a movement that had its end.  

PA:  As you are talking, it reminded me of my home town of Tacoma, Washington, where you teach and where I grew up. Segregation loomed large in our imagination: white people lived in certain areas and Black people lived in others, and you don’t go in those neighborhoods and you don’t cross those lines. Do you have an experience of Tacoma that’s like that?

LUTHER ADAMS:  Well yes – but I think it’s interesting that if you look at most West Coast cities, particularly if you look at Tacoma and Seattle, they tend to have lower rates of segregation than either Southern cities or Northeastern cities, and yet even in either of those places, the location of the Black community is pretty clear. In Tacoma it’s the Hilltop; in Seattle it’s the Central District and the south part of the city, although there is also, I think, transformation occurring in many cities today, primarily through gentrification, and what I think quietly is another form of urban renewal, in the building of light rail, or in the building of, really, the university where I teach, the University of Washington, Tacoma, which has a footprint, a blueprint, that would take it through the Hilltop district where most African Americans live in Tacoma. 

So there is a way, I think, that you can see similar patterns of political power, of access, still underway. At the same time I think there is a kind of irony occurring. As people begin moving back towards the cities, and here I specifically mean white people begin to move back to cities, particularly affluent white people, in the short period there seems to be a “snapshot” where neighborhoods seem much more integrated than they have been in generations. But I think in the long period you really begin to see a shift backward, so that cities are in some cases whiter, whereas the suburbs around them are becoming increasingly places where the poor and people of color come to be housed. And I think that transition is very much underway here in Tacoma and cities like Seattle, where Black populations are increasingly living outside of the city in places like Federal Way or Kent, and those neighborhoods that historically had been centers of Black community, Black businesses, and Black culture, are coming to increasingly house fewer and fewer Black people themselves.

PA:  What was the role of the labor movement in your history of Louisville?    

LUTHER ADAMS:  I think that’s a great question, and it’s a question I think that many African Americans in Louisville themselves asked during the time period that my book covers, between the 1930s and the 1970s. There was, on the one hand, a small set of unions that were popularly called the 7th Street Unions that were active in civil rights struggles. They attempted to desegregate some hotels and public parks, and there were figures, really important figures such as Carl Braden and Anne Braden, who had some association with those unions, who I think as individuals – not so much part of the labor movement, but as part of the broader Left, had an important role in the civil rights struggles in Louisville.

By and large, however, the role of unions was small, and African Americans questioned that in Louisville. In part, they questioned it, I think, recognizing that African American themselves had only a limited membership in unions. In the city very few African Americans worked outside of the service and domestic industries, and were because of that largely overlooked by unions in the city. Even the more progressive CIO unions had very little union membership among African Americans.

Outside of that, I think the unions themselves seemed to have very little interest themselves in challenging for equality, challenging for freedom in that broad sense, and in fact in some cases you find the opposite. In the struggles around busing and education in the 1970s, you actually find unions being more reactionary. For instance, at the Ford Motor Company the plant was actually shut down when 38 percent of its workforce walked out in opposition to busing, and at the General Electric plant union members threatened to shut down the factory in the same fashion.

So ironically I think, many African Americans who looked at unions as a potential source of strength, as a potential ally, often themselves wondered why the role of unions was so small in the city, particularly when historians have increasingly begun to look at this period as a period that was marked by what they call civil rights unionism or Black protest politics, where New Deal sorts of labor coalitions were forged to help deal both with economic problems and also becoming huge advocates for civil rights.

But in Louisville, it seems that the impact of the unions was really hampered by the issue of race, an issue in which many, or at least some, union members in Louisville, particularly white members in Louisville, put their racial identity before economic solidarity, really. They often saw, I think, African Americans as antithetical to their economic interests. They believed that African Americans might take jobs from them and that African Americans would devalue the homes that they had brought, which for many were their primary source of investment and wealth. They believed that African Americans would come to their schools. They also had the fear of miscegenation.

But by and large, I think, when you look at unions, the role was small, although there were important exceptions in leftist figures like Anne and Carl Braden whose role was really nothing less than heroic. They helped to deal with the issue of housing. They were some of the founding members of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Anne Braden later was a founding member of the West End Community Council, which was one of three major organizations that advocated open housing. But unions per se did not seem to have that same role, and in fact, in the 1940s, one of the ironies was that the Progressive Party, which had one of the strongest civil rights planks, was said in the Black community to “cut no ice.” That was not because they didn’t believe in the planks of the Progressive Party, but simply they didn’t believe the Progressive Party could win, and so to some degree for African Americans, there was also a bit of pragmatism when they looked at the Progressive Party, recognizing that its plank was something laudable. But when they looked at the political landscape in the city of Louisville, which had pretty evenly divided Republican and Democratic parties, African Americans recognized that politically their strength came from swinging elections through block voting, and so they often looked at the Progressive Party as something that would hinder that ability to sway elections.

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