Friday, December 25, 2009

Just finished reading - Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles by Chad Berry

I like it when just shortly after reading a book, I see, hear, or in some other way, come across an aspect of the subject I have just read. Somehow it seems to make the effort of reading even more rewarding. Well, it happened just this week. I had no sooner finished reading Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles when, while watching "A Christmas Story," (the Ralphie one, not the Scrooge one) I saw an example of what I had just read.

In one of the last scenes of the film the gazillion or so hound dogs of Ralphie's neighbors, the "hillbilly" Bumpas family, descend on Ralphie's mother's kitchen and devour the Christmas turkey, leaving the family to eat out at a Chinese restaurant. Now, there is no doubt that I have seen "A Christmas Story" about as many times as the Bumpas family had hound dogs, but I had never really made the connection to where the story was set (a Northern Indiana town), and when the story was placed, (in the 1940s) with what was going on at the time historically.

During the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, thousands of white Southerners made their way north to work in factories, making everything from automobiles to canned vegetables, and in just about every other line of work available. The lack of jobs, combined with a booming population, especially in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and West Virginia, caused one of the greatest in-country migrations that America has ever experienced. Cities such as Detroit, Flint, and Lansing in Michigan; Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, and Cincinnati in Ohio; Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Gary, Hammond, Indianapolis, Munice and Mishawaka in Indiana were flooded with white Southerners looking for an honest job for honest pay.

While the "Great Black Migration" of roughly the same time period has received a number of focused books and scholarly articles, the even larger white migration has received relatively little attention. Dr. Chad Berry, a professor at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky has done much to fill that void with Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles. The book was developed mainly from oral history accounts that he had conducted; including his own grandfather a west Tennessee farmer that made his way to northern Indiana.

Berry notes that many of the white Southerners were not welcomed by their Northern hosts. Stereotyped images of drunk, brawling, lazy, promiscuous, gun-wielding hillbillies kept many hard working Southerners from receiving a fair treatment. Their strange accents, music, and customs only seemed to alienate the migrants from their Northern coworkers. Many Southerners chose to stay in the North after locating stable jobs, while others only worked long enough to earn money to go back South and purchase a few acres of farmland. Many white Southerners who made the trek North sent their pay back to their families, while others sent for their families once they were established. Homesickness though proved to be too strong for many and frequent trips back home on the weekends or holidays were quite common. Berry also makes a point to show that when many of those who had stayed in the North reached retirement age, they returned to the South to live.

Many aspects of the migrants lives are touched upon in this study. Everything from the proliferation of country-western radio stations in the Midwest during this period due to the migrant's tastes, to the establishment of churches that met the spiritual needs of the Southern migrants are discussed. Berry's oral history interviews with actual participants in the historic migration bring the story to life, and one can't help but empathize with their struggles to attain economically stable lives in order to provide a better existence for their families.

I think I enjoyed this book so much because I could relate (to some extent) what these white Southern migrants went though on a couple of levels.

First, when I was nine years old my family moved from east Tennessee to southern Indiana. I remember after moving in that I and my brother were kidded about our accents almost constantly. I especially remember that my fellow classmates found it quite humorous the way I said the word "school." I naturally pronounced it without the "l;" it had always been "schooo" to me in Tennessee. Although most of the ribbing I received was good natured, it sometimes stung a little too. I also remember in my first week of school that my third grade teacher asked me to show her on the class map where I had moved from. Since the little town of Harriman, Tennessee was not on the map I proudly found the closest town of size, Oak Ridge, and said, "around here." She looked at me with somewhat sad eyes and said, "Oh Appalachia!" Now, I don't know if she meant anything by that, but it made me feel different than the rest of the class.

Secondly, the story of white Southern migration is the story of many members of my family; on both my mother's and father's sides. I had a number of uncles, aunts, great uncles, and great aunts that moved from counties in south-central Kentucky to places like Munice and Columbus, Indiana for jobs. Most of them that went, stayed, had families, and never permanently returned to Kentucky.

This story of the wave of white Southern migrants that went north is one that everyone should become familiar with. The customs and culture that white Southerners brought with them has changed the fabric of American life. However difficult the adjustment, eventually, after some time, most that stayed were accepted as friends and neighbors, however different they seemed to be.

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