The Ones Who Stayed: African Americans in the South During the Great Migration

Claudia Stack

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Sylvester Hoover holds up a cotton sack similar to the ones he and his family used to pick cotton in the MS Delta in the 1960s. Picture by Claudia Stack, all rights reserved.

During African American history month, we often highlight the Civil Rights struggles that played out in cities. For example, The Little Rock Nine and the The Montgomery Bus Boycott. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, is usually the concluding event mentioned.

There is a stereotype that the African American experience became mostly an urban one after the Great Migration. While it is true that just over half (approximately six million) of the African American population relocated to the North and West between 1916 and 1970, a significant portion of the African American experience remains rooted in the South. Dr. King tacitly acknowledged this when he addressed the southern activists at the March on Washington:

“You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

When I began to research school history in rural southeastern North Carolina 18 years ago, I got to know some of my older African American neighbors. I was deeply impressed by their struggles and triumphs. I want to outline three of the common themes I heard in case your education, like mine, neglected the African American experience.

School Building

No group in our nation has sacrificed more for education than African Americans. I reached this conclusion after extensive research and hundreds of oral history interviews. African Americans sought education and built schools with and without the help of religious organizations, northern philanthropists, and southern school boards.

When I learned about this school building movement, which was not even mentioned in my Master’s degree program in education, I felt compelled to document some of the stories of people who lived this incredible chapter of history.

My first two documentaries, Under the Kudzu and Carrie Mae: An American Life (both available on Amazon Prime Video), trace history related to a few of the schools built by African American families in southeastern North Carolina. A few snapshots: In Under the Kudzu Carrie Walker, who was over 100 years of age at the time of the interview, recalls her uncle repairing the roof of her schoolhouse. In Carrie Mae: An American Life, Carrie Mae Sharpless Newkirk recites Chaucer in Old English, a reminder that in North Carolina at least the liberal arts curriculum was the same for all students.

In a previous article, “Schools Built by African Americans Changed the South,” I quoted the Superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau, who remarked on the African American commitment to education:

“Even before it was legal, but especially after 1865, African Americans sacrificed to obtain education and build schools. John Alvord, Superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau, observed in July, 1866 that: “The surprising efforts of our colored population to obtain education...are growing to a habit." Their participation in schooling exploded after the Civil War. African Americans of all ages sought literacy and built schools, even before securing the basic necessities of life." (see Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935)

The most easily recognizable, but by no means the only, school buildings created were the “Rosenwald schools.” These were schools constructed through a matching grant program pioneered by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald. From 1912, when the first six Rosenwald Schools were built in Alabama, to 1932, when the Rosenwald Fund ceased funding schools, the program helped to construct over 5,000 buildings for education across the South: 4,977 schools, 163 shops, and 217 boarding houses for teachers. Out of his wealth, Julius Rosenwald donated $4.3 million towards the schools. African Americans, many of whom made less than $1/day, donated $4.7 million. (see Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South).

African Americans’ accomplishments in establishing institutions of higher learning are also impressive. Also from the same article as quoted above, Schools Built by African Americans Changed the South:

“Nor did their drive and sacrifice for education stop at the primary school level. In a 2007 article in The Journal of Negro Education, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future,” it is noted that “In the 25 years after the Civil War, approximately 100 institutions of higher learning were created to educate freed African Americans, primarily in the southern United States.” These historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) continue to play an important role in our nation as incubators of innovation and professional success.”

When southern school boards were finally forced to implement school desegregation, which occurred only after they built new segregated schools in the 1950s and early 1960s (the “equalization schools”), few made any effort to commemorate the incredible sacrifice African Americans had made to obtain schools for their children. Beloved institutions in which the community had invested over generations were closed or downgraded with little notice. Frequently, even the historic names of schools were changed, so that they no longer honored African American history.

In addition, many African American educators were fired or demoted. As a 2019 Education Week article explains, this major loss of leadership still impacts schools today:

“But Brown also had an unintended consequence, the effects of which are still felt today: It caused the dismissal, demotion, or forced resignation of many experienced, highly credentialed black educators who staffed black-only schools. After the decision, tens of thousands of black teachers and principals lost their jobs as white superintendents began to integrate schools but balked at putting black educators in positions of authority over white teachers or students.”

Despite the fact that the segregated schools were chronically underfunded, the African American educators had high expectations for their students. In addition, the Winston Salem State University (an HBCU founded in 1892 as a teacher training school) motto “Enter to learn, depart to serve” was a common sentiment in historic African American schools. If you look into the background of many of today’s older African American civic and education leaders, you will find that many of them are alumni of these schools.

Maintaining separate, unequal school systems is ethically indefensible and fiscally unwise. However, much was lost when desegregation was done in such a way that neither honored the sacrifice African Americans had made for education, nor retained African American educators.

Striving for Land Ownership

The struggle to obtain and keep land is central to the African American experience. Many people are startled to learn that 1910, the height of the Jim Crow era, was also the peak of African American farm ownership. As a 2020 MarketWatch article reports:

“At their peak in 1910, African American farmers made up around 14% of all U.S. farmers, owning 16 million to 19 million acres of land. By 2012, black Americans represented just 1.6% of the farming community, owning 3.6 million acres of land. Another study shows a 98% decline in black farmers between 1920, and 1997. This contrasts sharply with an increase in acres owned by white farmers over the same period.”

Despite the crushing reality of being emancipated with no resources to help them start their new lives (the Civil War promise of “40 acres and a mule” was never fulfilled), African American families worked hard. By 1910, some had managed to purchase land. However, many others remained in exploitative sharecropping agreements, through which sharecroppers often accumulated debt year after year.

There are many reasons why more African Americans were not able to obtain land, or obtained land but lost it. In 1910, approximately 90% of African Americans still lived in the South. Reconstruction had been over since 1877, and most African Americans had been disenfranchised by various means. With little say in government or the courts, African American landowners were defenseless in the face of criminal schemes and violence that cheated them of their land. A 2019 ProPublica article notes several ways African Americans were deprived of their land, including:

“At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes.”

As the decades passed, the crime of violently driving landowners off their farms subsided, but African Americans were still subject to discriminatory practices that deprived them of their land. When agriculture was transformed after WW II by mechanization and chemical fertilizers, African American farmers found themselves shut out of the USDA loans that other farmers used.

Another reason for land loss is that lack of access to the legal system meant that land was often passed down as “heirs property” (without a will). Developers take advantage of this situation because if they can get one heir of a property to sell, it can force the sale of the entire property, although new laws are offering more protection. However, much damage has already been done. African American land loss accelerated after 1950.

Making a Way Out of No Way

Hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the Delta never achieved land ownership, and remained trapped in cotton sharecropping into the 1960s. Until the Civil Rights era, including the activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, they were largely forgotten by the rest of the country. Even the US Census Bureau had officially ceased using the category “sharecropper” approximately two decades earlier.

My short film Sharecrop: Delta Cotton (available on Amazon Prime Video) features stories from the life of Sylvester Hoover. Hoover was born in 1957 in the Mississippi Delta. His family sharecropped cotton near Money, MS. His earliest memory is that of being dragged on a cotton sack through the field while his mother picked cotton. His family lived in a house owned by the plantation owner.

Despite the fact that peonage (debt bondage) was outlawed by Congress in 1867, Hoover’s family was always told that they must stay on the plantation because they owed money for groceries purchased on credit at the landowner’s store, rent, or other expenses. But, as Hoover points out, “the landowner kept the books.” In other words, they had no recourse to dispute the record of their debt.

The constant threat of violence hung over the Hoovers and all of the African American families they knew. Hoover attended elementary school across the street from Bryant’s Grocery, where in 1955 Emmett Till had the fateful encounter with Carolyn Bryant that led to his savage lynching. Bryant’s husband and brother in law were acquitted of the crime, although they later gave a detailed account of how they tortured and murdered Till.

Hoover described sneaking off school grounds with his friends to buy candy at Bryant’s Grocery. This would push his principal into a state of high anxiety, and the principal would spank them and yell, saying “Don’t go to that store!” However, the principal never told them the root of his fear.

Till’s lynching was ever present, not so much as a specific event, but as confirmation of the reasons for the fear that permeated life for African American families in the Delta.

The view from 30,000 feet is that the 1955 torture and murder of Till was an exceptionally horrible event that galvanized the Civil Rights movement. That is true. It is also true that Hoover’s view at ground zero was that “Black people…always had a fear of white people…that’s the way they lived. If you a strong-minded black person on the plantation… you not going to be around long. You will either go to jail, or end up missing.” Mimicking a conversation, Hoover says “What happened to John? Last time I seen him, he was going home last night… he never shows back up. He end up in the Tallahatchie River. If that river ever dry up, ain’t no telling what you might see.”

As Hoover frames it, Till’s lynching was exceptional for its notoriety, but not for its occurrence. Nor did the terror stop with Till’s lynching. While searching for slain civil rights workers in 1964, the FBI found eight other bodies.

As George E. Curry writes: “While looking for the three civil rights workers in rivers and swamps, other Black bodies were discovered. One was Herbert Oarsby, a 14-year-old boy who was wearing a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) T-shirt. The bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Eddie Moore, who had been expelled from Alcorn A&M College for civil rights activities, were also discovered. The remains of five more Black men were found, but never identified.”

Yes despite the constant anxiety, and through the grinding labor of the cotton fields, Hoover’s family embodied a resilience that allowed them to “make a way out of no way.” They grew much of their own food, and his father sold moonshine on the side.

Into the 1960s, peonage (debt bondage) and Jim Crow laws restricted their movement, but their hardship and hopes found expression at church and in Blues music. Blues legend Robert Johnson is buried in the graveyard at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church (Hoover’s family church). Hoover reflected on Johnson’s legacy while touching one of the pebbles on his gravestone. A steady stream of visitors place pebbles and bottles of beer near the headstone. “The land shaped the music and the music shaped the land…people felt like whatever ailed them, the Blues music could heal them…”

Today, Sylvester Hoover and his wife Mary are internationally recognized for their authentic southern cuisine they provide through their catering business, the Blues festival they organize in Greenwood, MS, and their tour company. Click here to learn more about Hoover’s Delta Blues Legend Tours

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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