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"Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918"

published in
The Journal of Negro History

(July and October, 1919)

Selections from one Digital Text and another, both at JSTOR.

The Great Migration refers to a dramatic shift in the American population in the early twentieth century, as African Americans from the rural South moved to urban centers in the North.  The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper with a national readership, promoted the migration and encouraged its readers to come to Chicago.

Emmett J. Scott collected some of the letters that black southerners wrote to the Chicago Defender and other northern agencies.  He removed the personal information and then published them in a scholarly journal as a primary source collection.

(N.B. For clarity, the letters below have been minimally edited.)

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Introduction by Emmett J. Scott

The exodus of the Negroes during the World War, the most significant event in our recent internal history, may be profitably studied by reading the letters of the various migrants. The investigator has been fortunate in finding letters from Negroes of all conditions in almost all parts of the South and these letters are based on almost every topic of concern to humanity. These documents will serve as a guide in getting at the motive dominant in the minds of these refugees and at the real situation during the upheaval. As a whole, these letters throw much light on all phases of Negro life and, in setting forth the causes of unrest in the South, portray the character of the whites with whom the blacks have had to do.

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Letter 1 (from Lexington, Miss., undated)

My dear Mr. H --- :
I am writing to you for some information and assistance if you can give it.

I am a young man and am disable, in a very great degree, to do hard manual labor. I was educated at Alcorn College and have been teaching a few years: but ah: me the Superintendent under whom we poor colored teachers have to teach cares less for a colored man than he does for the vilest beast. I am compelled to teach 150 children without any assistance and receives only $27.00 a month, the white with 30 get $100.

I am so sick I am so tired of such conditions that I sometime think that life for me is not worth while and most eminently believe with Patrick Henry " Give me liberty or give me death. " If I was a strong able bodied man I would have gone from here long ago, but this handicaps me and, I must make inquiries before I leap.

Mr. H ---, do you think you can assist me to a position I am good at stenography typewriting and bookkeeping or any kind of work not to rough or heavy. I am 4 feet 6 in high and weigh 105 pounds.

I will gladly give any other information you may desire and will greatly appreciate any assistance you may render me.

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Letter 2 (from Troy, Ala., Oct. 17, 1916)

Dear Sirs
I am enclosing a clipping of a lynching again which speaks for itself. I do wish there could be sufficient presure brought about to have federal investigation of such work. I wrote you a few days ago if you could furnish me with the addresses of some firms or co-opporations that needed common labor. So many of our people here are almost starving. The government is feeding quite a number here would go any where to better their conditions. If you can do any thing for us write me as early as possible.

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Letter 3 (from Houston, Tex., April 20, 1917)

Dear Sir:
wanted to leave the South and Go and Place where a  man will Be any thing Except A Ker I thought would write you for Advise As where would be a Good Place for a Comporedly  young man That want to Better his Standing who has a very  Promising young Family.

I am 30 years old and have Good Experence in Freight Handler  and Can fill Position from Truck to Agt. 

would like Chicago or Philadelphia But I dont Care where so  long as I Go where a man is a man

Hopeing hear of you soon as I want to leave on or about 15 day of May I am yours as Ever.

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Letter 4 (from Greenwood, Miss., Apr. 22, 1917)

I noticed in the Defender about receiving some information from you about positions up there or rather work and I am very anxious to know what the chances are for business men. I am very anxious to leave the South on account of my children but my husband doesn't seem to think that he can succeed there in business, he is a merchant and also knows the barber trade what are the chances for either? Some of our folks down here have the idea that this Northern movement means nothing to any body but those who go out and labor by the day. I am willing to work myself to get a start. Tell me what we could really do. I will do most anything to get our family out of Barn. Please let this be confidential.

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Letter 5 (from New Orleans, La, Apr. 23, 1917)

Dear Sir:
Reading a article in the 21st issue of the Chicago Defender about the trouble you had to obtain men for work out of Chicago and also seeing a advertisement for men in Detroit saying to apply to you I beg to state to you that if your could secure me a position in or around Chicago or any northern section with fairly good wages & good living conditions for myself and family I will gladly take same and if ther could be any ways of sending me transportation I will gladly let you or the firm you get me position with deduct transportation fee out of my salary. as I said before I will gladly take position in northern city or county where a mans a man here are a few positions which I am capable of holding down. Laborer, expirance porter, butler or driver of Ford car. Thaking you in advance for your kindness, beg to remain.

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Letter 6 (from Corinth, Miss., Apr. 30, 1917)

Dear Sir:
I am a good cook age 35 years. I can bring my recermendation with me my name is ---. I am in good health so I would like for you to send me a transportation. I have got a daughter and baby six months old so she can nurse so I would like to come up there and get a job of some kind. I can wait table cook housegirl nurse or do any work.  I am ready to come just as soon as you send the passes to us. I want to bring a box of quilts and a trunk of clothes so you please send us the passes for me and daughter. Write me at once I am a negro woman. We will leave her Sat. if you send the passes if you are not the man please give me some infamation to whom to write to a negro friend.

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Letter 7 (from Ellisville, Miss., May 1, 1917)

Kind Sir:
I have been takeing the Defender 4 months I injoy reading it very much I dont think that there could be a grander paper printed for the race, then the defender.

Dear Editor I am thinking of leaving for Some good place in the North or West one I dont Know just which I learn that Nebraska was a very good climate for the people of the South. I wont you to give me some ideas on it, Or Some good farming country. I have been public working for 10 year. I am tired of that, And want to get out on a good farm. I have a wife and 5 children and we all wont to get our from town a place an try to buy a good home near good Schools good Churchs. I am going to leave here as soon as I get able to work. Some are talking of a free train May 15 But I dont no anything of that. So I will go to work an then I will be sure, of my leaving Of course if it run I will go but I am not depending on it Wages here are so low can scarcely live We can buy enough to eat we only buy enough to Keep up alive I mean the greater part of the Race. Women wages are from $1.25 Some time as high as $2.50. just some time for a whole week.

Hoping Dear Editor that I will get a hearing from you through return mail, giving me Some ideas and Some Sketches on the different Climate suitable for our health.

P. S. You can place my letter in Some of the Defender Colums but done use my name in print, for it might get back down here.

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Letter 8 (from Starkville, Miss., May 28, 1917)

Your name have bin given me as a Relibal furm putting people in toutch with good locations for education there children. Now I am a man of 40 years old. by traid I am a barber of 20 years experence. I am now in the business for white but I can barber for either white or colord. I have a wife and seven children 5 girls and 2 boys. allso I am a preacher. I dont care for the large city life. I rather live in a town of 15 or 20 thousand. I want to raise by family nice and I would like for my children to have the advantage of good schools and churches. Now if you are in a persison to help me a long this line I would be glad to here from yo.

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Letter 9 (from Philadelphia, Pa., Oct. 7, 1917)

Dear Sir:
I take this method of thanking you for yours early responding and the glorious effect of the treatment. Oh. I do feel so fine. Dr. the treatment reach me almost ready to move.

I am now housekeeping again I like it so much better than rooming. Well Dr. with the aid of God I am making very good I make $75 per month. I am carrying enough insurance to pay me $20 per week if I am not able to be on duty.

I don't have to work hard. dont have to mister every little white boy comes along I havent heard a white man call a colored a nigger you no now -- since I been in the state of Pa. I can ride in the electric street and steam cars any where I get a seat. I dont care to mix with white -- what I mean I am not crazy about being with white folks, but if I have to pay the same fare I have learn to want the same acomidation. and if you are first in a place here shoping you dont have to wait until the white folks get thro tradeing. yet amid all this I shall ever love the good old South, and I am praying that God may give every well wisher a chance to be a man regardless of his color, and if my going to the front would bring about such conditions, I am ready any day -- well Dr. I dont want to worry you but read between lines; and maybe you can see a little sense in my weak statement.

the kids are in school every day I have only two and I guess that all.

Dr. when you find time I would be delighted to have a word from the good old home state. Wife join me in sending love you and yours.

I am your friend and patient.

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