It is a fact that effectively swirls around the heads of many, never quite hitting home, what defeat in the American Civil War did to the South.
Many generations after 1865 have succumbed to the strong temptation of a narrow conceptualization – one that beckons us in the direction of seeing things as simple as the Union prevailing and the slaves being set free.
This is not exactly revisionism. It is much more the case of learning the wrong or inadequate lessons from history.
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To quote J.T. O’Brien: “The victory of the North in the Civil War did more than crush the southern Confederacy. It also…inaugrated a massive effort on the part of the victors to spread the practices, values and benefits of a free labor system throughout the South.”
“The three Reconstruction constitutional amendments, civil rights acts, and military reconstruction bills set the terms under which the South was to be transformed.”
Civil war defeat cost the South its way of life. Antebellum America was gone with the wind.
For about a quarter of a millennium, a feudal culture had been created around the dehumanization of people of African descent, working them to death to install a political economy sustained only by further dehumanization.
To let black people free, and to regard them as constitutional equals, was a bit too much for Southerners. That is why the so-called Great Migration had to happen.
It was the forced relocation of over six million African-Americans over a period of six decades due to a determination to make the status of their liberation as meaningless as it can get.
As people who had only been allowed to work for wages, blacks in the South around the 1900s had meager economic opportunities. This is coupled with the fact of Jim Crow laws that segregated amenities for blacks and whites.
Institutions too, did their best to remind African-Americans they were second-class citizens. The courts, the police and lawmakers were of no help.
When the South looked within itself after the loss of 1865, it could not fathom how to reinvent into a modern society capable of generating goods for white people and for the new Americans.
The Klu Klux Klan, thought to have been dismissed in 1869, was reinvigorated for newer and dirtier purposes during Reconstruction.
There could, therefore, be no other way than for blacks to leave.
As Isabel Wilkerson quoted anthropologist John Dollard saying, “Oftentimes, just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do. And if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put on.”
Thankfully, they would take advantage of vacancies for industrial workers in the North and Midwest, a demand created by America’s interests in World War I.
Economic historians found that when the migration started around 1916, African-American factory workers were able to make more than three times what they could make in the South.
The North and other parts of the United States may not have been a haven for racial equality but they guaranteed the material means for these economic migrants.
One of the lasting impacts of leaving the South meant that black people would become generational dwellers of big cities like New York, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago.
In the 1910 population census, more than 90% of US blacks lived in southern states. But by the 1970s, this quota was around 50%.
In these new states, black people would create history of their own – something still connected to the travails of black people in asserting their human dignity in a space that seemed foreign even if they called it home.
One of the historic expressions of the black experience is the Harlem Rennaissance movement. Harlem was an all-white neighborhood at the beginning of the 20th-century but by the middle of the 1920s, there were over 200,000 black people there.
Another of the impacts the migration brought was a new spirit of activism for racial equality. This is personified in the characters of people like Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, Northern-born black people who did not find use for the conservative and religious approach to civil rights Southern blacks of the time usually took.
By the 1940s, the migration northward and westward had slowed down. But even at that time, one-tenth of the country’s black people had relocated.
As a newspaper of the time Chicago Defender quoted someone, “the treatment doesn’t warrant staying”. It had to happen.
All because the South dreaded what the future would look like after the morality of slavery was adjudicated on the battlefield.