Mention “The Great Migration” and one tends to think of the breathtaking spectacle of millions of wildebeest, zebra and other grazing animals making their annual 1,800-mile trek from the Serengeti plains of Tanzania to the Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
But on this year’s National Train Day — the “holiday” started by Amtrak in 2008 to commemorate the May 1869 completion of the transcontinental railway — Amtrak unveiled an exhibit at its 30th Street Station in Philadelphia that documents a Great Migration unique to the United States: the journey of African-Americans via passenger and freight trains from the rural South to the industrial Northeast, Midwest and West during the early 20th century. The exhibit was designed with the help of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, The Henry Ford, and the University of Chicago and Florida State Archives.
“Amtrak is honored to host the Great Migration exhibit during National Train Day events in Philadelphia,” said Emmett H. Fremaux, the company’s vice president of marketing and product development. “Through historic documents and compelling images, the exhibit recounts the significance of rail travel during a crucial time in the history of African America.”
In addition to viewing historic documents and photographs, attendees were engaged in storytelling and conversations with members of the Union League and with Civil War-period re-enactment performers of the United States Colored Troops.
Some two million Blacks moved as individuals and families out of the South between 1910 and 1930, largely to escape racism and widespread lynching, and to seek jobs in industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, and better schools for their children. Moreover, adult men could vote in the North, with the vote extended to women in 1920. In 1900, about 90 percent of Blacks lived in southern states. By 1930, however, their population in northern states, mostly in the major cities, had grown by about 40 percent.
“I consider the Great Migration probably one of the most significant events in African-American history in the twentieth century. It changed the entire complexion of many facets of American life, not only African-American life, but the life of the country in general,” says Allen Ballard, Ph.D., a history/African-American studies professor at the University of Albany, N.Y., and an award-winning author.
The keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Station exhibit on May 7, Ballard discussed the important role that the Great Migration played in the country’s railroad history. He spoke with The Network Journal a few days before the event. “The migration turned African-Americans from being predominantly rural to being predominantly urban, and that’s a major transition. The transition had many positive manifestations, including the ascension of African-Americans to political power in urban areas. It increased the power of the Democratic Party in the North and it gave African-Americans in the North leverage to bring about much of the change that took place,” he said. At the same time, “a lot of bad things came out of the urbanization, in particular the disintegration of the African-American family. The solidity of the community was broken and fractured. It’s what happens with all migrations from rural to urban situations. It puts enormous pressure on the rural cultures.”
He hoped the exhibit and his presentation would help African-Americans in Philadelphia to gain a better sense of where they came from. “The roots of the African-American are so deep in the South and so many characteristics of the culture were transported to the North. In knowing the totality of the experience that created the modern African-American, that gives one a better understanding of our situation in general,” Ballard said.
A spokesperson for Images USA, which helped to put together the photo exhibit over six months “in a labor of love,” said the exhibit likely will tour major Amtrak stations. Stay tuned to MyBlackJourney.com.