The Great Migration & the Identity Crisis of Southern White America

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The Great Migration &
The Identity Crisis of Southern White America

Based on documents from Eric Arnesen’s Black Protest and the Great Migration

The Great Migration of Southern blacks northwards and out of the Southern states created two fundamental crises in the lives of white Southerners, that of economy and that of identity. The inability of the white South to internalize the rapidly changing realities of race relations, and to move beyond the paternalist worldview that it clung to, would compound and then exacerbate a very concrete crisis in the evisceration of the traditional labor supply of the South. Unable and unwilling to recognize and embrace a new sense of identity in relation to African Americans, the white South would suffer the evaporation of the abundant supply of artificially cheap Negro labor upon which the Southern economy was dependent and become forced to confront the racist and inaccurate racial identities they had made the foundation of Southern society and order. The documents collected by Eric Arnesen in Black Protest and the Great Migration bring to light how deeply alarming the Great Migration was in the minds of white Southerners, and how the crisis of identity it precipitated would act as herald and courier to the end of traditional Southern society and the rise of a New South. The decision of the black Southerner to leave the South constituted a crippling threat to the social and economic order of the entire region. Developed over the decades following the end of the Reconstruction Era and based upon the legacy and ideals of the Antebellum era, the legitimacy of that order depended upon a set of assumptions, held nearly universally by white Southerners, about the nature of the Negro race and upon the racial identity that whites had constructed for themselves around assumptions. Included in Document 1 are several excerpts from white magazines and newspapers that display the white South’s total belief in the myth of the Negro as a second-class race, genetically predisposed to peonage in the Southern economy. One such magazine, a nationally circulated white weekly named The Outlook published the opinion of a young, educated, black man on the topic of “negro migration” (62). He writes, in opposition to the migration of blacks to the North, “we understand the soil, the climate, and the life in the South; and being by nature a race of peaceful people, we prefer to remain in the South,” despite “the pinch of difficult living, crop failure, harsh treatment, and in some cases, indebtedness” (63). The man continues to claim that, “ours being a backwards race” requiring others to take “responsibility for our care and treatment,” Southern blacks ought to remain “a cog in the South’s industrial machinery” and not invite “the criticism of our best friends” by seeking better opportunities (64). The claims made about the universal qualities of the southern Negro in the excerpt from The Outlook that Arnesen includes in Document 1 are precisely those that allowed whites to construct a racial identity that justified the social and economic order of the South. Mary DeBardeleben, a white Southern racial liberal whose article The Negro Exodus: A Southern Woman’s View is also included in Document 1, explains that as the paternal guardian of the “good-natured, long-suffering” Negro most whites found it impossible understand the underlying causes of the Great Migration or even to acknowledge the dissatisfaction of the Negro (51). Perceptively, DeBardeleben claims that until the pocketbooks of white Southerners were threatened, the question of Negro discontentment had never been a topic of public discourse. Previously, she writes, the assumption that “if he (the Negro) should happen to give us trouble we can cope with that and the law will uphold us in anything we do” had been unchallenged (51). However, in absenting themselves from the Southern economy, Southern blacks created an economic...
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