The 20th century migration African-Americans made from the South to the North and West expanded black enclaves across the nation. While Omaha didn’t experience a huge influx like Chicago or Los Angeles, it was enough to alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape.
This epoch movement went little examined outside scholarly circles and literary works until Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 nonfiction book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will discuss her book in an April 12 talk at Countryside Community United Church of Christ, 8787 Pacific Street.
The 7 p.m. program is free. The suggested donation is $10.
Rich Nared and his uncle Rev. Frank Likely migrated here separately from their shared hometown of Evergreen, Ala. The many branches of their large extended family include the Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, all of whom are a presence in Omaha.
Unorganized, with no discernible leader, the Great Migration played out over generations on backroads and rail lines, by auto, truck, bus and any means necessary. From the 1910s through the 1960s millions pulled up stakes for their chance at self-determination.
The sheer numbers meant a demographic shift whose profound consequences persist. Many receiving cities, says Wilkerson, did not make proper provisions for the new population, with blacks relegated to poor, overcrowded districts abutting immigrants. Limited available employment led to tensions, further flamed by racism. Blacks were refused housing and denied jobs. Outright discrimination, protests, strikes, riots and other acts of violence further isolated blacks.
“That in and of itself is a tragedy because much of this happened as a result of a complete misunderstanding of who the people were,” says Wilkerson. “The people who had arrived in these cities came from different parts of the world but they were all people of the land who had made this great leap of faith that life might be better far from home. They landed in these big, forbidding, anonymous cities where their labor was wanted but there wasn’t clarity as what to do with the people. All of them were struggling, trying to make a way in this alien place.
“One group was pitted against the other as if they were direct competition to one another and what one got the other one was losing. We are still living with that to this day.”
Likely and Nared did well here. Each married and raised children in designated black northeast neighborhoods. Despite segregation and discrimination, they thrived compared to the conditions they left behind.
They estimate hundreds of relatives and friends ventured North. It’s not by accident or coincidence so many residents of a small, backroads Ala. town uprooted themselves from their sharecropping life for an unfamiliar Midwestern city. Transplants would return with news of better jobs and more opportunities. Expatriates not only extolled the North’s virtues, they often made a show of their improved fortunes.
Likely recalls former Evergreen resident Aaron Samuels coming back in style to tout Omaha’s “booming packing houses.” He was hooked.
“This guy was down there bragging and I decided I would go with him to make some of that big money.”
Likely got on at the Cudahy packing plant. Before long he, too, returned South, strutting his own success, encouraging others to follow.
“I looked successful and I was successful. dressing nice and driving a nice car. I had money in my pocket. Some of them rode back out here with me. Quite a few of them. They just liked what they seen of me.”
Until the ’70s blacks traveling to the South “had to be very careful,” Likely says, to mind lingering Jim Crow attitudes and practices.
He says the motivation to migrate was not to chase some promised land but to pursue a better life. Down South families like his could never get ahead, always in debt to owners. He recalls earning 35 cents an hour as a farm hand and a few dollars for picking 350 pounds of cotton versus making ten times that laboring in Omaha. Wilkerson’s says the economic imperative is what drove most black migrants: “They saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom. For the first time in their lives these people were the master of their own fate.”
The South’s cruelty and treachery were added motivations to flee. The man Nared’s named after, Richard “Bud” Nared, began the family’s exodus when he fled for his life. As his nephew tells it, Bud’s mother was riding home in a mule-pulled wagon from the local general store when several white men stopped and harassed her, tearing her blouse. When she got home, Bud extracted the men’s names, grabbed his Winchester and tracked them down, shooting and killing two of them. Under imminent threat of lynching Bud’s family and friends hid him in the woods before secreting him out at night. He went to Omaha, where Evergreen natives preceded him.
“Most of us came here because we had to. We had to leave the South in the middle of the night,” says Rich Nared.
Likely says some met their end or went missing. “I known ’em to get beat up, I known ’em to get killed, and some we don’t know what happened to ’em. Disappeared. Nobody’s seen ’em since. Had an uncle who left. Don’t know where he went.”
Wilkerson often encounters such stories. “I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North,” she says.
Likely himself had reason to fear for his safety. He says he once got into an altercation with a white store owner and rather than be hit with a stick the man brandished Likely clanged a can of beans off his head. When the owner came looking for him, firing a pistol in the direction of his home, Likely got a shotgun and sprayed a buckshot warning towards the man, who fled. Another time, Likely was in his car headed to a dance when he came upon a group of Klansmen barricading the highway. The mob tried pulling him from the vehicle but Likely managed to navigate a ditch and outrace his pursuers to Bruton, Ala., where he was arrested and jailed.
When the North beckoned, he went.
“I was tired of the South. I heard about up North you didn’t have to tolerate the white people as we done there. I had enough of that. I would have been dead now anyway because I just wouldn’t take it.”
The prospect of escaping Jim Crow constraints and Ku Klux Klan dangers and making decent living wages proved a powerful lure. Exiled Bud Nared persuaded family to join him North. Rich Nared came with his family at Bud’s urging.
“He sent for us,” Nared says. “He’s the reason we came up here.”
It’s much the same pattern immigrant families followed.
Picking up and moving was harder for some than others. Strong attachment to family and land is why many stayed put. White bosses could make leaving difficult. Then there was the fear of the unknown.
Other migration patterns saw blacks recruited to fill wartime work shortages. The Omaha Public Schools brought new black teachers from the South through a federal work-study program.
Nared was 4 when he arrived but the South was never far for him and his brothers because they spent every summer in Ala. with their grandparents.
“I loved the South,” says Nared, who walked behind his grandfather as he plowed. “I’m a country boy at heart.”
He’s proudly kept his country ways, too.
Likely notes some blacks who migrated here later returned home for good. Many adult children relocated to the South, where, he says, “They’re doing better than we are. It’s changed a lot.”
The Evergreen exiles are holding a July reunion in Ala. God willing, Nared will do his elder best to educate the young’uns about what once was.
Wilkerson’s appearance is part of a lecture series by Countryside’s Center for Faith Studies.
The Reader is collecting Great Migration stories for an article to appear around the next Native Omaha Days. If you or a loved one migrated from the Deep South and settled in Omaha, greater Nebraska or western Iowa, then contact writer Leo Adam Biga to schedule an interview at 402-445-4666 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com