Between 1916 and 1921 a half million African Americans left the South and journeyed to cities in the North and West in what was then the largest internal movement of a people in such a concentrated period of time in the history of the nation. Migrants‘ letters to northern newspapers were among the best and most voluminous sources for understanding the migration process and interpreting the migrants’ motivations for leaving. Seven letters to the Chicago Defender— a black newspaper published in Chicago that strongly urged southern blacks to migrate North—attest to migrants' strong desire to “better their condition,” often risking their lives and possessions to make the trip north.
LUTCHER, LA., May 13, 1917
Dear Sir: I have been reading the Chicago defender and seeing so many advertisements about the work in the north I thought to write you concerning my condition. I am working hard in the south and can hardly earn a living. I have a wife and one child and can hardly feed them. I thought to write and ask you for some information concerning how to get a pass for myself and family. I dont want to leave my family behind as I cant hardly make a living for them right here with them and I know they would fare hard if I would leave them. If there are any agents in the south there havent been any of them to Lutcher if they would come here they would get at least fifty men. Please sir let me hear from you as quick as possible. Now this is all. Please dont publish my letter, I was out in town today talking to some of the men and they say if they could get passes that 30 or 40 of them would come. But they havent got the money and they dont know how to come. But they are good strong and able working men. If you will instruct me I will instruct the other men how to come as they all want to work. Please dont publish this because we have to whisper this around among our selves because the white folks are angry now because the negroes are going north. * * * NATCHEZ, MISS., Sept. 22–17
MR. R. S. ABBOTT, Editor.
Dear Sir: I thought that you might help me in Some way either personally or through your influence, is why I am worrying you for which I beg pardon.
I am a married man having wife and mother to support, (I mention this in order to properly convey my plight) conditions here are not altogether good and living expenses growing while wages are small. My greatest desire is to leave for a better place but am unable to raise the money.
I can write short stories all of which portray negro characters but no burlesque can also write poems, have a gift for cartooning but have never learned the technicalities of comic drawing. these things will never profit me anything here in Natchez. Would like to know if you could use one or two of my short stories in serial form in your great paper they are very interesting and would furnish good reading matter. By this means I could probably leave here in short and thus come in possession of better employment enabling me to take up my drawing which I like best.
Kindly let me hear from you and if you cannot favor me could you refer me to any Negro publication buying fiction from their race. * * * SELMA, ALA., May 19, 1917
Dear Sir: I am a reader of the Chicago Defender I think it is one of the Most Wonderful Papers of our race printed. Sirs I am writeing to see if You all will please get me a job. And Sir I can wash dishes, wash iron nursing work in groceries and dry good stores. Just any of these I can do. Sir, who so ever you get the job from please tell them to send me a ticket and I will pay them. When I get their as I have not got enough money to pay my way. I am a girl of 17 years old and in the 8 grade at Knox Academy School. But on account of not having money enough I had to stop school. Sir I will thank you all with all my heart. May God Bless you all. Please answer in return mail. * * * PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS, 5/5th/17
Dear Sir: Permitt me to inform you that I have had the pleasure of reading the Defender for the first time in my life as I never dreamed that there was such a race paper published and I must say that its some paper.
However I can unhesitatingly say that it is extraordinarily interesting and had I know that there was such a paper in my town or such being handled in my vicinity I would have been a subscriber years ago.
Nevertheless I read every space of the paper dated April 28th which is my first and only paper at present. Although I am greatfully anticipating the pleasure of receiving my next Defender as I now consider myself a full fledged defender fan and I have also requested the representative of said paper to deliver my Defender weekly.
In reading the Defenders want ad I notice that there is lots of work to be had and if I havent miscomprehended I think I also understand that the transportation is advanced to able bodied working men who is out of work and desire work. Am I not right? with the understanding that those who have been advanced transportation same will be deducted from their salary after they have begun work. Now then if this is they proposition I have about 10 or 15 good working men who is out of work and are dying to leave the south and I assure you that they are working men and will be too glad to come north east or west, any where but the south.
Now then if this is the proposition kindly let me know by return mail. However I assure you that it shall be my pleasure to furnish you with further or all information that you may undertake to ask or all information necessary concerning this communication.
Thanking you in advance for the courtesy of a prompt reply with much interest. * * * BESSEMER, ALA., 5/14/17
Sirs: Noticing and ad in Chicago Defender of your assitance to those desiring employment there I thought I mayhaps you could help me secure work in your Windy City. I’m a married man have one child. I have common school education, this is my hand write. I am presently employed as a miner has been for 14 years but would like a Change. I’m apt to learn would like to get where I could go on up and support myself and family. You know more about it than I but in your opinion could I make anything as pullman porter being inexsperienced? I’d be so grateful to U. to place me in something I’ve worked myself too hard for nothing. I’m sober and can adjust my life with any kind and am a quiet christian man. * * * NEW ORLEANS, April 22, 1917
under the head lines in the Chicago Defender of Saturday April 22–17 I red how some of us that goes up north are being treated. there is a few that have gone from this city north, and came back a few weeks. some say they came back on account of being to cold “The ohters Say they ware to pay so much to get work etc” I would like to go north. and would rather be in some place. other then Chicago or near Chicago. I am a union man“ but dont exspect to work at union only” there is a few of us union men that are planning to go north and Kindly please write me" all so I mail you one of my union cards hoping to heare from you soon I am respectfully, Yours. * * * MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE April 23, 1917
Gentlemen: I want to get in tuch with you in regard of good location & a job i am for race elevation every way. I want a job in a small town some where in north where I can receive verry good wages and where I can educate my 3 little girls and demand respect of intelegence. I prefer a job as cabinet maker or any kind of furniture mfg. if possible.
Let me hear from you all at once please. State minimum wages and kind of work.
Source: Journal of Negro History, Vol. IV, 1919, pp. 417, 302, 317, 327, 307, 59
See Also:"Times Is Gettin Harder": Blues of the Great Migration