Museum Preserves the History of Blacks' 'Great Migration' North

Recalling what it was like to be part of the "Great Migration," hundreds of people have dug into old trunks and searched attics and closets for memorabilia to contribute to the current exhibit at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum.

The exhibit, "Let This Be Your Home," focuses on the wave of 200,000 black Southerners who headed north to Philadelphia between 1900 and 1940 in search of a better life. Since Colonial days, the city has been a major center of African-American culture, and African-American leaders here were in the forefront of efforts to abolish slavery.

"The Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum (established in 1976) is part of that tradition," said the museum's executive director, Rowena Stewart. "It is the first museum specifically built by a major city in the United States to house and interpret collections of Afro-American culture."

Last year, 92,000 children visited the museum, said director of education Pearl Robinson. According to museum officials, the Philadelphia facility has been a model for more than half of the 120 African-American museums nationwide.

"Hundreds of personal items--culture preserved for posterity in black homes--have been donated by individuals from all walks of life--poor, middle-class and rich--who moved north to Philadelphia during that period," Stewart said of the current exhibit.

One woman donated the dress she wore on the train coming north in 1923, according to exhibit director Richard Watson. Others gave trunks, family photographs and a quilt that had been in one family since the 1700s, he said.

Also on exhibit is a flyer sent out in 1917 by the Rev. Robert J. Williams, pastor of "Mother" Bethel A.M.E. Church, to scores of African-American congregations in the South urging members to come to Philadelphia and let his church and city be their new home.

Many also answered the call when Northern manufacturers sent farm labor agents to the South in search of new workers, promising wages several times higher than what workers received elsewhere.

Photographs document the hovels that the migrants left behind, also showing the terror they were escaping--lynchings and Ku Klux Klan rallies. Also depicted are the colored waiting rooms at railroad depots jammed with black families huddled around trunks and suitcases, waiting for the train north.

An editorial from Opportunity 1923, the journal of the National Urban League, tells of "the awful injustice, the inhumanity of the South, toward her black population. We are tired of being lynched with impunity, tired of mean, dirty Jim Crow conditions, tired of paying taxes to support institutions like public libraries which we cannot enter. . . ."

From the museum's oral history archives, older Philadelphians reflect on life in the South, the journey north and what they experienced in their new home. Samples include:

* "Our schooling was only four months total for our entire lives," said Willa Allen, who came here in 1923 from Columbia, S.C. "I moved to Philadelphia so I could go to school."

* Edgar Campbell, who left Savannah, Ga., in 1917: "There were thousands of (African Americans) at the station waiting to get on the train to go north. Some walked out of their homes and didn't even take nothin'."

* "I heard so many people saying, 'Goin' to Philadelphia, goin' to Philadelphia,' " recalled Lilly McKnight, who moved from Columbia, S.C., in 1925. "One day I did."

According to Stewart, 58, "the vast majority" of the 600,000 black residents of Philadelphia--55% of the city's population--"are here today because they, their parents or grandparents left the South for the 'Promised Land' that was Philadelphia during the 'Great Migration.' "

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