Great Migration

Other suns: California

Though the Great Migration to California most often drew seekers from states like Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, Wilson County natives also joined the tide that increased the African-American population of that state exponentially.

Perhaps the first nationally known Wilson native to take up residence in California arrived not in the Great Migration, but as a result of the National Football League draft. The Los Angeles Rams drafted Saint Augustine’s College defensive end Isaac T. Lassiter in 1962, and he later spent five seasons with the Oakland Raiders, playing in the 1967 Super Bowl. Lassiter was born in 1940 in Wilson to Dempsey and Mary Jane Bynum Lassiter and graduated from C.H. Darden High School.

Hat tip to Bernard Patterson for the football card image.

Other suns: Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia was the site of my closest personal connections to the Great Migration. In the 1940s and ’50s, my father’s brothers and then his mother left Wilson for Philly, and every summer we hit the highway for a week or so at my grandmother’s house on Wyalusing Avenue. Her block was filled with migrants from Georgia and North Carolina and Virginia, and her broader social circle included relatives who had settled in other parts of the city. 

(I lived in Philadelphia for a few years in the 1990s, in both West Philly and Germantown. By then, many of the first generation of Southern migrants had passed on, but their legacy is firm. The fourth generation of my eldest uncle’s offspring is growing up in North Philadelphia right now.)

Pennsylvania’s plethora of on-line records makes for easy documentation of a long list of Wilson County natives who sought new lives in the Keystone State. Not surprisingly, almost all landed in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or their suburbs.

Hattie Henderson Ricks and husband Jonah C. Ricks, a Nash County, N.C., native, on the porch of their home at 5549 Wyalusing Avenue in West Philadelphia, late 1950s.

Other suns: New York.

I recently revisited Isabel Wilkerson’s epic The Warmth of Other Suns and, if you haven’t basked in this brilliance, please do. Others have said it better than I can. Toni Morrison called the book “profound, necessary, and a delight to read”; Tom Brokaw praised it as “an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation”; The New York Times Book Review” proclaimed a massive and masterly account”; The New Yorker, “a deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book.”

Black Wide-Awake is largely about people who cast down their buckets where they were, but also shines light on those whose paths carried them away from Wilson County. I can say with confidence that nobody I knew growing up did not have relatives in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx. Every summer, our little pack swelled with migrants’ grandchildren sent down South and inevitably one of our own went North for two weeks and came back “talking proper.” (Disclosure: I spent two years living in New York. I was in graduate school at Columbia and lived on West 121st Street in Morningside Heights. From the park at the end of my street, I could look out over the expanse of pre-gentrified Harlem, and 125th Street served up any Southernness I was homesick for.)

A definitive listing of these many thousands of migrants is impossible, but a try seems well worth it. In a slight expansion of the general timeline of the blog, these running lists will focus on documented migration prior to 1960. Arguably, New York was the lodestar for North Carolinians during the Great Migration, and I’ll start there.

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