The suburbanization and the ghettos that were created as a result of the limits of where [African-Americans] could live in the North [still exist today.] And ... the South was forced to change, in part because they were losing such a large part of their workforce through the Great Migration.
There were colored and white waiting rooms everywhere, from doctor's offices to the bus stations, as people may already know. But there were actually colored windows at the post office in, for example, Pensacola, Florida. And there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. And there were separate windows where white people and black people would go to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi. And there were even separate tellers to make your deposits at the First National Bank in Atlanta.
My parents sent me to a school across town, an integrated school, where I had the chance to meet and grow up with people who were from other parts of the world. ... I remember feeling that I would never have anything to contribute on St. Patrick's Day. I couldn't tell the stories that they might have been telling about their forebears and I felt left out.
Anything that could be conceived of that would separate black people from white people was devised and codified by someone in some state in the South. There were colored and White waiting rooms everywhere, from doctor's offices to the bus stations, as people may already know.
That's one of the biggest losses, I think, to African American families, is that people, once they left, they turned away from the South. They didn't look back, and they often didn't tell their children about it. They didn't want to talk about it. It was too painful, what they'd gone through and the caste system of the South, which was Jim Crow.
And in some ways, to me, that's one of the inspiring and powerful things about the Great Migration itself. There was no leader, there was no one person who set the date who said, 'On this date, people will leave the South.' They left on their own accord for as many reasons as there are people who left. They made a choice that they were not going to live under the system into which they were born anymore and in some ways, it was the first step that the nation's servant class ever took without asking.
There are certain things that we take for granted that simply would not have existed without the great migration. Motown, for example, would not have existed - it simply would not, because Berry Gordy, the founder of it, his parents had migrated from Georgia to Detroit where he founded Motown, and where did he get his talent?
Many immigrants do not talk about what they endured back home. They were fleeing that world, and when they left they didn't want to talk about it because there had been pain and heartbreak under the caste system of the South. They didn't want to burden their children with what they had endured.
I mean my mother migrated from Georgia -Rome, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., where she then met my father, who was a Tuskegee Airman who was from Southern Virginia. They migrated to Washington and I wouldn't even exist if it were not for that migration. And I brought her back to Georgia, both my parents, actually.
What I love about the stories of the Great Migration is that this is not ancient history; this is living history. Most people of color can find someone in their own family who had experienced a migration of some kind, knowing the sense of dislocation, longing and fortitude.
At the beginning of the 20th century, before the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of them were living outside the South in the great cities of the North and West. So when this migration began, you had a really small number of people who were living in the North and they were surviving as porters or domestics or preachers - some had risen to levels of professional jobs - but they were, in some ways, protected because they were so small.