Letters of the Great Migration and the Depression

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Female postmaster handing out mail, 1930s.

Even as American soldiers were busy fighting Germans on the battlefields of Europe, another kind of battle for freedom was taking place in the United States. Influenced by a booming industrial job market, thousands and thousands of African Americans from the southern states began moving en masse to northern cities in the early 1900s. This movement, called “The Great Migration,” was greatly facilitated by black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, which printed ads offering to pay travel expenses for black workers willing to relocate. The Defender received scores of replies as a result of this campaign, as well as many more letters simply asking for advice or information about jobs in the area. The pages of the Defender became a forum for the letters of black American workers—those looking for jobs, those new to the city, and those simply wishing to encourage the migration of African Americans around the country.

A number of the letters received and printed were personal inquiries regarding information necessary for the writers to make the move. A letter dated May 20, 1917, for example, reads, “I also feel sure that you will spare a small amount of your time to give some needed information to one who wishes to relieve himselfe of the burden of the south. I indeed wish very much to come north anywhere in Ill. will do since I am away from the Lynchman’s noose and torchman’s fire.”

But sometimes the letters printed in the Defender served a more socially conscious purpose. One of these, dated August 26, 1916, responds to claims made by prominent black leaders that African Americans should remain in the south because of the many dangers associated with migration. The writer, W. J. Latham of Jackson, Mississippi, explains, “These letters give reasons why the Negro should stay in the south, but none of them give any good reason why our people should not go as the Chinaman, the Japanese, the Italian, the Pole, the Scandinavian and other foreigners who come to America for work have.” After detailing the poor working conditions in the south at that time, Latham goes on to describe his vision of what migration means for the African American citizen: “Through this migration to the north and west, he has a golden opportunity to learn. We will get new ideas of life, new ideas of agriculture and manufacturing, new ideas of civilization, new ideas of a larger world.” Letters such as these encouraged African Americans to make the trip and shape their destiny, and their presence in newspapers like the Defender helped to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the Great Migration.

Unfortunately for those buoyed by such hopes, as well as for the rest of the country, the Great Depression was upon them less than two decades later. Following the Wall Street crash in October 1929, circumstances continued to worsen for American workers, until in 1933 fully one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. Poverty, terrible living conditions, and homelessness were daily threats to many Americans. In desperation, thousands of those afflicted began writing letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, begging for assistance of some kind. These letters, which surely helped the President put a personal face on the nation’s dire circumstances, described trials beyond the power of their writers to overcome. One letter, dated November 26, 1934, explained, “Now winter is here again and we are suffering of cold, no water in the house, and we are facing to be forced out of the house, because I have no money to move or to pay so much money as they want when after making settlement I am mother of little children, am sick and losing my health, and we are eight people in the family, and where can I go when I don’t have money because no one is working in my house.” Begging for the assistance of a President that many looked to as a father figure, the woman pleaded with Roosevelt to “give this your immediate attention so we will not be forced to move or put out in the street.” The fate of this woman and her young family is not known.

Things were, if anything, worse among the African American community, as unemployed workers had to struggle against racial discrimination on top of a greatly depleted job market. Letters the Roosevelts received from African American citizens described the realities of the Depression as it affected their community: “I went up to our home Vister and re[ap]plied for some Thing to do an Some Thing to eat and She told me that she has nothing for me at all and to they give all the worke to White people and give us nothing an Sir I wont you to know how we are treated here so please help us if you can.”

This letter, sent anonymously to the White House from Picayune, Mississippi and dated September 3, 1935, revealed the position in which many African Americans found themselves. Jobs that, under normal circumstances, white men refused to do had traditionally been open to black workers. During the Depression, however, every scrap of work was taken as soon as it was offered, and the racial prejudices that prevailed in the country saw to it that most jobs went to white Americans. Though the outcome of this request, or even the identity of its author, is unknown, the letter and others like it revealed to President Roosevelt another facet of the crisis facing the nation.

Not all American citizens were sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed, however. Along with the letters begging for aid, the Roosevelts also received a number of letters denouncing their relief programs out of a sense of injustice that they were designed to provide something for nothing. Hard times had come to everyone in America, and people who might otherwise have been charitable often resented those receiving government support. In a letter to the First Lady, dated September 14, 1937, a woman named Minnie A. Hardin wrote, “I suppose from your point of view the work relief, old age pensions, slum clearance and all the rest seems like a perfect remedy for all the ills of this country, but I would like for you to see the results, as the other half sees them.” A hardworking woman slogging her way through economic depression, Hardin developed a certain bitterness towards those who lived on government relief.

In her letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, Hardin describes countless experiences with relief workers who simply wanted a free handout, and were unwilling to work hard to earn their money. She explained, “The women and children around here have had to work at the fields to help save the crops and several women fainted while at work and at the same time we couldn’t go up or down the road without stumbling over some of the reliefers, moping around carrying dirt from one side of the road to the other and back again, or else asleep.” While the sentiments Hardin expressed in her letter (“If [this] continues the people who will work will soon be nothing but slaves for the pampered poverty rats . . .”) were not entirely typical, they do reveal another set of Depression-era issues that had to be taken on by the government. Letters to the President served the same functions then as they always have: a forum for the airing of grievances, as well as for the presentation of petitions.