History & Politics
The Great Migration
How Black families came “up South,” faced down Jim Crow, and built a groundbreaking Civil Rights movement.
By Ron Cassie
JACOB LOGAN SAW AN OPPORTUNITY. It was 1945, and Cherry Hill was finally being developed to alleviate housing shortages for the Black veterans and World War II defense workers that had flooded into Baltimore.
After years of delays because of white backlash at other proposed sites, the Cherry Hill project—the first suburban-style planned community for African Americans, and perhaps most conspicuous example of residential segregation by design ever in the United States—went up quickly once it got the go-ahead. Families rushed into the new rowhouses and apartment buildings before basic infrastructure, such as a school, shopping center, or grocery store, were even in place.
Originally from the rural South, Logan worked at the Bethlehem-Fairfield docks, having come to Baltimore during the war to build Liberty ships. Despite a fifth-grade education, he’d also managed to save and invest in a small corner grocery in a nearby Black section of South Baltimore by the time construction in Cherry Hill began. His wife, Estelle, a former downtown elevator operator, ran the store during the day while he toiled at his union job at the port. She was also from North Carolina, but they’d met in Baltimore.
In a moment of inspiration, the 25-year-old Logan purchased a used delivery truck when Cherry Hill opened its doors. Cramming the vehicle with every foodstuff, household, and drug store item he could buy or get on credit, he started making two Cherry Hill runs a day in his mini-Walmart on wheels. He drove through once in the morning, and then again after the neighborhood kids had returned from school. Later, he replaced the truck with an old, but bigger, school bus. “Oh, my God, how I remember,” recalls Linda Morris, author of Cherry Hill: Raising Successful Black Children in Jim Crow Baltimore. “We’d chase down the street after the bus: ‘Mister Logan, Mister Logan, do you have penny candy? Do you have penny candy today?’”
Estelle and Jacob Logan in front of the family car, late 1950s.
Born in 1920, Logan had grown up in the western corner of North Carolina, in Rutherford County, so named for a local plantation slaveholder and former U.S. Army general who had made his mark in the southern Appalachian “Indian” wars. Logan was raised on his grandparents’ farm, where he worked as a boy until he left home and school at 12 for domestic employment with a white family in nearby Forest City—coincidentally the site of one of the state’s most notorious lynchings—for room, board, and $1 a week. Three years later, with scant prospects in his state of origin, he left all he knew behind to earn $10 a week as a houseman for another white family in New York. He bolted to Baltimore after learning of higher wages building ships in the war effort.
Eventually, Logan would leave his Bethlehem-Fairfield job, too, opening a second grocery store in Turner Station, the then-fast-growing Black community in southeast Baltimore County. Building on his entrepreneurial successes, he launched a popular bread company in the 1950s, plastering his visage on loaves of “Daddy Logan” bread. When he retired at 73, he took up golf, which he’d dreamt of playing since his teenage caddying days.
“When the white businessman he worked for in New York told him he’d never be able to learn the game because he was Black—he would’ve said Negro or Colored in those days—my father never forgot that moment,” recalls Logan’s daughter, Francesca Brooks. “He played every day after he retired at Baltimore’s public courses and everywhere else. In his 80s, he’d challenge anyone to play him for money. His last golf trip, he took his son-in-law with him back to North Carolina, to play Pinehurst [the famous, long-segregated professional course]. That meant everything to him because of its history. He was 95. That was his bucket list. He died two years later in 2017. Only once did I hear him express anything like regret or bitterness. I guess he kept those thoughts and feelings from us. ‘I made it a long way in my lifetime,’ he said. ‘I just would’ve liked to have seen how far I could’ve gotten, if I hadn’t started so far behind.’”
The Dean family buying their Easter shoes. From left, Walter, Ruth, Annette, Patricia, Ransom, Delores, Sonia, Gloria, and Janice.
“I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown . . . I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
—Richard Wright, from Black Boy, 1945
The Great Migration, the exodus of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to cities in the North—or in Baltimore’s case, almost North—Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970, was one of the largest internal movements of people in U.S. history. It also remains, with the exception of Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning treatise, The Warmth of Other Suns, whose title honors the Mississippi-born Wright, one of the most under-chronicled stories of the 20th century.
In each U.S. Census prior to 1910, more than 90 percent of the country’s Black population lived in the South, with the overwhelming majority of those individuals spread out in rural areas across former Confederate States. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of the nation’s Black population had decamped for the booming cities of Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, and Cleveland, Newark, Pittsburgh, and “Up-South” Baltimore, to name a few, in hopes of economic opportunity, education, relief from white oppression and violence, and something closer to full participation in the civic life of their own country.
Without this leaderless mass flight— “Oftentimes, just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do,” wrote John Dollard, an anthropologist studying the racial caste system of the South in the 1930s—there would be no successful World War II defense build-up at Sparrows Point, the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, or the huge Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant in Baltimore. There would be no Steel Belt, no “Big Three” auto-making capital in Detroit, no “City of Big Shoulders” meatpacking houses and railroad yards. Which means there would also be no Motown, no Chicago blues, no Muddy Waters, no Aretha Franklin, and no Jackson 5. There’d be no Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston—a Florida native who attended high school in Baltimore. There’d be no modern jazz as we know it. Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane were born less than a decade apart in rural North Carolina—just like Jacob Logan.
In Baltimore, the proportion of the Black population tripled during the Great Migration, growing from less than 85,000, 15 percent of the city’s overall population, in 1910, to more than 420,000 and a near majority by 1970. As it is impossible to imagine this country without the contributions of those who fled the Deep South for Detroit, Chicago, and New York, it’s impossible to conjure a Baltimore without the hundreds of thousands of people who came to the city as part of the Great Migration—whether under their own volition or carried to new futures by their parents.
A few notables: the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the son of former South Carolina sharecroppers; Judge Robert Bell, retired Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, who returned home to North Carolina during his boyhood summers to tie and cure tobacco; former state Sen. Clarence Blount, also the son of Carolina tobacco workers and the first African-American majority leader in the General Assembly; former state Sen. Verda Welcome, one of 16 children raised on a small North Carolina farm and the first Black woman ever elected to a U.S. state Senate; former city councilwoman and homeless advocate Bea Gaddy; acclaimed poet Lucille Clifton, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and renowned singer Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s “first lady of jazz,” who died a year ago this month. Her parents, a Harlem Park barber and a homemaker who played piano at Ames United Methodist Church, both migrated from South Carolina and met in Baltimore.
Above and Below: More than 6,000 Black male and female workers were employed at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, where Liberty ships, including the SS Frederick Douglass, were rushed to completion, May 1943.
Willie Adams, Henry Parks, and Joe Louis (in hats, from left) at Louis’ bottling company in West Baltimore.
Businessman, investor, and subsequent political power player “Little Willie” Adams left the cotton fields of Zebulon, North Carolina, in 1929 at 15. A literal rags-to-riches story, Adams worked his way up from running numbers and cutting sailcloth into rags at a Fells Point shop to running his own illegal lottery operation, among other business. Later, he emerged to use his influence, wealth, and resources to finance scores of legal Black businesses, including the Super Pride grocery chain and Parks Sausage Co., one of the first Black-owned companies to trade publicly on Wall Street.
At the same time, William March, born to a North Carolina Lutheran minister following the flock to Baltimore, clerked a post office night shift while building his eastside funeral business into one of the largest African-American-owned mortuary services in the country. March would also co-found the Harbor Bank of Maryland, the state’s first Black-owned commercial bank. And before all that, Master Sergeant March participated in the 1944 D-Day landing at Normandy.
Negro League star Leon Day was born in Virginia, moved to Baltimore with his family as a youngster, and ended up in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. A generation after Olympian Jesse Owens, heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson made their marks—all children of sharecroppers who made their way North or West as part of the Great Migration—Jim Parker and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, born in Georgia and Alabama, respectively, came to Baltimore and helped the Colts win two NFL titles. Orioles’ great Frank Robinson, as well as standout Don Buford, both born in Texas in the 1930s, helped the O’s become the best team in baseball. Earl “the Pearl” Monroe and Wes Unseld, drafted back-to-back in 1967 and 1968, came with roots in Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively, and made the Bullets the most exciting team in professional basketball.
The parents of Kurt Schmoke, the city’s first elected Black mayor, are from North Carolina and Georgia and met here.
Quiltmaker Elizabeth Talford Scott, a middle child of 14, whose family sharecropped vegetables and cotton on the land where they once had been enslaved, made the Great Migration journey from rural South Carolina to Sandtown-Winchester in the late 1930s. She worked as a housekeeper and nanny and eventually met Charlie Scott Jr., a Bethlehem Steel crane operator and son of North Carolina tobacco sharecroppers. Their daughter is MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner and artist Joyce J. Scott.
“My parents left the South in order to get jobs that weren’t back-breaking and to join other family who had already left,” says Scott, whose mother died in 2011. “My mother came to Washington, D.C., first. She was on her way to Chicago, and Baltimore was supposed to be a way station. Then she met my father. My mother went to a one-room schoolhouse, and my father, the same thing. They left to get away from the persistent and overt racism that happened every day. They told stories of being afraid of the police, of people arrested for loitering and being put in jail without a trial or put on a chain gang for weeks, months, and years to work on some white farmer’s land. Those things [related to a penal labor practice known as “convict leasing”] are not myths. That was prevalent.
“There were so many people in West Baltimore from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina—there were whole communities and congregations that were like ‘Little Virginia,’ ‘Little North Carolina,’ and ‘Little South Carolina,’” continues Scott, who attended since-closed, once all-white Eastern High School during the mid-1960s civil rights era. “They helped people from the country adapt to the city.”
Joyce J. Scott and Elizabeth Talford Scott’s joint exhibition last year at The Baltimore Museum of Art, Hitching Their Dreams to Untamed Stars, evoked both the Underground Railroad and “over-ground” Great Migration. “Those exoduses are cousins,” Scott says. One of her mother’s quilts in the show, “Plantation,” features a galaxy of multicolored stars in the night sky, referencing both the land where she grew up and the constellation maps enslaved people used to escape to the North.
“What seems of most interest here is that they were in the frame of mind for leaving,” the Black scholar Emmett J. Scott (no relation to Joyce J. Scott or Elizabeth Talford Scott) wrote in 1920 of the first Great Migration wave, kickstarted by labor shortages in the North as European immigration came to an abrupt halt during World War I. “They left as though they were fleeing some curse; they were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket and they left with the intention of staying.”
This flight from the Deep South, continued Emmett J. Scott, whose papers are archived at Morgan State University, suggested nothing short of the Israelites’ decision to flee Egypt and cross the Jordan River for the Promised Land. “At times, demonstrations took on a rather spectacular aspect, as when a party of 147 from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, while crossing the Ohio River, held solemn ceremonies,” he reported. “These migrants knelt down and prayed; the men stopped their watches and, amid tears of joy, sang the familiar songs of deliverance . . . One woman of the party declared that she could detect an actual difference in the atmosphere beyond the Ohio River, explaining that it was much lighter and that she could get her breath more easily.”
A family of migrant workers from Florida stop alongside the road in Sawboro, North Carolina, on their way north, July 1940.
At first, Great Migration arrivals into Baltimore were mostly in-state transplants, as one might expect, from Eastern Shore sharecropping farms and Southern Maryland tobacco fields. In 1910, 87 percent of the city’s Black population was native to Maryland, with migrants from Virginia making up the largest group of those born outside of the state. By 1920, however, the share of Black Baltimoreans who were Maryland natives had already declined to 76 percent. By the outset of the Great Depression, nearly half of the city’s Black population had been born outside Maryland.
The early in-state migrants were lured up and across the Chesapeake Bay by the already large and, in many cases, thriving Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore that had been built around Black churches, Black-owned businesses, then-Morgan College, and the city’s burgeoning mill, railroad, factory, and port industries. Since at least Frederick Douglass’ time in the city in the 1830s, African Americans from the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland had viewed Baltimore as a kind of mecca. After the Civil War and brief optimism of Reconstruction, they continued to come seeking better jobs and wages and education for their children.
Equally important: those leaving Maryland’s rural counties for Baltimore were also seeking relief from discrimination and political oppression, as well as the ever-present threat of white violence—they were, for all intents and purposes, refugees seeking asylum within the borders of their own state. Baltimore was still segregated, but it provided greater opportunity and options, and it was safer. From 1877 to 1950, more than 4,000 Black Americans, an average of more than one person a week, were lynched in the U.S. The last three of the more than 40 lynchings that took place in Maryland occurred in the early 1930s on the Eastern Shore, later than commonly assumed, and still within the lifetime of many Maryland residents today. But no lynching, as far as anyone knows, ever took place in Baltimore City, where there had always been a large, free, dynamic Black population.
Such was the terror inspired by lynchings and near-lynchings, according to Charles Chavis Jr., director of the John Mitchell Jr. Program for History, Justice, and Race at George Mason University, that there was a direct correlation between those witnessing lynchings on the Eastern Shore and those fleeing to Philadelphia and Baltimore. “In terms of the Eastern Shore and its sense of place, with its agriculture and isolation, it possessed the spirit of the antebellum Deep South,” says Chavis. “The whole concept of Maryland as ‘the Middle Ground’ with both a history of slavery and also always a large free Black population in Baltimore makes it unique in the story of the Great Migration. Baltimore wasn’t the ‘North,’ but for many, it was ‘close enough.’”