In the 1950s, my father’s side of the family, like many other Black families from the South, migrated to the northern parts of the country in search of job opportunities and a less racially-contentious environment. Moving from Houston, TX to Rochester, NY, and eventually settling in Cleveland, OH, they experienced the discomfort of regional differences and adapting to a new environment — but, with the help of a generous and supportive Black community in their final destination, also found themselves to be part of a kind, openhanded community in the northern Midwest.
My family’s story is one of many. The Great Migration was a mass exodus of over 6 million Black people from the Southern United States, set in motion in large part due to racial discrimination and nearly nonexistent opportunity for economic mobility in the South. The Great Migration spanned over five decades, from 1916 to 1970, and by the 1930s, as many as 2 million Black Americans had already moved up to cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland — whose populations exploded.
My grandmother, Juanita, was from Birmingham, AL. Her family moved to Detroit, MI during World War II to work in the factories. My grandfather, Mitchel, was from Austin, TX. The two met in Tuskegee, AL while my grandmother was earning her registered nursing degree (RN) and my grandfather was a cadet in the Army Air Corps. Soon after, they got married and she moved in with her mother in Detroit while she was pregnant with their first child, my Aunt Deborah.
After my grandmother finished her RN at Tuskegee — and after the war was over — my aunt, grandfather and grandmother all reunited in Austin. There, my grandfather was able to benefit from the G.I. Bill, which helped World War II veterans attend college, and enrolled in Huston-Tillotson University. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he enrolled in the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, where he was only the second African-American to ever attend.
In Texas, my aunt savored the presence of family and community. Austin, my grandfather’s hometown, was home to his sisters Virgie and Lillie and their families, and my aunt had lived with her Aunt Virgie and Uncle Mike for their first year in Austin.
“Virgie was more of my grandmother than my grandmother,” my aunt said. “We were with Virgie and her family and Lillie every weekend. And some weekends I just stayed with Aunt Virgie […] She taught me how to do things and––I just loved her and Uncle Mike. I just loved them.”
The family in Texas shaped my aunt’s childhood experiences, and when family became out of reach after moving north, the distance was felt by everyone.
After graduating from dental school, my grandfather chose to follow a lead one of his professors had given him about pursuing a career in orthodontia, which led the family to Eastman Dental Dispensary at the University of Rochester.
One of the many things my family had to deal with when adjusting to life in the North was how differently racism manifested itself. Rochester was a “completely different environment,” my aunt said, “because of the nature of racism in the North. See, in the South, you knew where the boundaries were. You didn’t cross that street. But in Rochester, it was prettied up.”
“See, in the South, you knew where the boundaries were. You didn’t cross that street. But in Rochester, it was prettied up.”
After having only attended all-Black schools in Texas and witnessing the news of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and Ruby Bridges in Louisiana, my aunt was petrified of attending an integrated school in New York.
“When we moved to Rochester, my parents told me that I would be going to an integrated school. Well, I was terrified because all I knew about integrated schools was what I had seen on television, and I didn’t want people screaming and yelling and dogs and all of that,” my aunt said.
Luckily, my aunt enjoyed school in Rochester, despite attending several different schools as the family moved five times in three years in search of a good fit. But my family never felt completely comfortable in New York.
“I think the main reason I didn’t like Rochester was that we were away from family,” my aunt said. The lack of family support — of relatives to visit on the weekends or stay with during the work day — was felt more strongly as my family faced regional biases and discrimination — even within the Black community.
“The folk in Rochester just assumed that their life was so much better than anything that we had experienced, and that just because we were from the South we had to be country and ignorant,” my aunt said. “Of course, there were good people in Rochester, but…we just missed family, and we couldn’t pick up and fly, you know? There was no such thing. We were so far away and didn’t have any money, so we couldn’t just hop in the car and go.”
After my grandfather finished his three-year residency at Eastman Dental, one of his childhood friends, Abner White, made his way to Rochester to tell my grandfather about the progressive Black community in Cleveland. Abner had been working as a dentist in Cleveland, and assured him that the Black medical community would help him and send their patients to his orthodontics business. With this endorsement and support, my family made the move from Rochester to Cleveland.
My family wasn’t the only one who came to the Midwest in this fashion; endorsements by friends and family who had already tested out the waters in the Midwest encouraged the migration of many Black Southerners. Those who made the leap in search of a better life in the North often used the U.S. Mail to inform their Southern communities of the opportunities they had found, and to give them an honest account of their new lives in order to help others choose to stay or leave. Abner White was just such a messenger for my family.
Once my family arrived in Cleveland, my grandfather became the first Black orthodontist in Ohio, and the Black community — specifically the dental community — supported them just as Abner had said they would.
My grandparents became involved in the Black social scene of Cleveland, complete with church, social clubs and chitlin parties. Despite the fact that my family did not actually eat chitlins (a traditionally Southern food) when living in Texas, these chitlin parties were a place to gather and experience Southern culture through the food and the company. Thanks to the migrated Southerners in attendance and assorted menu items including collard greens, fried chicken, pies and chitlins, the community of Cleveland began to feel like home.
For my family, the decision to stay in Cleveland was simple: Rochester had the opportunities that the South lacked, but not the community — Cleveland had both.
“It was the community in Cleveland. It was a rich community — rich in community feeling and nurturing,” my aunt said. “Not everybody trying to show off [and] outdo each other.”
Without the Black dentists in Cleveland sending business my grandfather’s way, he would not have been able to keep his business and family in Cleveland.
From my grandfather’s study group at the UT School of Dentistry — consisting of the only three Black students — to his sisters helping raise my Aunt Deborah in Austin, to Abner White encouraging my family to move to Cleveland from Rochester, the Black community looked after my family throughout their entire journey.
“It took a lot to leave, honey…”
In the early 1970s, after my aunt had gone off to Fisk University for college and subsequently gotten married, my grandparents, my father and his younger brother moved to Shaker Heights, just outside of Cleveland, for good. Settling into life in the North took some time, but they found a forever home in Shaker Heights: a warm and supportive community, financial stability, and growing opportunities, all the while never forgetting where they came from or what it took to get here.
“It took a lot to leave, honey,” my aunt said. “Some of our people — it was desperation. Ours was a decision.”
Read another featured Great Migration story here.