South to Midwest: My Grandfather’s Great Migration

Through conversations with her grandfather, the author unpacks his personal history during the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration — one that paved the way for generations to come. Read his story and listen to excerpts from the interview below. Cover image courtesy of Alicia Frazier.

In 1965, my “papa,” Otis Taylor, Jr., migrated to Gary, Indiana from Goshen Springs, Mississippi. His story begins with a young Black boy raised in rural Mississippi and remains today one of hard work, endurance and persistence.

At the start of the 20th century, in what is known as the Great Migration, an estimated six million African Americans migrated outside of the south, primarily to the cities in the Midwest and Northeastern region of the United States. This movement is split into two eras — the First Great Migration (1910-1940) and the Second Great Migration (1940-1970) — and my papa participated in the second.

Image courtesy of the United States Census Bureau.

Racist Jim Crow laws and deeply entrenched segregation in the South at this time provide obvious reasons for this migration en masse, but the reality of the move for many individuals wasn’t that simple. 

My grandfather was born in 1943 to a World War II veteran and a homemaker, and was raised with ten siblings in a three-bedroom home surrounded by fields that were formerly cotton or nut plantations.

My grandfather, circa 1967. Image courtesy of Otis and Katherine Taylor.

He began working on a farm with his grandfather, George, at the young age of 8 until the family moved to a nearby town, Leesburg, where he began sharecropping for a man — “Measley” — at 12 years old.

For years, he worked in the fields, sometimes from dusk to dawn. My grandfather held many other jobs, including at the local gas station and a cotton gin place.

Work became his primary focus, as his wages went towards the family’s income. At times, my grandfather would drive the local school bus for his stepfather until he took over the role full-time around the age of 16.

“I started to drive the school bus—back to Goshen and Fannin, to Brandon to Carter High School.”

This left little room for him to finish his education. Educational resources were lacking in Mississippi, as many black schools were severely underfunded, overcrowded and deteriorating.

“I went to school up until about eighth grade,” my grandfather said. “But I was never able to do that much reading and writing.” 

Eighth grade, for my grandfather, would have been in the year 1955, only one year after the passing of the Brown v. Board of Education and the same year that Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, Illinois, was murdered in Money, Mississippi.

Being a teenage boy comes with its own growing pains, but my grandfather also grew up with the much more tangible pains of coming into adulthood in an environment that actively sought to dehumanize him. 

The fact of the matter is, Mississippi was, and still is, one of the least racially progressive states in the United States. 

In his lifetime, my grandfather has seen the strides made across generations to correct the racial inequalities that exist in the United States. His participation in the Civil Rights Movement, for many years, was an unspoken but acknowledged truth in our family.

“I participated in the Civil Rights [Movement] from marching and taking people to different areas.”

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of millions at the March on Washington. Being the skilled driver he is, my grandfather made his way from Rankin County, Mississippi to Washington, D.C.—but he was not alone.

“I drove the bus from Sharon, Mississippi to Washington D.C. with 44 people…”

Driving a bus of 44 people, my grandfather made the journey—but not without problems on the way there. 

The bus first broke down in Philadelphia, Mississippi — near the area where the bodies of three civil rights’ workers were found the following year, now known as the Freedom Summer murders. A few from the group had to travel to Meridian, MS to rent another bus and back to Philadelphia to pick up the remaining passengers. Later, their bus broke down again in a town outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

“His boss came out and called him and told him to come here for a minute—meantime, the other side of the building keeps filling up with cars, they’re going back and forth, filling it up. They told him he has to live there with them so he can’t put the generator back on there because ‘Them ain’t nothing but some freedom rider people.’”

The entire journey, lengthened by frequent unplanned stops, lasted from Saturday evening until Wednesday morning. But they all arrived, and my grandfather quite literally drove others to witness history in the making.

The map roughly depicts the route my grandfather took to drive from Sharon, Mississippi to Washington, D.C. Note: B and D are both Philadelphia, Mississippi. C shows the detour to Meridian, MS. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

From driving to marching to protesting, my grandfather played his part in the Civil Rights Movement, all while working the numerous jobs that he had for years. 

My grandfather was arrested two times. Each time, he was arrested for his participation in or aiding the participants of protests for the Civil Rights Movement. History does indeed repeat itself, as thousands of peaceful, innocent protesters have been arrested in today’s movement. In his time, my grandfather got help from the NAACP.

“The NAACP always had their own lawyers; their lawyers would come and get you out of jail.”

Love and the promise of better opportunities, however, had other plans for my grandfather; this is what called him to officially move to Gary, Indiana. My grandfather got engaged to my grandmother, Katherine, who was originally from Brandon, Mississippi, and moved north in search for a better life for his family. 

“She came up [to Gary] with my mom on the 24th that night, for Christmas. We picked them up in Chicago at the 63rd train station.”

The route it takes to get from Jackson, Mississippi area to Gary, Indiana. Interstate 55 (I-55) is the major highway that millions of African Americans in southern states (LA, MS, TN, MO)  took to reach Chicago, Ill. and Gary, Ind. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Around September of 1965, my grandfather was able to get a job at the car wash, but  as the steel mill almost exclusively provided employment in the town, he still faced discrimination because of where he worked. 

“The steel mill was the big thing. If you didn’t work at the steel mill, they figured you didn’t have a job.”

When it came time to search for a place to live for the newly engaged couple, he was initially denied based on his employment. 

“When you called them for an apartment, they asked you where you worked at. If you didn’t work in the steel mill, they didn’t want to talk to you.”

But through his hard work and persistence, he was able to get his first apartment with my “Nana.”

My grandfather continued to work at the car wash as a car washer and detailer until he got hired at the steel mill in 1969, just months before my uncle, their second child, was born. 

“Each time I started to do something, doors just always opened up for me.”

My grandparents would go on to have three children and my grandfather continued to work at the steel mill for 34 years; he briefly returned to the steel mill for 13 months, four and a half years after his initial retirement.

The entire family was celebrating my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Image by Jerome Lynch Photography.

For years, my family, immediate and extended, has built a new life in Gary, Indiana and the overall Chicagoland area. Now, my mother works as a coordinator in the higher education field and my uncles are both businessmen.

As I grow older, I realize the sacrifices my grandfather made so that our family could be where we are today. Two generations later, his hard work still shows in the work ethic of all four of his grandchildren.

If it weren’t for him, I would not be a double major at Purdue University, studying General Communication and African American Studies. My sister would not be the skilled cosmetologist and beauty educator that she is. My little cousins would not have the opportunity to become the doctors and entrepreneurs that they want to be.

The love and support of my grandmother cannot go unnoticed, as she is the matriarch and strength of the family. Without her raising three children and maintaining the household, the success of my grandfather — and the family — would have been harder, or even impossible, to achieve.

The story of a young black boy from Goshen Springs, Mississippi is not yet complete; as in any human life, there are still more struggles and successes to come. Some of those will be his, but many will be those of the family he built—a family whose success is built upon the foundation of his hard work, endurance and persistence.

My grandfather’s story is unique in its own respects, but the realities of the world he lived in were not. African Americans migrated from the south to the north for the promise of a better life, and yes, to flee from brutal segregation and enforced discriminatory laws. 

But our decisions are not usually that simple, and the north had its own role to play in discrimination and institutionalized racism, still struggling today with practices like redlining and de facto segregation. 

For my grandfather, migration north was not just an escape: it was a move forward for the future of their children, their children’s children and generations to follow. The moves he made for his family and the moves he made for the Civil Rights Movement paved the way not only for the future of our family, but also for that of millions of other African Americans who sought and deserve a better future.



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