86: James Grossman’s Land of Hope

James Grossman’s Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration looks at the Great Black Migration as a social process of migration and adaptation that linked together North and South, culturally as well as geographically.  Grossman works in the new social history tradition, so his interest is in the experiences and decisions made by black Southerners who participated in the migration, as well as in their perceptions of their new lives in Chicago.

Looking at the Migration from the perspective of black Southerners, Grossman discovers that the decision to move North was made by the migrants themselves, not by larger structural forces.  The migrants evaluated the North based on the world they knew in the South, not abstract notions of equality.  And initially, Chicago really was a land of hope: the city offered higher wages, more autonomy, the ability to vote, and better schools for their children than were available in the South.  While some historians interpret the migration as a structural shift from rural to urban work, Grossman argues that it was a conscious move by black Southerners to gain opportunity and freedom.

Grossman also shows that despite making a cultural, geographical, and economic break with their previous lives, black Southerners continued to interpret their experiences in terms of race rather than class.  This continuity was conditioned by their experiences in the South and supported by their experiences in the North, as they faced discrimination in housing, community formation, and employment.  It also helps explain why black workers were hesitant to unionize in the Chicago stockyards in the 1920s: within the black community, class was a differentiating factor, but in their interactions with politics, the world of production, and city institutions, race, not class, shaped their experiences.

By looking at the Migration from the perspective of the migrants, Grossman helps explain how and why race, rather than class, shaped the experience of black Southerners in Chicago.  While his argument that class divisions within the black community did not affect workers’ relationships or actions outside that community is a bit hazy, his respect for his subjects and his detailed account of their ideas and lives opens up the Great Black Migration in new ways.

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