Twenty Million Gone: The Southern Diaspora, 1900—1970

That is Bobby Bare on Detroit and Dwight Yoakam on Los Angeles.

Sometimes there are significant movements in history that go unnoticed because they take place slowly over a long period of time and are marked by no major event. The Southern Diaspora of the 20th century is such a movement. Twelve million white and eight million black people left the Southern States for the Northern and Western States in the first three-quarters of the century, a significant phenomenon by any measure. It has been called one of the greatest voluntary migrations in history.

My focus today is on the white diaspora. It was less obvious and has been less studied than the Southern black migration to the Northern big cities, although it was larger. Out-migration from the South diminished after 1970, and I will not have a lot to say about more recent decades, when the rapid fracturing of American identity has rendered all generalizations questionable. Southerners moved to every part of the U.S., but the white diaspora was concentrated in the industrial Midwest and the Pacific States, including Alaska. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Southern-born people in those areas were around 12 per cent of the population. In 1970 there were more than 100,000 Southerners working in the auto industry in the Great Lakes States.

There is a fair bit of small-scale scholarship and one good book published on the subject, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America, by James N. Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington. I acknowledge his good scholarship and draw on it shamelessly but from a very different standpoint. Professor Gregory believes, as his subtitle suggests, that the relocation of both white and black Southerners changed the North and West. He begins his book with a striking if anecdotal bit of evidence. During the 1960s and 1970s there was a struggle between two Democratic party bosses, Jesse Unruh, white, and Willie Brown, black, for control of the California legislature. Both were raised in Texas and came to California after they were grown.

Even better, Southern writers and musicians have created works about the human experience of the Diaspora. The South is always better portrayed by art than by scholarship. While Northerners are motivated, generally, by self-referential abstractions, Southerners are interested in real people. I highly recommend Harriette Arnow’s novel The Dollmaker, about a Kentucky mountain woman condemned to live in industrial Detroit. It is a deeply moving masterpiece of Southern literature, and it contains more truth and wisdom than a hundred sociological treatises. Contrast it with the greatly celebrated The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, a nasty, unbelievable bit of Socialist Realism that demeans Depression era Southern farmers migrating to California as pathetic, scarcely human victims.

The white Diaspora can be considered a success story, since going where the money is brought upward mobility to many people. But there is a sad side as expressed in the songs. Who would leave the South for the soulless regions of the North except under economic compulsion? The Diaspora is in one aspect a phase in the long history of the conquest and exploitation of the Southern region and its people. How different from today’s mass migration of affluent Northerners to what is called the Sunbelt! They come for better weather, for better people, and to take the well-paid jobs created by the new economic development.

A Diaspora story: My mother was born in 1923 in South Bend, Indiana, where her father had gone in search of work in the steel mills, a small tobacco farm shared with relatives not being much support for a growing family. The South enjoyed a period of prosperity during the Great War when its agricultural produce was in great demand, but after the war the region returned to its impoverished condition as a colony of Northern capital—a repository of cheap resources and cheap labour. In the South, when the Depression came in 1929, nobody could tell the difference.

At some point there were family problems, and my great- grandfather went North on the train and brought my grandmother and her five little girls back to North Carolina. My grandfather stayed, settled in Michigan, and had another family. I met my maternal grandfather once, when he was an old man. He was a stranger, a Yankee. Another, remoter group of kin migrated to the farm lands of Eastern Oregon. We used to hear from them from time to time, but have lost track of the next generation. I think these experiences are not untypical of the Diaspora.

Some results of the white diaspora can be observed. Leftist pundits are now regularly and loudly complaining about what they call “the Southernization of America”— that Southerners have made for more conservative politics in their new homes. It is doubtless true in that Southerners are less likely to sign on for abortion, gun control, coddling illegal immigrants, and same-sex marriage as the natives and may have slowed the ongoing collapse of civilization in the North even while being tricked into voting Republican. This trend supposed Southernisation might mean that the plain folk of the North have more in common with the South than with their own elite masters.

Southern Baptists are now one of the largest denominations in many Midwestern and Western States, in places even out numbering Catholics. Undoubtedly Southerners, black and white, have helped to preserve Christianity where the mainstream Protestant churches are moribund.

Another significant phenomenon is the flourishing of the Southern people’s music that was first called “hillbilly” and then “country and Western,” to avoid the market liability of calling it Southern. The New York record execs first disdained it, then learned that they could make money from it, and now are in the advanced process of destroying it by their tastelessness and lack of creativity.

Loretta Lynn was indeed “A Coal Miner’s Daughter” from Butcher Holler, Kentucky. But the mine closed and she grew up and started singing in a lumber town in Washington State. Not only did diaspora Southerners like her music, but so did everybody else. The flourishing of country music was in good part a product of Southerners of the diaspora, who both preserved its soul and added new dimensions to it. By the 1960s and 1970s country had become the music of choice for white working class Americans, of whatever background, and had a massive international presence as well. So popular had it become that Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes pretended that they liked the music and maneuvered to be seen in the company of country stars.

As late as World War I, only 8 per cent of American black people lived outside the South. Today it is 47 per cent. Before World War I, Detroit had a submerged black population of only 5,000. When black people began arriving from the South for wartime jobs, the press unanimously raved against the coming of this unwanted and troublesome population and was full of alarmed reports about “the Negro problem.” They should stay in the South where they belonged. Actually this was a pervasive Northern attitude from even before the War for Southern Independence and was not altered in the least by the righteous Emancipation Proclamation.

One of the worst America race riots occurred in 1919 in Detroit, pitched battles between blacks and whites which left 38 dead. The press and public at the time generally blamed the violence on blacks. It has often been pointed out, to no effect, that the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was more a Northern than a Southern movement. It adopted Southern trimmings but added anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish elements that owed more to Yankee nativist traditions than to the South. From 1933 to 1936, a violent Klan offshoot called the Black Legion committed a string of murders and other crimes in Michigan and Ohio. An investigation revealed that 64 state, county, city, and police officials were members, none likely a Southerner.

Interestingly, the first friendly public acceptance of a significantly large population of black people in Northern cities came with the very popular “Amos and Andy” radio show that began in the 1920s with characters created and played by two white men from Georgia.

Southern whites suffered some discrimination in the North, although of course nothing to compare with that experienced by Southern blacks. (Remember, Martin Luther King’s only defeat came in 1966 when he campaigned against housing and job segregation in Chicago.) The term “hillbilly,” apparently invented by a New York record executive, was used for decades to describe Southern newcomers, although, of course, not all were from the mountains and some were middle-class. The term “Okie” served the same purpose in the Pacific States. There was the usual assumption that a Southern accent and slow civilized speech were signs of ignorance and laziness Strange to find people whose parents had arrived not long before as European peasants ridiculing the speech and manners of the people who had founded the country, something possible only in America where memory is very short. One Southerner retorted that Southerners were the only Americans he could find in Chicago—the rest were foreigners.

Initial job discrimination seems to have disappeared quickly as Southerners proved to be more willing workers than the natives. The picture was mixed, but some companies even filled vacancies through their Southern workers’ kinship networks. Though the image of the ignorant, shiftless Southern hillbilly lingered much longer, by 1949 the income of Southern-born whites in the industrial Midwest and Pacific and their representation in managerial and skilled positions equaled Northern-born and European-born whites, and they were moving to the suburbs like everybody else.

Another major race riot between black and white mobs raged in Chicago in 1943, in which 34 people died. Of 96 white men arrested there was only one with a Southern birthplace. Half had Italian and Polish names and 70 per cent were Catholic. Everyone, of course, immediately attributed the disturbances to the thousands of Southern hillbillies who had come to work in the war industries. This was the unanimous and continually repeated conclusion of public officials, politicians, local and national press, and academic and non-academic pundits. Sometimes they attributed some blame to black newcomers who had been hopelessly damaged by the South. There were even reports of hillbilly ghettos filled with drunken, ignorant Southerners attacking each other with knives. Housing studies show that no such places ever existed. Arriving Southerners first used whatever housing they could find but soon moved into normal surroundings.

The Detroit riot of 1919 was blamed on the blacks. Discussions of the Chicago riot of 1943 portrayed black people as victims of white Southerners who had brought their evil natures with them. What had changed? Black voter participation had increased greatly and by 1936 New Deal patronage had created powerful black voting blocs. A reformist, sociological atmosphere followed the Depression: society’s main business was employing expert knowledge to identify and cure society’s ills. Blame the South has always been a popular default position.

In the 1960s the gospel word on race problems in the U.S. was contained in the Kerner Report. (Kerner being a liberal politician who, like most governors of Illinois, ended in the penitentiary.) It was observable that in the black population of the big Northern cities there was a great deal of unfortunate dysfuunction —welfare dependency, unemployment, illegitimacy, fatherless households, low educational achievement, crime, drug addicition. According to the Kerner Report, which was unanimously endorsed by the politicians, the media, and the intelligentsia, the cause of this sad state of affairs was the lasting effect of Southern slavery which had ended a century before. The Kerner report remains the accepted wisdom today. It has still not been acknowledged that, despite all the Great Society programs that were put in place to solve the problems, they have only grown worse.

Later studies that surely astonished those who carried them out cast doubt on the accepted wisdom. It appears that Southern born black people are significantly less involved in welfare dependency and crime than Northern-born black people. Gosh! Gee Whillickers, Caped Crusader! We never heard about this in Gotham City! Of course this has not affected public discourse or public policy in the least. There are too many people whose self-love involves feeling superior to the benighted South and who pride themselves on their fashionable pseudo-knowledge. It appears also that the flourishing black churches and community organizations in the Northern big cities were founded by Southern newcomers. In the 1940s and 1950s the press ignored the widespread protests against discrimination that appeared in the North. Not till the civil rights campaign moved South in the 1960s did the press take notice.

I have often cited the Ivy League pundit who awhile back wrote that the violence of Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber was caused by what he called “the Southern gun culture” having penetrated the North. Apparently some evil miasma seeped out of the South and poisoned otherwise virtuous Northern society. Just a few weeks ago I read a discussion of the depressed state of the black people of Detroit in which Motor City was called an “Alabama ghetto.” Apparently the third or fourth generation born in the North a century and a half after slavery is still suffering from omnipresent Southern evil. Note that this requires two dubious beliefs. One, that black people have no responsibility for their own condition, and two, Northerners cannot possibly be responsible for anything bad in pure and righteous America.

The malevolent hatred and dishonesty with which a rather numerous type of American regards the Southern people is deeply pathological. It has been with us since the first Puritans stepped ashore on Massachusetts Bay almost four centuries ago. Forget about slavery and the tariff. It is these people, I submit, that our Confederate forebears fought so hard to get free of.

Going home. By the early 1970s more people were moving South than were leaving. They number in the millions up to the present time. Many are Yankee Rust Belt refugees. Some are people who traced their families back to the Southern diaspora. This includes both white and black. Black people are now coming to the South much more often than they are leaving it, and they are predominantly upscale, educated and middleclass, although there have also appeared the gangs spawned by the Yankee Promised Land, doubtless another effect of slavery. Polls show that a majority of black people say the South is the only part of the country in which they feel comfortable. Of course, none of this effects public discussion or law, and it never will.

Let’s end on an upbeat note. The “hillbillies’” revenge.

The Beverly Hillbillies television show ran 1962-1971 and at times was the no. 1 watched show in the U.S. Last I looked it was still on the air in prolific reruns. For those young people who may have been born too late, The Beverly Hillbillies started as a show about backward, ignorant country people, perhaps from Arkansas, who discovered oil on their land, accidentally of course, not being as smart as Northerners. They became millionaires and moved to Beverly Hills. Perhaps conceived as a vehicle to laugh at Southerners, which was a large theme in the media at the time, it became something else. Though backward in speech, manners, attire, and attitudes, the Clampetts from the Southern hills were also kind and honest. Jed (played by Buddy Ebsen, born in the southernmost tip of Illinois) was an admirable patriarch. Granny (Irene Ryan, born Texas) was a monument of stubborn if often misguided principle, and Ellie May (Donna Douglas, born Kentucky) was a model of sweet and modest beauty. The other main characters were rather typical Yankee types: Mr. Drysdale, the banker—greedy, shallow, and not very honest, and Miss Jane, a well-meaning liberal—clueless and ineffective. Granny was certain that the right side had won The War. In one episode she captured an inebriated actor who was portraying General Grant.

Another positive note. According to Gregory there were two areas where Southerners expatriates were numerous enough that they dominated the region—several counties in southwestern Ohio and the San Joachim Valley, the southern part of the great central valley of California. There Southerners made Bakersfield a recording center of innovative and worldwide significance, giving a new surge to “country music” while Nashville was being adulterated by Northern input. Its artists had dozens of platinum albums between them. The key figure was Buck Owens, born in Texas. There was Roy Clark, born in Virginia, and Merle Haggard, a true Okie from Muscogee. Haggard’s folks left the farm in Oklahoma in 1934 and Merle was born three years later in a boxcar where the family was living at Oiltown, California. All were self-taught musicians. It is important to note that these were not just popular singers, they were poets, true bards who crafted dozens of memorable songs, some of which have passed into common American life, like Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.” Much greater contributors to literature than the multicultural nobodies who have been the official Poets Laureate of California.

More recently they are joined by the equally talented Dwight Yoakum from Kentucky, with whose comment on the Southern Diaspora I will close.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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