Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
For people of color watching over their shoulder this Independence Day, the fear of police interference harkens back to a historical moment with a much-too-benign label.
Last week, a white woman, Linda Krakora, called the police on a 12-year-old black boy for mowing a lawn too close to her property, just outside of Cleveland. Around the same time, another white woman, Alison Ettel, called the police on an 8-year-old black girl for selling water without a permit. In May, a white woman, Sarah Braasch, called the police on a fellow black Yale student for napping outside of her dorm. That same week, in Oakland, a white woman, Jennifer Schulte, called the police on black people barbecuing in a park. A white woman manager of a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police on two black men for going to the bathroom without ordering coffee.
All of these events happened not in the former Confederate South, but in northern cities. In fact, Buzzfeed recently reported a surge in 311 calls from certain gentrifying parts of New York City, many of them about trivial nuisances such as “playing dominoes.” These are cities located above the fabled Mason-Dixon line where African Americans fled throughout the first half of the 20th century during a time period known perhaps too safely as “The Great Migration.” During this time period, millions of African Americans escaped the racial terrorism of the south in hopes of finding sanctuary in the cities of the north. Instead they walked right into a whole other variety of racial harassment from white people, but evoking the same white supremacist principle that the mere existence of black people in a public space should be met with suspicion and policing. The recent instances of white women calling police on black people under the pettiest circumstances is just a continuation of that tradition, but it’s important to remember on this Fourth of July how we got here.
The practice and policy of over-policing of black bodies extended through slavery, past the years and decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, and into the 20th century Jim Crow era, when states and cities passed “black code” and anti-integration laws that could get African Americans reported to the police for trivial violations such as the vaguely defined offense of “vagrancy,” or for being black in a park or on a beach reserved for whites.
I was reminded during my recent visit to The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, that African Americans getting reported to the police for such pettifogging offenses meant more than just getting arrested or sent to jail. It meant getting killed—bodies roped up and hung from a tree before being shot up and burned on the ground—by the police or by a lynch mob, oftentimes one in the same. Many of these lynchings began with reports from white women. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (known informally as the lynching memorial), also in Montgomery, recalls the names of thousands of black people lynched from the 19th century to deep in the 1940s, and the reasons why:
This doesn’t count the hundreds who were lynched after being accused of raping or sexually molesting a white women, or even for just looking at a white woman the wrong way, as what happened with the black teenager Emmett Till in 1955.
African Americans could also be reported to the police—and then jailed and/or killed—for violating laws that forbade black people from being in the same place as white people, even if those places were supposed to be public spaces. In 1920, Mississippi passed a law that punished any printing company for publishing materials that encouraged “social equality or intermarriage between whites and negroes” with a $500 fine or six months in prison. In 1947, Texas passed a law forbidding black and white people from participating in the same boxing and wrestling matches together; the following year it banned black and white people from using the same public libraries. And per the Buzzfeed investigation about police calls for domino games, in 1952, Montgomery, Alabama, passed an ordinance stating: “it shall be unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other in the city in any game of cards, dice, checkers, or dominoes.” This is what African Americans were evacuating from when they left the South.
“Between 1910 and 1940, nearly six million refugees fled the South in response to the threat of racial terrorism,” reads an exhibit at The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, “...in a massive forced exodus known as The Great Migration.”
When considering those facts, one can’t help but wonder why this era is known under such a benign label. “The Great Migration” makes it sound like a bunch of people just packed up their bags headed for better jobs and homes—no different than the recent trend of Amazon-ian and Apple-American tech nerds moving in droves from Silicon Valley to greener, more affordable pastures in the former Rust Belt. In reality, the stakes for African Americans in the 20th century were much grimmer and urgent—they were moving to save their lives, as Bryan Stevenson, the racial justice advocate behind the lynching memorial and museum, regularly emphasizes. It probably should be called The Great Massive Forced Exodus.
“When you truly know what they were up against—the human rights abuses, the exclusion from voting and citizenship—and what happened upon their arrival, then you realize that 'refugee' gets closer to describing what they were,” says Isabel Wilkerson, author of the book The Warmth of Other Suns, a 15-year investigation into the escape patterns of black families throughout the 1900s. “They were seeking political asylum within their own homeland, to be free like other Americans.”
Scholars of that era came up with the name “The Great Migration” and then it just sort of stuck. Wilkerson agrees that the name is innocent to a fault—the term “migrant” suggests “a provisional temporariness” or a seasonal worker, says Wilkerson, but most African Americans of that time period were leaving the South with no intention of returning. Yes, there was the hope for better jobs in the North, and the need for sharecroppers and farm laborers were dwindling in the South as we entered the 1960s because of technological advancements. But those were side benefits. The narrative behind blacks flooding cities such as Oakland, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City is not A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; it’s Birth of a Nation. Yet, while Wilkerson finds the term “Great Migration” problematic she says there’s still value in using it as a tagpoint that many people recognize as pivotal to U.S. history.
“As someone who has devoted many years to studying the Great Migration, and who is also a product of the Great Migration, what matters most to me is that more Americans know about this watershed in American history that reshaped our cities, our culture, our politics, by whatever name it is called,” says Wilkerson. “When you understand the Great Migration, the forces that triggered it and the after-effects of it in the North and West—redlining, restrictive covenants, etc.—then what we are seeing in the news today should not surprise you. It's a cautionary tale for our current migration crises, our racial divide and our era as a whole.”
Meaning, this explains why we still find white people calling the police on black people under the most inauspicious terms. Today, millions of Americans in cities across America will commemorate Independence Day with patiotism and pride. Meanwhile, many people of color will have to watch over their shoulders as they barbecue and play dominoes in celebration.