It was a story that happened before our eyes that rarely made a headline: The Great Migration to Baltimore. From 1920 to 1970, millions of African Americans left rural and agrarian parts of Southern states and moved to urban areas.
Baltimore’s Black population increased from 14.8% in 1920 (108,390) to 46.4% in 1970 (420,000).
People relocated in search of better paying jobs and to distance themselves from racial oppression and violence in the South and Appalachian counties.
A exhibition of contemporary artists’ reaction to the exodus their ancestors made fills several rooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Aptly entitled, “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” sheds light onthisevolutionary historic story.
Jessica Bell Brown, the show’s co-curator, said: “This project began as I was making Baltimore my new home, and in many ways, having the immense privilege to dive into the history of the Great Migration unlocked a deeper understanding of the complexities of our city.
“The Great Migration, and the resulting influx of Black migrants has profoundly shaped our communities, industry, places and spaces of business, leisure, and worship.
“Even getting the chance to talk to Baltimoreans who have visited the exhibition and have shared how their families came to the city has been so rewarding; there is such a deep richness that continues to be revealed,” said Brown, who is also the head of the museum’s contemporary art department.
The BMA show is an exercise in contemporary art that is worth a visit. There’s also an excellent accompanying publication, partially edited by Brown, called “A Great Migration Critical Reader,” that includes many contemporary accounts from Maryland newspapers touching on the Great Migration.
I spoke with two historians of Baltimore’s Black communities to discuss some of the historic threads behind the BMA exhibition.
Linda Morris, who has written about the Cherry Hill community and is now researching Turner Station, recalled her own family’s experiences.
Her family lived on the lower Eastern Shore and resettled in Baltimore about 1930.
“My mother found a place near South Gilmor Street. At first, Blacks lived in the small alley streets because some landlords were reluctant to rent their larger homes on the main streets,” Morris said. “They said that large black families might not be able to keep up the property.”
After a while, she said, the family moved to newly constructed homes in Cherry Hill.
“A lot of the people who lived there were products of the Great Migration,” she said.
Her continuing research on Turner Station, near Baltimore’s largest employer at that time, the Bethlehem Steel Co. at Sparrows Point, revealed a hiring practice.
Morris brought up the case of James Shelton, who came to Baltimore from Fairfield, South Carolina, and opened Shelton Taxi in 1941.
“He came in 1939 to seek a better job. His brother worked at Sparrows Point, and Mr. Shelton rode with his brother to work every day for a week or so and hung around the employment office with other Black men looking for work,” she said.
“He said the man doing the hiring did not want Baltimore men because they would quit after a week,” said Morris, adding that the bosses preferred male workers from the Carolinas and Virginia.
“[The hiring boss] asked the men to raise their hands as to which state they were from, and if they were from those states, they would be hired right away,” said Morris, who based her research upon the writing of Louis Diggs, who died last month in Baltimore County.
“The company preferred Southern Blacks because these workers were eager to get jobs,” she said.
Philip J. Merrill, another African American historian with roots in West Baltimore’s neighborhoods, said: “Baltimore was in a prime geographical location for the migration. And yet, historians often talk about Chicago and Detroit.”
Merrill’s personal research shows that many Southern Black people were influenced by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, copies of which were passed around in Georgia and the Carolinas, and during World War I, to Black men in uniform overseas.
“People were salivating over the opportunity to see what was happening in the cities and Baltimore was so prime it makes your head turn,” Merrill said.
Merrill feels that education was a strong influence on strivers who wanted to build their minds.
“Baltimore’s segregated schools may have had ragged books and outdated buildings, but we had first-rate teachers,” Merrill said. “Baltimore offered you far more than the agrarian environment.”
In the decade from 1960 to 1970 alone, Baltimore’s Black population increased by 94,557. Within a few more years, the effects of the Great Migration meant that Baltimore was a majority Black city.