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  1. Opinion

Perspective: Tampa Bay and the Great Migration north of African-Americans

At Eaton’s Grove, now the Euclid St. Paul’s neighborhood in St. Petersburg, a man hauled fruit in 1917, three years after a lynch mob killed a black man.
At Eaton’s Grove, now the Euclid St. Paul’s neighborhood in St. Petersburg, a man hauled fruit in 1917, three years after a lynch mob killed a black man.
Published Apr. 9, 2015

Almost a century ago, a St. Petersburg resident sat down to write a letter. Perhaps he was writing on a kitchen table; perhaps she had asked a minister to type the letter. "Dear Sir," the letter began. "Please inform me of the best place in the north for the colored people of the south. I am coming north and I want to know of a good town to stop in." The letter, published May 31, 1917, was unsigned.

The letter appeared in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper that boasted a wide readership in the North and South. The letter signified the first stirrings that became a groundswell of African-Americans fleeing Dixie. Called the Great Migration, between 1915 and 1918, 400,000 blacks left cotton fields, small towns and cities. A million more blacks left the South during the 1920s.

By October 1916, the St. Petersburg Times published an alarming headline, "10,000 Florida Negroes Have Gone North." African-Americans, pushed away from the South by discrimination and stunted opportunities, were now suddenly pulled northward by dreams of a better life. But one cannot understand the Great Migration without an appreciation of World War I, the Great War.

The Great War wrought cataclysmic consequences: the deaths of 10 million soldiers, the destruction of once hallowed monarchies, and a new generation of artists and writers repulsed by new technologies and man's capacity to destroy. But the war also generated unintended consequences: a booming American economy and a sudden demand for unskilled laborers to stoke the factories and foundries.

For almost a century, America's industrial revolution had depended upon a seemingly unlimited supply of European immigrants: Irish mill hands and Croatian meat cutters, Polish steel workers and Italian foundrymen. But nations that could mobilize 30 million men in uniform needed every son and daughter for total war. Immigration ceased. Pittsburgh steel mills and Chicago stockyards sought new sources of labor. Women filled some of the vacuum, but recruiters tapped a vast vein of labor: African-Americans.

The diaspora known as the Great Migration constituted an enormous shift of population from the South to the North. At its peak, 1916-1918, more than 500 blacks were leaving daily. By Model T's and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, blacks were voting with their feet for new freedoms. So many migrants left for places such as Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland that their African-American populations multiplied dramatically in the years after 1915.

The black press encouraged African-Americans to leave. Newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier published letters from desperate job seekers as well as glowing descriptions of life in Harlem, Milwaukee and Akron.

The letters from Florida are as poignant as they are powerful. A resident of Jacksonville stated simply, "We will do any kind of work ..." Another letter, postmarked Sanford, asked, "There are some families here thinking of moving up, and are desirous of knowing what to expect before leaving. Please state about treatment, work, rent and schools." And a May 1917 letter from St. Petersburg, citing "condishions" of low wages and harsh discrimination, "is causing all to want to come north." Furthermore, the author hinted, "I will say at this junction that there are more than 250 men desire to come north."

Obeying the iron law of supply and demand, wages for black laborers rose. If any occupation defined and depicted black labor in St. Petersburg it was the domestic maid and washer woman. Working for meager wages, long hours and little respect, black maids and laundresses held little control over their lives. In October 1918, the St. Petersburg Independent reported shocking news: "Backed by several negro ministers ... negro women of the city have organized a club or union to boost wages and have fixed $2 as the price of a day's labor at house work or washing."

St. Petersburg mayor and baseball hero Al Lang demanded that citizens "report any evidence that they could obtain as to who the woman is reported to have organized the colored women of the city into a union to demand high pay for housework and washing." The mayor promised to arrest any women proposing "to run out of town."

Lilly Abrams, a local African-American, stepped forward as the "reputed" leader. She released a statement, reading: "Dear white friends, We see by the papers that there is quite an uproar because we the colored women have asked $2 a day and one meal ..." But, Abrams explained, it was neither greed nor opportunism that motivated the demand for a pay raise; rather, it was patriotism. Maids and laundresses simply wished to purchase war bonds with the additional pay.

White leaders quickly realized that a surplus of compliant black laborers might vanish. Or worse! Rumors circulated that German agents were fomenting a racial insurrection.

In reality, African-Americans supported the war with a steadfast outpouring of patriotism, believing or hoping that such demonstrations of loyalty would be rewarded by a softening of the color line. In May 1917, the Times reported, "St. Petersburg negroes displaying their patriotism and loyalty to the United States will parade Monday night. Black leaders released a statement, asserting, "First: That this is our country as well as it is for white Americans."

But for all of the jingoism and parades, Southern blacks preferred good jobs to empty promises. In April 1917, Al Lang confessed, "The city has lost many of its most reliable negroes." A local reporter observed, "So many negroes have left St. Petersburg ... that a serious shortage of unskilled labor threatens the local contractors."

On April 20, a Times headline read, "Many Negroes Go North For Factory Work. Recruiting Agents Said To Have Taken 65 Men Thursday." Who then would pick the oranges in Dunedin, St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor? Who would pick the tomatoes in Ruskin and Palmetto? Who would wash the laundry and clean the homes for the upper classes? So incendiary were copies of the Chicago Defender, with its testimonials of newfound lives of comfort in South Chicago and East St. Louis, that Pullman porters smuggled copies into Southern railway depots.

Local papers warned African-Americans that their natural home was the South, that bitter winters and cold Yankees awaited vulnerable sojourners. "Local Negro Meets Death in the North," reported the St. Petersburg Independent in May 1917, noting that A. Inman had died in a factory accident in Philadelphia. Inman, who had run a black bar on Ninth Street, "was quiet, well behaved ... and was well liked by the white residents here."

Florida politicians quickly confronted the exodus of black laborers. Tampa's powerful attorney, Peter O. Knight, exclaimed that the South "must prevent the exodus of healthy and intelligent negroes to the North." Gov. Sidney Johnston Catts ordered county sheriffs to enforce "work-or-fight" vagrancy and debt peonage laws, state statutes that had been passed in 1907 at the urging of lumber interests. In April 1918, Catts ordered county sheriffs to arrest Northern labor recruiters without licenses. The Wauchula City Council passed a motion calling for the arrest of any person "disturbing the colored people." Hardee County residents were entitled to a $10 reward for the arrest of these body snatchers.

But leave they did. Neither laws nor public coercion nor appeals to loyalty could arrest the exodus. The movement, organized yet chaotic, individual and familial, affected the state unevenly, draining away large numbers of black residents and redistributing them within and outside Florida.

In some areas, recruiting agents representing the Pennsylvania Railroad or Philip Armour Company resettled black families in a humane process, helping purchase rail tickets and arranging housing; in others, a chain migration developed between specific locales in Florida and Northern factory towns. St. Petersburg and Philadelphia enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Ultimately, the Great Migration was determined by individual decisions. "The cry of 'Goin' Nawth' hung over the land like the wail over Egypt at the death of the first-born," wrote Zora Neale Hurston in Jonah's Gourd Vine. "On to the North! The Land of Promise!"

For Florida, where growth was gospel, the overall population increase between 1915 and 1920 fell to below 1 percent, the lowest gain in state history.

For all of the howling and gnashing, Tampa and St. Petersburg survived the crisis, poised for the astonishing economic and population boom that began at the end of the Great War. The future of Florida was writ large by 1920: South and Central Florida, not the Panhandle and North Florida, defined and determined Florida's future. That future belonged to places not yet developed — Davis Islands and Temple Terrace, Granada Terrace and Snell Isle.

St. Petersburg and Tampa survived the war years, but each community suffered losses of black residents. But the full story is multilayered and riddled with complexity. The sheer number of Floridians who left was surpassed by the migration to Florida. This phenomenon was especially true in Tampa Bay.

Indeed, among Southern states, only Florida and Texas received more migrants than they lost during the decade 1910-20. During this period of high birthrates, the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia lost a staggering 1 million migrants. Florida gained a net hundred thousand migrants.

Hudson Woodbridge personified the turbulent world of the early 20th-century South. Born in Smithfield, Ga., in 1903, the light-skinned, red-haired African-American moved to Tampa as a young boy, adopting the name Hudson Whittaker. In Tampa, he learned to play the single-string slide guitar from an old musician named Piccolo Pete. He honed his skills at local jook joints. Zora Neale Hurston recalled one such Polk County turpentine camp tune:

"Ruther be in Tampa

With the whip-poor-will

Than to be 'round here

Honey with a hundred dollar bill."

Hudson Whittaker may have preferred Tampa, but he, too, left for Chicago in the 1920s, gaining fame as Tampa Red, one of the era's great artists. Southern blues, as well as black dreams, survived the migration northward. For the Chicago Defender had promised black sharecroppers and sawyers, maids and bluesmen, "If all of their dreams do not come true, enough will come to pass to justify their actions."

And so it went. "Negroes Being Taken North In Large Numbers," read the St. Petersburg Times headline, April 22, 1917. "Some mysterious force is taking negroes in great numbers from St. Petersburg to northern points," the Times explained, "and thus far the local authorities have been unable to find out what this force is." The Times added, "The negroes, themselves, are very secretive about it. Efforts of the police to find out who is taking them away have proved futile."

From the vantage point of 2015, the tone deafness over the "mysterious force" seems baffling. How could journalists and officials not comprehend the Great Migration? In November 1914, a lynch mob had killed a black man in St. Petersburg.

Politicians across Tampa Bay had endorsed the white primary, a legal device that effectively removed the black vote in the only election that counted. Newspapers defiantly refused to capitalize "negro." Most importantly, African-Americans migrated because of the promise of dignity and a better life.

How will residents in 2115 view the world of 2015? Will they applaud our hesitant efforts to protect civil liberties or be appalled at the yawning gaps in income inequality?

Gary R. Mormino, the Frank E. Duckwall history professor emeritus at USF St. Petersburg, serves as the scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. He is the 2015 recipient of the Florida Lifetime Achievement Award in writing.