The shelves lined with perfectly ordered clear jars of canned food immediately sparked decades of memories.
Part of an installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new collection — “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” — the shelves resembled the ones at my mother’s home in fall and winter, or canning season in many Black households of that era.
It was an annual ritual for my mother. When I would see the jars, lids and rings in the kitchen sink to be washed, I knew the canning process was underway. Soon, I’d smell the mixtures of freshly sliced fruit and sugar cooking in our kitchen. My mother mainly canned preserves, and pear preserves were her specialty and my favorite.
Her sisters, who also lived in Baltimore, and my grandfather in North Carolina, followed the same custom. While canning was once done for financial reasons, to have food in the winter, it remained part of Black Southern culture even when it was no longer related to financial considerations.
Canning was one of the many products of my mother’s upbringing in northeastern North Carolina that her family brought north during the Great Migration. My mother always credited her knack for great Southern cooking to her time as a child observing my grandfather, a brick mason who worked in his youth as a railroad cook. He passed on his recipe for handmade rolls and nothing I’ve ever eaten tasted better, or made me feel better, than my mother’s pear preserves spread on a warm, buttered roll.
Many Black Americans who migrated north brought the South with them and transformed cities demographically and in every other conceivable way. The percentage of Blacks living in Baltimore tripled during the years that spanned the Great Migration, increasing from fewer than 85,000, or 15% of the city’s population in 1910, to more than 430,000, or close to a majority, by 1970. Baltimore’s current Black population sits at about that level.
“The twentieth-century migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North is known to be one of the most consequential events in the social history of the United States,” said Austin Zeiderman, an associate professor in the department of geography and environment at the London School of Economics, and author of the journal article, “Ruralizing the City: The Great Migration and Environmental Rehabilitation in Baltimore, Maryland.”
“Although Southern Blacks were migrating to the industrialized cities of the North in small numbers during the 1890s and the beginning of the twentieth century, the migration beginning with World War I and ending about 1970 is termed the Great Migration,” Zeiderman wrote.
My family and others from the South weren’t the only ones that brought their traditions to the city. Baltimore also experienced that early migration in the form of Black sharecroppers and tobacco field workers moving from the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland. They sought opportunities in the textile mills, other manufacturing, on the railroads and at the ports. Baltimore also had well-established, politically active Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore with middle class business owners and professionals.
While racial segregation and oppression existed across Maryland, the migrants saw Baltimore as offering more possibilities for them to insulate and defend themselves. That mindset would remain in place during the Great Migration for millions of migrants from the South headed to cities in the North, West and Midwest.
“Many generations of oppression and racism lingered in the memories of the Southern Black migrant,” Zeiderman wrote. “Slavery, sharecropping, and segregation could not be forgotten.”
The migrants faced the same realities of racial discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations as they did in the South. Black Baltimoreans were subject to daily indignities during almost the entirety of the Great Migration era.
My mother and others of her generation always recalled that when they shopped at the May Company and other downtown department stores prior to 1960, they were not allowed to try on clothes. Restaurants in Baltimore and throughout Maryland, including diners and carryouts of that era, typically served Black customers from a rear window, my father and his friends recalled.
In some cases, Black Americans encountered discrimination different from what they experienced in the South. Living in all-Black communities down South, they didn’t necessarily face the daily details of second-class citizenship. The communities had their own churches, entertainment and stores. White merchants in those communities depended solely on Black customers for their livelihoods. Interdependency fostered mutual respect.
Once arriving in Baltimore and other cities, “African Americans negotiated and shaped their urban surroundings and formed individual and collective identities by drawing on their rural, Southern histories,” according to “Ruralizing the City.”
“Migrants from the rural South carried remnants of their past with them to the urban North, and the reception they received from established communities, both White and Black, was far from welcoming,” Zeiderman wrote. “They encountered hostility due to their position within the communities of African Americans who had already settled in the city.”
Black people whose families had been in Baltimore for generations would apply stereotypes to the new arrivals, characterizing them as unsophisticated. Derogatory terms from the South found their origins during the Great Migration era: calling someone “country,” a “bama,” or “geechee.”
“In addition to the general racial hostility often encountered on arrival in Northern cities, the visible and bodily markers of migrants’ rural origins (dress, speech, and mannerisms) were immediately criticized by the existing populations of the cities in which they settled,” Zeiderman wrote.
In reality, the identities of the migrants varied widely and were shaped by a multitude of factors and experiences. The title of the BMA exhibition, “A Movement in Every Direction,” reflects this, as do the installations. Among a dozen artists whose work is exhibited, Theaster Gates Jr., whose work includes the shelves of canned food, shares memories of his childhood summers visiting family in Humphreys County, Mississippi. The work of Robert Pruitt is a recollection of leaving his hometown of Houston. Akea Brionne’s work examines the sacrifices women made.
The history of the Great Migration is told through memories that span generations. Those memories reflect what Black Americans wanted to leave behind down South and what they missed about lives there. Segregation and racial terror are central to that history, but so are family bonds, common purpose, and connection to home and to the land of the small-town South.
Many sharecropping and farming families were seeking an escape from poverty by moving into the industrial North and Midwest. But others were well-educated teachers, clergymen, or scientists from Morehouse College, Spelman College or Shaw University. They went north believing they might have a better chance to work for a better quality of life.
My mother left Kittrell, North Carolina, in her teens and lived out her life in Baltimore, but she still referred to Kittrell and Henderson, North Carolina, as “home.” My father left War, West Virginia to attend Bluefield State College and serve 23 years in the Army. During his years in Baltimore, he talked a lot about his upbringing in Appalachia and Black life there — “Affrilachian” is how some researchers now describe the experience of Black people in that region.
While they both came to Baltimore to re-create their lives, they and so many others, from so many towns and counties down South, ended up re-creating Baltimore.
Mark Williams is the Baltimore Banner’s opinion editor.