VOL.2 POST 1. POSTED JUNE 15, 2016 BRONZEVILLE PRESS NEWS SERVICE
THE CENTENNIAL OF ROBERT ABBOTT’S
“GREAT NORTHERN DRIVE”
POINTS OF CLARIFICATION ABOUT THE GREAT BLACK MIGRATION
The phrase “Great Black Migration” is an ‘external’ description from observation. “Great Northern Drive” was an ‘internal’ revolution exercised geographically. It is important to recognize that distinction. For far too long we as a people have worn and honored identifiers and names placed upon us and upon our life tracks by others; Kemet became “Egypt;” Kunta became “Toby.”
In several editions of the Chicago Defender Newspaper during 1916, Publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott began to publicly call for Negroes to leave the south and come north. Lynchings, beat downs, dog attacks, church bombings, unjust political, legal, employment and education systems, marginalized or non-existent right to vote, and Jim Crow laws were a few of the issues that motivated Mr. Abbott into causing the biggest mass “Exodus” of people since Moses in the Bible. Mr. Abbott likened his call for an “Exodus” to Emancipation. The availability of jobs for men was a big factor in the call, and the exodus. “More positions open than men for them,” Mr. Abbott boasted. Add to that, ‘letters from family members and friends’ who had already left the south for Chicago, Detroit, New York, Pittsburgh and other northern cities, seemed to echo Mr. Abbott’s claims of progress, prosperity and respect. Mr. Abbott was a highly respected man in the national black community. His word and that of his newspaper was bond. This was a man who employed women as writers long before most white news bosses would even discuss the subject over coffee. Negroes couldn’t even vote in the south but Chicago was on the brink of electing the first Negro city council member anywhere. And so it began. By train, bus, auto, and bicycle they came.
By the time the small headline, “PREDICTS EXODUS OF RACE,” hit the cover of the February 19, 1916 edition of the Defender there had already been talk and print about “Race Labor Leaving,” and thousands had already left the south on their own. Unofficially Mr. Abbott’s “Exodus” began in 1916; there was no May 15 edition of the Chicago Defender Newspaper in 1916. There was a May 13, edition, and a May 20 edition (both Saturdays).
In the February 10, 1917 edition of the Defender, the story headline reads: “NORTHERN DRIVE TO START;” and says:
“…Thousands have left for the North and thousands are still leaving, and a million will leave with the ‘Great Northern Drive,’ Tuesday May 15. The maltreatment of the whites towards members of the race is the sole cause of the exodus.”
Two months later in the April 7th edition Mr. Abbott announced, “the Great Northern Drive is to Continue.” And for the rest of his life ‘the drive’ was his mission.
Mr. Abbott’s apparatus included associations with and use of influential policy and numbers racketeers, nationally known athletes and entertainers, Pullman porters, preachers, and influential blacks from every social status. Long before any Black Panther hijacked a dance party, Mr. Abbott crashed café’s and speakeasies to deliver his pertinent and revolutionary messages, often instructional. In the March 30, 1925 edition of the Defender, southerners were told:
“When You Come North …come prepared to work hard; if you have no trade and no means of recommending yourself, don’t come; cultivate the habit of looking every man in the eye while speaking to him; when you come north, find yourself a good clean neighborhood in which to rear your children; get them in school as quickly as possible -and keep them there. when you come north, attire yourself properly before going on the streets. Don’t allow people to see you out in bedroom clothes or kitchen aprons. When you come north, learn to conduct yourself quietly in public. Don’t entertain passengers in a public conveyance by discussing your private affairs in a loud voice. These are just a few of the many points you may consider if you want to gain in the North the things denied you in the land of your birth. By doing this, you will also make things easier for those who must come out of the South in later years.”
Mr. Abbott’s determinations, associations, and participations created the ethos that brought to life the ideas of “race men” that gave us insurance companies, banks, political leadership, opportunities to create and maintain businesses, Mayors of Bronzeville (Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Columbus), Paradise Valley (Detroit), Sepia Town (Toledo), and many other institutional-tributes to his unique drive for “race progress.”
On July 7th 1937 in front of an estimated crowd of 50,000 people, gathered to witness history in the making, as Master of Ceremonies for the grand opening of the Jones brothers’ store on 47th Street, Mr. Abbott proclaimed:
“If the preachments of the Chicago Defender for the past 32 years have done nothing more than inspire the opening of such an enterprise, its work and mission have been thoroughly fulfilled…. The business acumen of the Jones brothers compares favorably with that of any other American businessman. …The Ben Franklin store expresses a new era in race progress…. I am thoroughly happy to see, before my eyes close, that we are beginning to center our monies and ability in a direction that is not only helpful to the race but helpful to the country in common…”
That comment was a clear indication of the role that “policy money” played, as an economic engine, in establishing the Jones brothers’ retail venture. The Jones boys were the biggest policy men in the country and like most of the top policy men in Chicago, they were “race men.” But it was about more than money. No greater words capture the essence beyond money than Mr. Abbott himself. In the July 24, 1937 edition of the Defender Newspaper, Mr. Abbott himself wrote and published the editorial, “The Three Musketeers,” about opening day of the Jones Brothers’ Ben Franklin Store on 47th Street.
“One of the most touching scenes of the day was an old couple, both born in slavery, who arrived early and stood in line to be among the first to make a purchase when the doors were opened. The old lady stated that they had been saving their pennies for weeks to make purchases to send to their grandchildren in the south. When the doors were opened this couple seemed to have the vigor of children as they pushed their way into the store, made their purchases and with tears in their eyes, walked hand in hand out the back way.”
In 1938 Time Magazine declared Chicago’s Bronzeville as the “U.S. Center of Negro Business.” It was the year of the first-ever “Exhibition of Negro Businesses.” The 2-day event was held in Chicago at the Eighth Regiment Armory and organized by businessman Frank Howell Jr. U.S. Census figures indicate that Chicago’s black businesses posted annual net sales of more than $4.8M, compared to New York which had 100,000 more blacks but posted little more than $3.3 M. The decade of the 1930s was arguably the most progressive decade in black America history. By the close of the 1930s, more than 1.6M Negroes heard and answered Mr. Abbott’s call and left the south.
On February 29, 1940, Mr. Abbott, the modern-day Moses of his time, died at the age of 70. At his passing, Abbott’s nephew, John Sengstacke took over the helm of the newspaper. Helm of Abbott’s “Drive,” however, was another matter. New waves of migrants would be acclimated to a different northern life. An “urban industrial life” vastly different than the one described by Mr. Abbott a generation earlier.
Policy kings in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities began catching indictments like the flu. Politics connected to the rise of the Democrats connected to the policy rackets were changing as were old alliances. By the mid 1940s, after the war, in Chicago the ‘Pat Nash-Ed “Big Red of Bronzeville” Kelly Democratic machine of the 1930s, tethered to the rise of the Ed Jones Policy Syndicate, was dead, as was the Roosevelt’s White House, his “Black Cabinet,” and most if not all of his “New Deals.”
In 1944 the landmark book, ‘An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a 1500-page book bankrolled by the Carnegie Foundation, hit the bookstores, streets, and offices of academics, sociologists, and politicians everywhere. The book advocates, among other things, that “…all white Americans agree that, if the Negro is to be eliminated, he must be eliminated slowly so as not to hurt any living individual Negroes.” Further, that “birth control facilities could be extended relatively more to Negroes than whites, since Negroes are more concentrated in the lower income and education classes.”
“Concentrated;” not by choice; A different kind of “concentration camp’ interment.” A place and a ‘pre-scribed’ life design NOT presented by Mr. Abbott. A place more reminiscent of the place he called for us to leave.
Nationally, black neighborhoods became the targets of urban planners with public housing ambitions, big time real estate developers with land acquisition dreams, and budding drug cartels with ambitions of they’re own. Gangsters associated with the Chicago Mob began permeating black neighborhoods, coming into more control of the neighborhood and its resources– economic and political. Mr. Abbott’s Northern oasis was being replaced with a fascist political regime that facilitated discrimination in housing. Blacks who could afford to leave Bronzeville and the black Westside did so; as did longtime Jewish merchants. New alliances were forged in the exploitation of generations of black Americans to come. The same story played out in Cleveland, New York City, Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis and all the great northern cities of Mr. Abbott’s Drive.
Between 1940 and 1960, more than 3.3M black people left the south. Many went west to California, Washington, and Oregon, mainly for jobs associated with the war effort. The majority, however, still motivated by the legends of Robert Abbott’s “preachments,” landed in Midwestern and Eastern cities. Much to their dismay, sadly, these newly arriving blacks attempted to move into neighborhoods that didn’t have welcome signs. To the contrary, they were greeted with restrictive covenants designed and implemented by bigots and racists. The end of the war along with southern agricultural displacement brought on more concerns. Mr. Abbott’s drive ‘to’ jobs and housing was now a ‘fight’ for jobs and housing. Noted author David Cohn wrote:
“…. The coming problem of agricultural displacement in the Delta and the whole South, is of huge proportions and must concern the entire nation… Five Million people will be removed from the land within the next few years. They must go somewhere-but where? They must do something- but what? They must be housed- but where is the housing? Most of this group, are farm-Negroes, totally unprepared for urban industrial life. What will be their reception at the hands of white and Negro workers whose jobs and wages they threaten? If tens of thousands of southern Negroes descend upon communities totally unprepared for them, psychologically and industrially, what will the effect be upon race relations in the United States? Will the Negro problem be transferred from the South to their parts of the nation….”
Noted author Richard Wright wrote:
“…Perhaps never in history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city; we were barely born as a folk when we headed for the tall and sprawling centers of steel and stone. We, who were land-less upon the land…”
Langston Hughes wrote:
I pick up my life, and take it with me, and I put it down in, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Scranton, Any place that is North and East– and not Dixie. I pick up my life, and take it on the train, to Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Seattle, Oakland, Salt lake, any place that is, North and East, and not South.
History has shown that while many defied the pontifications of Cohn, Wright, and many other talking heads of the day, many of the final waves of migrants and their offspring have been subjects of a sinister system of oppression against black people. In the late 1940s, development plans for public housing projects along State Street were reviewed and approved concurrently as developments plans for the Lake Meadows Complex (which replaced Douglas) were being improved. Both plans called for eminent domain land acquisition and displacement. Plans for Lake Meadows called for “sprawling green; plans for housing projects did not. Cohn and Wright’s observations about the clash of cultures of the 1940s is highly comparable to the clash of cultures of the 1990s and 2000s between the ‘hijacked public housing culture’ of ‘cement floors and government subsidies’ that merged with grounded [community] culture of manicured lawns and quiet neighborhoods after dark.’
The original public housing culture of carefully selected tenants with jobs and families was hijacked by the alliance of exploitation. That hijacking gave way to the sub-culture now associated with “the projects;” drugs, gangs, guns, school dropouts, disrespectful behavior and prison mentality that inter-migrated. That collective is the by-product of social engineering and gentrification that has had lasting effects on Mr. Abbott’s people for generations (to come). Those lasting effects have played out on the evening news every day since the early days of television, creating negative, false imaging that contributes to the ongoing stereo-typification and marginalization of African Americans.
In 1952, Reverend A.J. Carey Jr. of Chicago’s Woodlawn AME Church and a longtime associate of Mr. Abbott, spoke at the Republican National Convention held at the International Amphitheater in Chicago:
“We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans: ‘My country ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims’ pride From every mountainside Let freedom ring! … That’s exactly what we mean — from every mountainside, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for the disinherited of all the earth! May the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING!”
Sixteen years after Carey’s ’52 convention speech,’ his friend Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. borrowed that speech, and made it famous:
“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’ … “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Today in 2016 as we celebrate the Centennial of the movement created by Mr. Abbott it equally important to reflect on and learn from the conditions that inspired the exodus in the first place. Mr. Abbott put the conditions on blast but his analysis of the conditions was not news. Black southerners just needed a push in the right direction from the right person. The continued marginalization and terrorizing of the offspring of “Robert Abbott’s people” today, would possibly cause him to call for some sort of ‘directional drive,’ out of and away from these same ‘1916-southern-oppressions’ that are playing out today as ‘2016-Northern-digressions.’ Lynchings have been replaced with murder-by-cop; black unemployment has been replaced with more black unemployment; employed blacks still struggle for a living wage. We unceremoniously lost the “Mother Ward of Black Northern Politics” when Chicago’s historic 2nd Ward, the very birthplace of the northern black political machine, was remapped, out of Bronzeville, out of the black community entirely and “re-purposed” to the north side of the city.
Mr. Abbott inspired a revolutionary socioeconomic movement that saw the realization of black owned and operated institutions including banks, insurance companies, retail stores, professional athletics, the careers of lawyers, doctors, dentists, aviators, politicians, and so much more. Between 1905 at the launch of the Chicago Defender Newspaper and the time of his passing in 1940, Mr. Abbott met with and worked with 8 Chicago mayors, 14 top cops, and 7 U.S. Presidents in the name of progress for the black race.
Indeed, I believe if Mr. Abbott were alive today, he would call for some sort of “drive” for the masses of African-Americans; perhaps a Great “Inner” Drive. A drive that causes blacks at large to look within. There are no more geographic destinations of prosperity for a mass black migration; Mrs. Tubman and Mr. Abbott already hunted those dogs. Time to look within. Internally we must discover our true world origins and exercise that knowledge of self, externally, for parity’s sake. We must drive to re-define our time so that future generations African Americans will know our true histories rather than the histories presented to us; our true heroes rather the ones given to us. So that future generations of black children can use the lessons of our past to reshape our destiny as a people, that our warriors of ‘race-conscious-action’ did not live, act, or die in vain. If that much can be achieved, perhaps future demographers, researchers, and educators will enlighten the populous about the drive to the “Great Black Awakening.”
Long live the great driving spirit of Robert Sengstacke Abbott.
© 2016 Nathan Thompson
Nathan Thompson is the Author of ‘KINGS: The True Story of Chicago’s Policy Kings & Numbers Racketeers. An Informal History.’ ISBN: 978-0-9724875-1-1. The Bronzeville Press.
**HISTORY NOTE: September 22, 2016 marks the 82nd Anniversary of the election of the first-ever “Mayor of Bronzeville.” A time-honored tradition that began in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood with the election of Policy King and Palm Tavern Founder James Knight in 1934.