Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles. (Reviews).
In the last few decades scholars have pieced together a dramatically new understanding of the meaning of past migrations. The old story held that industry pulled recently dispossessed rural people to the city, where--along with deskilled artisans--they became part of a growing urban industrial proletariat. For migrants from rural areas the process was thought to be catastrophic, requiring a total and often impossible adjustment to an urban world that was different in just about every imaginable way. Recent studies have distanced themselves from this framework by examining issues such as migrants' use of family and kin networks, rural workers' prior experience working for wages, long-term migration traditions, and the tendency for migrants to make up a particularly prepared subgroup of the sending population. In doing so, they have emphasized the gradual and long-term nature of the shift from rural agricultural life to urban industrial life.
Chad Berry's Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles is one of the first works to make the case that the northward migration of southern whites was not nearly as disruptive as previous studies had suggested. Compared to the migration of southern blacks and international immigrants, it might seem that southern whites' moves would have been relatively painless. In fact, by the end of the migration in the early 1970s, Chicago's Uptown, Cincinnati's Lower Price Hill, and Detroit s Briggs neighborhoods had all become powerful symbols of the difficulties southern whites faced in the north, and of the havoc they seemed to wreak there. In the 1970s and 1980s, a broadly interdisciplinary literature chronicled the proliferation of southern white "ghettos" in northern cities. Berry refers to these works as the "pathology school." While most of this literature was fundamentally sympathetic, Berry faults it for effectively reinforcing false stereotypes of southern migrants. In part, Berry's story is an effort to discredit this literatures view of the migrant as a "poor, dumb, welfare grabbing, honky-tonk drinking, knife-fighting individual who does not 'care' to improve his or her situation." (188).
Through the use of over 60 oral histories, census microdata files, and numerous government reports and academic studies, Berry paints a very different portrait of the southern migrant in the north. He argues that most southern white migrants found jobs easily, bought homes and cars, and eventually moved to the suburbs, accomplishing all of this in the face of persistent prejudice and discrimination in the north. In the course of this effort, Berry provides a strikingly original long-term overview of twentieth-century southern white out-migration. Previous studies of the southern white out-migration have focused exclusively on the post-WWII period, generally confining their analysis to a particularly neighborhood or city. Berry's approach is broader and more sweeping. The book's early chapters move the clock backwards, focusing on the 1920s and the Depression in rich detail. Subsequent chapters cover the World War II era, continuing migration from 1945 through the 1970s, and the development of a very visible s outhern white culture in the north. In all chapters, Berry considers migrants moving to rural agricultural areas, small-town industries, and major midwestern cities.
Berry's story goes beyond the fairly straightforward success narrative in several ways. One of the central arguments in the book is that the prosperous, well-adjusted southerners were also "exiles." The decision to go north was never easy, and when there migrants always felt the pull of family and culture back home. Even so, in the north migrants formed a lively associational life: they went to neighborhood bars, listened to country-western music, attended Southern Baptist and fundamentalist churches, and even formed social and political self-help organizations characteristic of international and African-American migrants. The term "exiles" is also meant as a counterpoint to conceptions of an African-American "exodus" from the oppressive Jim Crow South. For many whites, the migration was not an escape but a last resort; some planned to return home on retirement, many did not wait that long.
Social historians will be interested in Berry's frequent comparisons of the experiences of southern white migrants with those of African-American migrants and international migrants before them. For instance, his analysis of black/white differences on the job market is unequivocal: blacks "clearly and repeatedly lost out to southern whites in the northern workplace because of prejudice." (142) In considering discrimination more broadly, however, Berry finds that "property owners dreaded southerners almost as much as they did African-Americans;" or, more generally, "one could argue that southern whites were scorned as much, if not more than, foreign immigrants or African-Americans because they were presumed to be 'American'." (50-51) These are interesting claims, and both are backed with numerous examples from oral histories. Still, one wonders if Berry's sympathies have gotten the best of him. After all, most African-Americans in the north were themselves southerners, and thus shared the burden of whatever " rural" biases northerners held. At a more basic level, all blacks--southern and non-southern--faced a much more restricted northern housing market than did southern whites. Surely this pattern can be taken as an indication of the preferences of landlords and other northerners.
Still, Berry's main goal and achievement in this book is not in comparison. Rather, it is in demonstrating the great diversity in the southern white migrant experience, and in placing all of this in a compelling new framework. He accomplishes this in style, combining readability with insightful social analysis. In these ways, this book is a major contribution in Appalachian studies, migration studies, and American social history more generally.