The Great Migration plays a critical role in blues history. Thousands of African Americans from the deep South moved North in search of equality and better job opportunities, bringing their music and culture with them. Among those who made the journey were people like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy. But in a troubling turn of events, the Great Migration is now happening in reverse.
In a report produced by the Trace, black citizens in Cook County, which includes Chicago, are leaving the city at an alarming rate. In data collected from 2000-2014, the total drop in Chicago’s black population is around 19%, and, according to census data, 2015 saw a mass population loss in general–much of which occurring in high crime, minority neighborhoods like Austin or North Lawndale and eclipsing Michigan’s Wayne County; which, by including Detroit, had seen the largest decreases for decades.
There are, of course, several reasons why a person would think about leaving Sweet Home Chicago. An increasing tax burden, for one, with a dysfunctional public school system and an unemployment rate higher than the national average following close behind. Still, it’s shocking how many people cited violence as the reason why they left, and makes for a harrowing read in conjunction with other articles.
Consider, for example, the New York Times reporting a “reverse Great Migration” as far back as 2011, citing economic reasons and, curiously, a more integrated society. The people in the Trace article aren’t only moving south (Berwyn and Iowa state were also mentioned), but barring a handful of exceptions no one would accuse Chicago’s neighborhoods of being lateral or fully-integrated.*
Also worth checking out is this Chicago magazine article that used Monica Davey’s Times piece as a springboard to note the irony, decades later, of the guns being used in violent crime in Chicago following one of the main channels of the Great Migration’s path:
Davey’s story also includes a map, with a focus on the surprising number of guns that come up the river from Mississippi. It’s something I’ve written about before, but Davey unearths a stat I didn’t know that gives it more weight: “In 1970 there were more people from Mississippi [PDF] living in Illinois than in all other Southern states” (more specifically, beyond their birth states).
It’s where Chicago got its blues from; now it’s where we get our guns from. As Nicholas Lemann reported in the Atlantic years ago (in work stemming from his book The Promised Land), the ties between Chicago and Mississippi run deep:
Because the migrants followed the existing train, bus, and highway routes, black Chicago was populated from the states along Highway 51 and the Illinois Central tracks – Arkansas, Louisiana, and, most important, Mississippi. In the fifties alone Mississippi lost more than a quarter of its black population. It’s no wonder that the Delta blues became the Chicago blues in the late forties and early fifties; blacks still sometimes call the South Side “North Mississippi.”
So. African Americans leave the South to flee violence and procure better job opportunities–bringing with them elements of culture that at that point had not been seen in northern cities–only to return to the South, fleeing violence, and seeking to procure better job opportunities.
What will be packed up and moved away with them?
*The effects of the attempt are also worth noting. In 2008, Hanna Rosin at the Atlantic wrote a startling piece on the implication an urban policy proposal can have on a community.