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Curriculum Materials

Jerryelyn Leonard Jones


Main Ideas
The following lesson will explore the first mass movement of black southerners to northern cities during and after World War I from the perspective of its participants. The focus will be on their determination to leave, their journey, and their perceptions of their place in the northern city. Students will use a map of the Illinois Central Railroad system to trace the path of black migration from southern cities to Chicago. News articles from the Chicago Defender will be used to analyze and explain why poor southern blacks considered the North the land of opportunity.

Migration, as viewed by the migrant, was a chance to share as a black people the perquisites of American citizenship. Despite race riots and a severe depression during the winter of 1920-21, most migrants retained their faith in the "promised land," as evidenced by few returning to the South except for an occasional visit.

Connection with the Curriculum
This material could be used to teach Illinois history and U.S. history or geography.

Teaching Level
Grades 9-12

Materials for Each Student

• A copy of the narrative portion of this article

• Copies of the activities

• Paper, pens, colored pencils

• Copies of the maps

Objectives for Each Student

• Assess the role of the Chicago Defender in the mass migration of black southerners to northern cities.

• Analyze the Great Migration as a network held together by social institutions, leaders, and individual initiatives.

• Examine restrictions placed upon the black southerner by the white southerner to prevent migration.

• Trace the path of the Illinois Central Railroad from Chicago through the South, and explain the impact of the railroad upon migration.

• Determine the ways in which black southerners adapted to life in northern cities.

• Explain how the process of transferring families and communities northward ensured continuity and familiarity in the lives of the migrants.


Opening the Lesson
Students begin the lesson by reading the narrative portion of this article. A discussion of the article's narrative should follow the reading. Ask students about their own family's movement in past or present years. Such discussion might provide insight and a better understanding of the Great Migration. Assign the activities to the students.


Developing the Lesson
• This lesson may be done individually, in small groups, or as a whole group.

• Allow time for students to complete each activity.

• Plan discussion and feedback for each activity. Students working in groups may want to present their answers orally before the entire class.

• The first activity using the map of the Illinois Central Railroad system focuses on Chicago's easy access via the Illinois Central Railroad. The tracks of the Illinois Central stretched southward from Chicago into rural Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana, with easy access from adjoining states as well.

• The second activity, using the Chicago Defender shipping list, will give the students an understanding of the impact that the newspaper had on prospective migrants based upon sheer circulation numbers. This newspaper gave the black southerner a glimpse of an exciting city with a vibrant and assertive black community.

• The third activity, using news articles from the Chicago Defender, will provide students with some primary sources to help them gain an understanding of the Great Migration from the migrants' point of view.

Concluding the Lesson
• Grade each of the activities.

• Review and summarize the different responses for each activity.

• Students can also be asked to evaluate whether or not the North was a promised land for the black southerner.

Extending the Lesson
• Have students research the life of Robert S. Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender. Ask them to write a three-paragraph report consisting of his early life; his personal beliefs on race and discrimination; and the impact of his newspaper on migration.

Have students plan a bulletin board entitled the "Great Migration." On their board they can include some of the following: research reports on Robert S. Abbott; maps of the Illinois Central Railroad tracing the path of migration; letters written by black southerners to the Chicago Defender seeing help or advice; and, finally, editorials from the Chicago Defender on topics such as race relations or opportunities in the North for the black southerner.

• Visit the Chicago Daily Defender and tour their operations at 2400 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 60616; phone (312)225-2400. Compare the present-day focus of the paper with what you have learned about the paper in the 1920s.

• Show the video "Goin' To Chicago." This new documentary, underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, chronicles the migration of more than four million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North after World War II.
Producer/Director: George King
Sponsor: University of Mississippi
16mm, 70 minutes, 1994
Video cost $69.95
(add $10 shipping)
California Newsreel
149 9th Street, #425
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: (415)621-6196

• Another useful video about the migration of African-Americans to the industrial cities of the North between the 1940s and the 1970s is "The Promised Land."
Producer/Director: Discovery
Channel Presentations
16mm, 40 minutes
(each for 3-part series), 1995
Video cost $49.95
(add $5 shipping)
Knowledge Unlimited
Box 52, Department C96
Madison, Wl 53701
Phone: (800)356-2303

Assessing Student Learning
• Give a test or quiz.

• An alternative means of evaluation would be to have students write an essay from the migrants' point of view expressing why they left their home in the South to come to the North, and, upon arrival, their hopes and dreams for the future.



Activity 1

Illinois Central Railroad Station in Chicago

Illinois Central Railroad
Station in Chicago

You are a black migrant boarding a train for Chicago. Using the map of the Illinois Central Railroad system, do the following. (Additional research will be needed for question 5.)

  1. Using pencils, label the states that have a railroad running through them.

  2. Your journey begins in New Orleans, Louisiana. List the states you would travel through to reach Chicago, Illinois. Which of those states seems to have the heaviest concentration of black population? What is the approximate distance of your journey?

  3. Your journey begins in Atlanta, Georgia. Answer the same questions from number 2 above.

  4. Comment on the relationship between the size of black population shown on your map and railroad activity. What does one have to do with the other? Make deductions about the role of the railroad in black migration.

  5. Upon your arrival in Chicago, write a letter to a relative you left behind. In your letter include the following: the name of the railroad company you used; the length of the trip; the sights and sounds you experienced along the way; and your first impression of the city.


Activity 1 - continued

Railroad map

Cartography by Alex G. Papdopoulos and Jane Benson
The University of Chicago

Illinois Central Railroad Train

Illinois Central Railroad Train


Activity 2

Using the map of the Chicago Defender shipping list and your knowledge of the article, do the following:

  1. Label all states that received a shipping of the Chicago Defender.

  2. Fill in the chart below to list one city from each state where you would find more than 50 copies of the Defender shipped. Then explain the relationship between the number of Defenders shipped to certain areas and the total percentage of black population in those areas. Support your answer with specific examples from the Chicago Defender shipping list.

    STATE                 CITY

    1. Florida_____________________

    2. Mississippi_____________________

    3. Virginia______________________

    4. Arkansas______________________

    5. Louisiana_____________________

    6. Texas_______________________

    7. Georgia_____________________

    8. Alabama_____________________

    9. Tennessee____________________

  3. Write a report entitled "Southern circulation of the Chicago Defender had a great influence on black migration."


Activity 2 - continued

Distribution Map and Train


Activity 3

The following are questions based upon news articles taken from the Chicago Defender. Please read the articles on the following page and answer the questions below.

  1. Define the following terms taken from the news articles:

    Race Men
    "promised land"

  2. Why did the Defender denounce the South as a bad place for the black man? What evidence does it use to support this belief?

  3. What obstacles did the black southerner encounter when trying to migrate to the North? To what degree did these obstacles hinder migration?

  4. In the article "Leaving for the North," J. T. King is termed a "good nigger." What is King doing to earn him that title? Why do you think King takes the position that he does? Do most blacks heed his advice? Why or why not?

  5. In the article "Negro Woman Frozen To Death Monday," what reasons are given by the Defender to support the statement that the black southerner was better off in the North? Do you agree with the Defender? Why or why not?

  6. Divide the class into two groups. Have one side take the pro and the other side the con in a debate on the statement: "The Chicago Defender should be banned in the state of Mississippi because it caused a mass exodus of black southerners from the city of Hattiesburg, thus resulting in the ruination of that city."


Activity 3



Other headlines read: "Thousands Leave Memphis"; "Still Planning to Come North"; "Northbound Their Cry." These articles are especially interesting for the impelling power of the suggestion of a great mass movement.

Denunciation of the South.—The idea that the South is a bad place, unfit for the habitation of Negroes, was "played up" and emphasized by the Defender. Conditions most distasteful to Negroes were given first prominence. In this it had a clear field, for the local southern Negro papers dared not make such unrestrained utterances. Articles of this type appeared:


Harriet Tolbert, an aged Negro woman, was frozen to death in her home at 18 Garibaldi Street early Monday morning during the severe cold [Atlanta (Ga.) Constitution, dated Feb. 6).

If you can freeze to death in the North and be free, why freeze to death in the South and be a slave, where your mother, sister, and daughter are raped and burned at stake, where your father, brother and son are treated with contempt and hung to a pole, riddled with bullets at the least mention that he does not like the way he has been treated?

Come North then, all of you folks, both good and bad. If you don't behave yourself up here, the jails will certainly make you wish you had. For the hard working man there is plenty of work—if you really want it. The Defender says come.

News articles in the Defender kept alive the enthusiasm and fervor of the exodus:


Tampa, Fla., Jan. 19.—J. T. King, supposed to be a race leader, is using his wits to get on the good side of the white people by calling a meeting to urge our people not to migrate North. King has been termed a " good nigger " by his pernicious activity on the emigration question. Reports have been received here that all who have gone North are at work and pleased with the splendid conditions in the North. It is known here that in the North there is a scarcity of labor, mills and factories are open to them. People are not paying any attention to King and are packing and ready to travel North to the "promised land."


Jackson, Miss., March 23.—Although the white police and sheriff and others are using every effort to intimidate the citizens from going North, even Dr. Redmond's speech was circulated around, this has not deterred our people from leaving. Many have walked miles to take the train for the North. There is a determination to leave and there is no hand save death to keep them from it.


A piece of-poetry which received widespread popularity appeared in the Defender under the title "Bound for the Promise Land." Other published poems expressing the same sentiment were: " Farewell, We're Good and Gone''; "Northward Bound"; "The Land of Hope."

Five young men were arraigned before Judge E. Schwartz for reading poetry. The police claim they were inciting riot in the city and over Georgia. Two of the men were sent to Brown farm for thirty days, a place not fit for human beings. Tom Amaca was arrested for having "Bound for the Promise Land," a poem published in the Defender several months ago. J. N. Chislom and A. A. Walker were arrested because they were said to be the instigators of the movement of the race to the North, where work is plentiful and better treatment is given.

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