As 6 million Southern Black Americans migrated to the Midwest and Northeast to flee economic deprivation, New York City became the home to several Black neighborhoods, such as Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. This mass movement of Black Americans is historically known as “the Great Migration.” Black Americans in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant eventually spread throughout the five boroughs for more space. The Great Migration started in the 1910s and lasted for decades until the 1970s.
Between 1992 to 1995, Gotham Center launched an oral history project that involved various interviews of Southern Black Americans that migrated to New York City titled “African American Migration and Southern Folkways in New York City Oral History Project,” which can be found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture archives. With stories about their trek to New York City, their work experiences, and even street life, these three narratives offer us just a slight look into the migration up North.
Mary Ruffin was born in Suffolk, Virginia in 1920 to George Ruffin, a landscaper and Grace Ruffin, a housewife. Mary was one of 7 children, 5 daughters, two sons. Mary Ruffin was interviewed by Ray Allen on March 15, 1993. She moved to New York City from Virginia at the age of 20 in the year of 1940. Mary described in detail that she traveled to New York City from Virginia by bus. She stated that the bus stopped at 50th Street and these were her thoughts when she made it to New York City:
“Well, when I looked around — I was kind of a little disappointed — when you get up in these apartments, there’s no front porch. We had been used to going out in the evening and especially in the summertime, you sit on the porch until it’s time to go to bed. There was no front porch, no back door. In a way, you had to get adjusted to it. But once you get adjusted, you make yourself contented… You’ve got to explore it and see the beauty of it. So that’s how you get full pleasure from the City.”Mary Ruffin, African American Migration and Southern Folkways in New York City Oral History Project, Gotham Center
When Mary arrived in New York City, she moved to Harlem, specifically West 134th Street and 8th Avenue. She explained that the neighborhood was mostly populated with Southern Black Americans and there wasn’t much diversity until heavy immigration began. Interviewer Ray Allen inquired about Mary’s work experience and the opportunities she received upon her move up North. Mary started out with factory work: “Some of them were like piece work; bead factory I worked too; and I worked at a soap factory. I worked at quite a few factories before I got to nursing.”
Mary goes on to share what made her get into the nursing trade:
Well, I thought it was a better opportunity. There were more benefits there. Working at the factory you didn’t get very many benefits. So, I worked with the city. My teacher taught me to work with the city when I finished. She said you get more experience by being a practical nurse because in some of the private hospitals they don’t let the practical nurse do everything. You can only do certain things, but in a city hospital, they let you do everything because there’s always a shortage and there’s no one else there to do it. So you have to do it so you get more experience that way.Mary Ruffin, African American Migration and Southern Folkways in New York City Oral History Project, Gotham Center
Her practical nursing program was offered at the YWCA, was a year long, and led her to work as a practical nurse for New York City for 27 years.
We went to class for three months during the day and then after the three months we started affiliating at the hospital, working at the hospital. It was getting your training, then at the hospital. So you had another nine months to get your training at the hospital, but you still went to class. You had to go to class twice a week while you were working in the hospital. So, when I finished I put in 5 or 6 applications and I got an answer from all of them to come in to work. Except the one that hired me. The supervisor told me to come back November the 16th, so I took her work and I went back November the 16th and they hired me. That was at James Hospital for Cancer Research…. I was there for 13 years and then they replaced us somewhere else when they closed it down and I went to Metropolitan because it’s here by me and I could walk there. You had three choices and they tried to give you your first preference. So I went to one beer by me and I was there for 14 years. That’s a general hospital.Mary Ruffin, African American Migration and Southern Folkways in New York City Oral History Project, Gotham Center
Gertrude Dobson Stallings Rose
Gertrude Dobson Stallings Rose,interviewed by Ray Allen, was born in Keenensville, North Carolina on April 6, 1915 to Tommy Dobson and Needham Dobson, a farming family. She was one out of 13 children, fourth born. Gertrude’s family farmed corn, peanuts, tobacco, and sweet potatoes. The land her family cultivated crops on were owned by them, which meant they were not sharecroppers. In her interview with Ray Allen, Gertrude recalled her 5-mile walks to school, which eventually led to her paternal uncle building a school for the children to cut out the long daily commute. The school was first named “Stockinghead,” then later became “Dobson Community Center.”
Gertrude moved to New York City with her husband and six kids in 1955 by car. Her husband William Henry Stallings was a farmer. She stated the reason that she moved to New York City was because her sister insisted and already lived there. Gertrude explained that leaving the farm to work in a big city was scary: “It was, it was difficult, but it was a thing that we had to do, we had to just go.” When she arrived in New York City, all she cared about was work to provide for her family. Gertrude and her family moved to Kingston Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but eventually moved to 179 Stuyvesant Avenue. William worked in construction and Gertrude worked in a baseball cap factory. Gertrude stated that Bed-Stuy was a Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood riddled with crime that made her feel unsafe.
James Sanders, interviewed by Ray Allen, was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina on January 11, 1941 to Mutt Graves and Rebecca Sanders, sharecroppers: “My parents? My parents, they were farmers and they did sharecrop, you know what sharecrop means? Sharecrop that means to farm.” James stated that his aunt was already in New York City and called to have him sent up when he was 11 years old:
“ Yeah, cause my aunt called up and let her know that they wasn’t treatment me right down there, you know cause then I was living with my aunt, then after I left my aunt I started living with my uncle, so my uncle’s wife used to mistreat us – me and my sister – and so my mother found out about it, so she came down. My aunt sent me – my mom came down to get my sister – then my aunt sent me.”
James went into detail into how he actually made it to New York City: “No, no. It was an old man they called “Willy Frazier,” he was like a cab driver, he brings everybody to New York and then he take you back. And he’s still doing it, he’ll bring you to New York.” James stated that Willy Frazier brought millions of people to New York in a station wagon.
James also spoke in detail about gangs in Bed-Stuy:
I would stay clear if that. When you come up from the South, you were taught New York is bad, that’s number one – New York is bad, you keep your distance, although they were trying to make me get into a gang, I used to fight to protect myself and to protect my family, you know because back in them days, if you didn’t join the gang, then they would you know do something with your parents, so I didn’t like that. But they tried hard, and I paid my dues in Brooklyn. I paid mine.James Sanders, African American Migration and Southern Folkways in New York City Oral History Project, Gotham Center
He stated that the neighborhood was mixed in 1952 when he arrived. James lived on Gates and Tompkins Avenue in Bed-Stuy. James named some of the gangs in Bed-Stuy during the time by name: “The Choppers, the Bitches, the El Puentos, the Stompers.”
At the time of the interview, James owned a bakery, but he did speak in detail about work experience:
I used to work in a little fish and chips, a little, small place, it wasn’t bigger than this office, and you know down in the basement I’m cleaning the fish and I’m thinking in my mind, I said, ‘one day I will have something bigger than this here.’ And that’s how it started from, because the guy he didn’t never want to learn me but his wife learned me how to you know working to cook and clean the fish and stuff, because he got sick.”James Sanders, African American Migration and Southern Folkways in New York City Oral History Project, Gotham Center
James described the “soul food” he learned to cook for a mostly Black clientele:”Collard greens, peas and rice, fish, chicken, a little of everything, a little of everything.”
The Great Migration to New York City helped create Black neighborhoods that became meccas. The narratives of these migrants help give us in-depth looks into those who bravely fled the South in search of opportunity and freedom from Jim Crow.