Black history is a story of migration


February is Black History Month, and African-American history is very much a story of migration. Between 1916 and 1970, 6 million black people left behind the shackles of the rural South and its rampant racism and moved to the North in search of a living wage and the freedom to live without fear. It is known in the history books as the Great Migration.

So it is only fitting that the Association for the Study of African American Life and History would choose “Black Migrations” as its theme for Black History Month this year. The nonprofit association was founded in 1915, just as the Great Migration began.

Tens of thousands of African-Americans escaping the Jim Crow South settled in Harlem. In 1910, central Harlem was 10 percent black. By 1930, it was 70 percent black, and the numbers only rose from there in the following years. Like hundreds of thousands of European immigrants, they came seeking work in the many hardscrabble factories that then dotted New York City.

Black settlement led to the Harlem Renaissance, an era of spectacular artistic and cultural growth lasting from roughly 1920 through the ’30s. The Renaissance changed everything. It established a new “black identity” and cemented jazz as a quintessential form of American music. A number of Harlem’s African-American musicians became giants on the American music scene, including Louis Armstrong Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Jelly Roll Morton.

Black literary greats emerged from Harlem as well. Zora Neil Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is surely one of the greatest novels in the American literary canon. Poet Langston Hughes mixed jazz rhythms with traditional literary devices to craft some of America’s most important poetry. Even the famed Harlem Globetrotters came out of the Renaissance.

From Harlem, many African-American families moved to the suburbs, beginning as early as the mid-20th century, but that secondary migration occurred in earnest during the 1960s and ’70s. Many settled in communities across Long Island.

They were not always welcomed. They were excluded from Levittown by covenant when the community was established in 1947-48, for example. That covenant was quickly overturned by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but blacks knew they were not wanted in Levittown, so they stayed away. When they began moving to Roosevelt after World War II, white people fled. Other communities, like Baldwin and Freeport, however, integrated well (though not always perfectly) over the decades and are now shining examples of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity.

Harlem today is more diverse racially than it was during the Renaissance and the ensuing decades. Now it’s 60 percent African-American, 19 percent Hispanic, 13 percent white, 3 percent Asian and 5 percent other.

Baldwin and Freeport are even more diverse. Baldwin is 34 percent white, 32 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 2 percent other. Freeport is 43 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African-American, 23 percent white and 4 percent other.

This is the hope and the dream — that whole communities can integrate, and little black boys and girls can hold hands with little white boys and girls, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. We have a long way to go before that vision is fully realized. Harlem and Baldwin and Freeport — and Valley Stream and Long Beach, too — should give us hope, though.

The nonprofit ERASE Racism recently held a panel discussion at Hofstra University titled “How Do We Build a Just Long Island?” It was one of five such discussions across the Island exploring the question of how to eliminate the area’s persistent institutional racism.

The hope of the talks, said ERASE Racism President Elaine Gross, was to spur an honest, ongoing conversation. ERASE Racism isn’t the only such group working to build a better understanding among Long Islanders of all races. Rockville Centre’s Anti-Racism Project is working to do that on a hyperlocal level. How wonderful it would be if every community had such a group.

For Long Islanders to address racism head-on, they must first understand the history of the African-American experience, and that experience has so often been one of migration forced by hate. It’s about time that we create a place where all people, regardless of skin color, can settle and live out their lives to their fullest potential.