West Tennessee and the Great Migration

2 Sep

The Great Migration is commonly known as the time period of 1915 – 1970 when an estimated 6 million African Americans fled the South to the North, the West, and the Mid West. These African Americans were in search of a better life, free from the poor jobs, poor education, and Jim Crow that was standard in the South. Often we see African Americans leaving the south due to potential retaliation and threats on their life from Whites on some action they might have taken. What this migration did was allow the children who made this journey to flourish in ways that might not have been possible had they stayed in the South.

The African Americans of Ripley and West Tennessee also followed the trails of The Great Migration. Many of these African American families moved to Detroit, Chicago, and other northern and midwestern cities. In my own family I can count 6 of 8 siblings leaving Ripley behind for Detroit.

So what do these patterns of migration tell us?

During this period of time little pockets of West Tennessee could be found in several different cities. The small towns of Ripley, Brownsville and others spread their culture and way of life to several places.

A quick search on Ancestry.com turned up records of thousands upon thousands of African Americans who left West Tennessee for the North. Here are a few of them.

1. Elias Norvell born 1871 in Ripley, TN son of Alex and Polly Norvell. On the 1930 US Census Elias can be found in Willoughby, Ohio with his wife Elsie and their four children.

2. Rawlings Bond was born about 1888 in Haywood County, TN son of Haywood and Mary Bond. His WWI Draft Registration Card completed in 1917 indicated that he was a self-employed farmer. Rawlings and his wife Bessie Southall Bond make an appearance on the 1920 US Census in Haywood County, but by the 1930 US Census they had relocated to Detroit, Michigan where Rawlings was now employed as an Expressman in the Cartage (transporting goods) industry.

3. Love Campbell was born about 1893 in Brownsville, TN. His 1917 WWI Draft Registration Card indicates that he was married and employed in a workhouse in Jackson, TN. On the 1930 US Census Love makes an appearance as a lodger living in Detroit, Michigan working as a laborer in an auto plant. On the 1940 US Census Love is still in Detroit and is now working as a cement mixer at a construction company.

As you can see the job opportunities that existed in the North were far better than any jobs to be found in West Tennessee. Can you imagine barely scraping together a living as a sharecropper on someone else’s land and then going to Detroit and securing a job in an auto plant? The good fortunes of these individuals more than likely influenced close family and friends to join them. Interestingly, many of those who migrated first made their homes in boarding houses and can be found on the US Censuses as lodgers.

The stories of these 3 individuals barely scratches the surface of the stories of those who left West Tennessee for other areas. In the future I plan to do a more in depth study on the West Tennessee participants of the Great Migration.

What about your own family? Do you have relatives who left West Tennessee for the better conditions in other parts of the US?



– Tiffany

– Sources: US Census Records 1880 – 1940, Tennessee State Marriage Records, WWI Draft Registration Cards

– Image Source: http://www.centerstage.org/portals/23/images/Great-Migration.jpg


8 Responses to “West Tennessee and the Great Migration”

  1. Sara September 2, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    Alex and Polly Norvell were my paternal great grand parents. Elias was one of several children born to them. My paternal grandfather Tony Norvell was one of their younger children.

  2. Sara September 2, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Also ,given that you are discussing the Great Migration,have you read “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson?

    • Tiffany September 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

      Thanks for commenting. I’m actually reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” currently. I thought I recognized Alex Norvell’s name.

  3. Sundra Friend September 3, 2013 at 4:23 am #

    This is my grandfather
    Samuel Friend Jr (son of Samuel Friend Sr and Pearl Winbush) was born November 08, 1905 in Lauderdale Co, Tennessee, and died January 1981.

    Children of Samuel Friend Jr and Ruby Tyce are:
    R.B. Friend
    Shirley Louise Friend. *deceased
    Edward Friend. *deceased
    Elmira Friend, *deceased
    My Dad is RB Friend after serving in the United States Army in 1953 my parents left Tennessee and move to Detroit Michigan
    my Dad was later instrumental in bring his two sisters and their families to Detroit.

    • Tiffany September 3, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

      Thanks for commenting. This is a great example of the great migration and how whole families relocated to the north.

  4. karen hall September 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    I was friends with a old lady named Effie Taylor Mcintyre, She said her Dad was King David Taylor, a William Wilkerson married Kings grand daughter, an they decided they wanted to leave an go to Gibson Co. In. where William had 3 siblings. William was a sharecropper an his white man told him he could not leave until he paid him what he owed, Finally King David went to the white man an came up with a number the white man agreed upon. King David paid this guy off so William could leave. You know i went to Ripley in the 70,s an people would still say [ John Does white man got him out of jail ] CRAZY

    • Tiffany September 29, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

      Thanks for commenting. There are a lot of stories similar to this one that I have found. Some people even had to sneak off the landowner’s land at night because he would not let them leave until they were able to settle their debt. The premise behind sharecropping was to keep the field hands in debt. The landowner’s would not share their account books with the field hands and they sometimes did not even pay them in US dollars. They would get paid with something like a ticket or token that was only good to be spent in the sharecroppers store.

  5. Jerry White March 30, 2018 at 1:47 am #

    I found out that my great great grand father was born in Tennessee in 1880 by 1930 he and his family are found in a 1930 us census in Indianapolis. Wow 130 yrs my family has been in this country. I’m the product of American slavery

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