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The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 40, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 1044-1045 | 10.1353/jsh.2007.0098

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Before reading this book, I thought Jacqueline Jones' The Dispossessed thoroughly covered this topic. However, James Gregory, best known for his pioneering work, American Exodus on white southern migration to California, has added impressively to the body of literature on what he argues should be referred to as a "Diaspora" involving southern migrants. This well-researched and documented work will now be required reading for historians and sociologists interested in the impact of internal migration on American society. Gregory states in the introduction that rather than seeking to fill a gap in the history of migration, his book provides a comprehensive "historical study of the Southern Diaspora in its entirety." (p.5) Gregory defines this Southern Diaspora as "an era and process of exceptionally heavy population movement out of the South." (p.11) He sets in motion black and white southerners and delineates their shared experiences of migration. Gregory considers the fate of these two groups intertwined once they left the South, arguing that they were active in reshaping American culture, politics, and race relations. Gregory shows the role of the media and social scientists in shaping and interpreting the departure, arrival, and settlement of southerners in cities, and the ways in which images of black and white southerners became embedded in the American consciousness.

As in American Exodus, Gregory makes excellent use of Public Use Micro Data to conclude that more than twice as many whites than blacks left the South in the twentieth century. Though the South was losing proportionally more of its black population during this time period, Gregory demonstrates the importance of viewing white and black migration as a Diaspora. As is widely known among those who study migration, one significant difference between black and white migrants was the tendency of whites to return to the South. Gregory points out that there were also small numbers of Latinos leaving the South beginning in the 1940s.

Unlike previous studies that viewed southern migrants as a social problem, Gregory finds little difference in income and poverty rates of southern migrants and others in the North and West, though racial disparities are evident in these measures. He argues, like other historians recently, that migration improved the standard of living for southern blacks and whites. While not moving from "rags to riches," migrants were able to partake in the economic expansion occurring in their cities of destination, allowing many to move to the expanding suburbs in postwar America.

Gregory argues that the Southern Diaspora greatly affected American society. Southerners transformed the cities to which they migrated by imparting unique influences and contributions to music, religion and politics. Gregory is careful to show that southern professionals and the working class became involved in "southernizing" northern and western cities. Often overlooked by historians, religious fundamentalism was an important cultural contribution to northern and western cites by black and white southerners. Gregory is better able to prove his case for the influence of black versus white Protestantism. Black churches formed significant social institution in cities, primarily due to the historical exclusion of blacks from other institutions.

Though most associate the Civil Rights Movement as a southern phenome- non, northern and western cities became staging grounds for important civil rights victories in the South. In addition to voting, blacks were able to form political alliances with other disadvantaged groups, organized labor and the Democratic Party. Hillbillies and Okies also shaped the urban political milieu, though most of Gregory's discussion centers on California and Detroit. Missing from his discussion is the crucial role of Appalachian migrants in the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago.

Gregory succeeds in recasting the separate movement of blacks and whites out of the south as a Diaspora. This is no small feat. In doing so he has made a significant contribution to how historians should view this movement of people. At the very least, historians will have to decide whether this massive movement of people out of the South throughout the twentieth century was, in fact, a Diaspora.

The Southern Diaspora is a comprehensive examination of over eighty years of black and white migration. The cost of such an impressive span of time, and Gregory's choice...



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