Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 126-144
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From the Yazoo Mississippi Delta to the Urban Communities of the Midwest:
Conversations with Rural African American Women
African Americans had a particularly difficult existence in the rural South during the early twentieth century. For those who wanted to own land, houses, and other property, who desired participation in the political process, and who hoped to improve themselves socially, culturally, and economically, the rural South was deadly. Racism and intimidation killed blacks in body and in spirit, diminishing their emotional and mental strength and limiting the ability of their communities to survive. Among those who suffered the effects of racism, none endured worse hardships than rural African American women who labored diligently on farms in order to contribute economically to their family's survival and well-being.
The pains rural African American women suffered were most evident in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta, where their life was orchestrated around the beat of the cotton planter, the scrape of the hoe, and the rasp of cotton sacks moving swiftly over the fields. Cotton became "white gold," taken from the hands of black sharecroppers and day laborers to support the agricultural enterprises of white landlords. "Life was hard," said Eva Glenn, one of thirty-seven women I interviewed who moved from the South to northern midwest cities, "and us black women had no choice but to grow hard along with it." 1 "You could let it beat you," explained Mae Liza Williams, "or you could take control over it by not lettin' what white folk did to you or said 'bout yo' people bother you." 2 Or, according to Estella Thomas, "You could leave and go up North and try to find a better life for yo'self." 3
Leaving was exactly what many African American rural women did. They left the fields and farms by the hundreds of thousands and moved to urban communities across the United States. Many, like Mary Alice Williams of St. Louis, [End Page 126] packed their bags for the same reason as did her husband, Isom 4 : They wanted to make more money and to find better social, cultural, and educational opportunities for their children. According to Willie McWilliams, some women wanted to see "just how different the city was, especially if black people voted and held some kind of office to help they people." 5 Other women made the journey from the field to the city to reunite with family members, especially aunts, uncles, and siblings who had gone ahead of them. These pull factors were particularly strong on those living in rural communities following World War II, but African American female cotton pickers also left because life in the rural South was too hard on women and devastating to their sense of womanhood. Many rural black women left the cotton fields, as Annie West did, because "there was no way to be protected from physical, sexual, and spousal abuse." She proclaimed:
The law was not interested in keepin' black field women safe from any kind of attack, so the fields, because they were so far from town and the lack of enforcement of the law, worked together and actually became a form of imprisonment for many women. 6
"Surrounded by cotton and cotton fields," Jessie Easter explained, "you felt, at times, that you could not get out and no one could get to you because you was livin' in a closed off community where you did not see many things or folks from the outside. . . . So the only way to escape the madness caused by greed and the power white folks got from raisin' King Cotton was to run, run, and run away as fast and far as you could." 7 Migration became an attractive alternative to the Delta's cotton fields because it offered many women the opportunity to search for a new identity and a different sense of community.
However, once settled in the North, the women worked...