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  • IntroductionAfrican American Migration to Smaller Midwestern Cities
  • Brie Swenson Arnold (bio)

In recognition of the centennial of the Great Migration, this special issue of Middle West Review highlights the prevalence and significance of African American migration to smaller midwestern cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In focusing on the cities of Beloit, Wisconsin; Parsons, Kansas; Burlington, Iowa; and Saginaw, Michigan, the four central essays in this volume recover experiences of migration and community-building in lesser-known midwestern cities and examine the contours of racial discrimination in the region as a whole. Through these community studies, we explore why Black men and women relocated to the Midwest and how they moved within predominantly White communities while simultaneously building up Black "communities within communities" across the region.1 Like other works in this expanding field, the essays in this volume speak to broader questions about the African diaspora, the many phases of the Great Migration, struggles for Black freedom and civil rights, the importance of place in addition to race, the diversity and multiplicity of midwestern people, places, and experiences, and the development and distinctiveness of the Midwest as a region.2

While the story of post-World War I migration to larger midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland is well known, Black settlement, community formation, and activism in the region's smaller cities have been largely overlooked, as have earlier migrations.3 Yet, from the forced relocations of slavery to self-liberations during enslavement to post-emancipation migrations, the Midwest has long been an important destination for Black people. At many points, it was the region to which a majority of African Americans relocated.4 Those migrations and the communities formed by millions of Black men and women across the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Midwest decisively shaped migrants' lives, the midwestern region, [End Page ix] and the nation. African Americans who chose the region—the nation's fastest growing, most influential region between the Civil War and World War I—often saw it as a still-malleable place capable of offering alternatives in education, employment, personal safety, political participation, and other dimensions of their own visions of freedom.5 They established the homes, businesses, churches, clubs, and civic groups that became core to the region's communities. At the same time, Black Midwesterners continually faced racial discrimination, segregation, and economic inequality. They confronted such conditions by pressing their communities to live up to the Midwest's potential to be the nation's most egalitarian, pluralistic, prosperous-for-all region.6

Individually and collectively, the essays in this volume show how Black men and women have been fundamental to the creation, character, and vibrancy of midwestern communities and the entire region for generations, as have the anti-Black hostility, discrimination, and assertions of unbelonging they faced there. In Francis Gourrier's study of Beloit, we see how visions of the Midwest as a "promised land" were tempered by midwestern racism and how influential chain migration and Black women were in combatting segregation and expanding civil rights activism in midwestern places. Bryan Jack then explores migration to rural towns like Parsons and the continuity of Black society and activism, as well as segregation, there from Reconstruction to the present. Dwain Coleman's survey of Burlington takes the story farther back, tracing experiences of Black freedom and unfreedom in that Mississippi River town from the 1830s to 1920s. Michelle S. Johnson continues considerations of freedom struggles by highlighting the enduring ways African Americans in antebellum-era through present-day Saginaw were connected to broader networks of emancipation commemoration. Additionally, in this issue, William Green offers a special essay on anti-Black police violence in nineteenth-century Minnesota that extends reflection on the long history of hostile and contradictory actions toward Black residents of supposedly progressive midwestern places.

Such explorations of the presence and influence of Black people and anti-Black racism in the Midwest have taken on renewed salience in the wake of recent events in cities like Minneapolis, Ferguson, Flint, Cleveland, and Kenosha, which have pulled into sharp focus the ways centuries of White supremacy and systemic inequality—as well as Black activism and community building—have shaped...