Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

Beginning in 1974, John Bodnar, Chief of the Division of History of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, some six other inter­viewers, and I have been taping the rich store of memories and experience that is the possession of Pennsylvania’s ethnic, minority, and working-class groups. This material can provide answers to some important historical questions, among them the nature of Black migration to the North and the Black migrants’ adaptation to the urban environ­ment.

For one of my first projects in exploring the nature of Black migration, I chose one city, Harrisburg. Here I was especially interested in the role that ties of kinship and friendship played in the Black community, how kinship and common living arrangements helped migrating southern Blacks adapt to conditions in the North, and the problems these newcomers had in finding employment. I interviewed, mostly, the elderly Black poor who moved to Harrisburg between 1918 and 1941, and who can remember in vivid detail the other world of their birth and childhood!

In both the urban North and rural South, the Black poor had to devise ways to cope with the unusual conditions of poverty. Profound economic and political pressures, from the landlord/land owner and the employer, impelled especially by the profit motive, affected the way Black people lived, how long they lived, and particularly how these poor got along with each other. In turn, the Black community developed institutions and strategies for coping with poverty and chronic political powerlessness.

My work suggests that the Black poor’s motivation for coming to Harrisburg had less to do with individuals desir­ing opportunity for advancement than with the necessity of Black families in the South to reach out and bring precious resources back to the southern farm and home. Sharecropping as a way of life in the South was collapsing and Black workers were leaving to earn money where they could. Eventually, Black kin and families moved en masse to northern cities.

This case study also presents the ambivalent feeling many Black people had toward Caucasian values in the early twentieth century. Many demonstrated a reluctance to give up the security of their own racial group or a particular paternal relationship to find steady employ­ment and achievement. In this case, Black people’s re­luctance to obtain economic security must be explained in terms of the persistence of values and attitudes Black migrants brought North.

Before proceeding, however, I’d like to add a few precautionary notes about our interviewing work with poor and working Black and white. The relationship be­tween the interviewer and his subject oftentimes resembles that between the oppressor and the oppressed, because it is the interviewer (usually middle-class) who defines the problem as well as the quality of interaction between him and his subject. The inability to understand the fundamental barrier to communication – economic exploitation of one class by another – prevents most middle-class inter­viewers from accurately recording and analyzing the im­portant aspects of poor-Black life and culture.

What I’m saying is two-fold: 1) we oftentimes put words in our subjects’ mouths; and 2) we need to under­stand the relationship between all Black people and the economic system. First, I as a member of a culture, have biases created by needs (e.g. occasional needs to justify, rationalize, etc.) that affect the perceptions of what I see. Unfortunately, because of their own desire to help or their equally strong need to obscure particular issues, poor Black people may come to share your perceptions. They may also have absorbed the dominant culture’s rationalizations for their poverty which your interviewing may reinforce.

Secondly, as an interviewer you are an outsider, even though you may have a close attachment and commitment to the community. Especially when studying and interviewing the poor and minorities, I had to learn (I should say relearn) how to move appropriately inside the private world of my subjects. I had to take time, have patience, and practice questions, always attempting to reduce the distance between my own preconceived models of explanation and the understanding employed by the Black poor. On most occasions my subjects and I collaborated in drawing up questions about daily life in the community. The interviewing was far from formal and the questions we used provided a starting point for a subject’s long monologue on a single subject.



In the sharecropping South (1890-1930). large numbers of Blacks and whites were non-landed and constituted what should be considered a broad rural proletariat. In per capita terms, two of five whites and only one in nine Blacks owned land. This resource (land) became even more concentrated and the size of the rural proletariat grew as 1930 approached.

To counteract the effects of an increasingly oppressive system and to try to improve their conditions, both white and Black moved quite often. In two Georgia counties in the 1920’s and 30’s, a majority of sharecroppers moved every year from one “plantation” to another. In the same two counties a third of the Blacks lived in dwellings one year or less.

In spite of continual household movement, there were long-term obligations and reciprocal relationships in the Black community based on kin networks made necessary by an intense need for assistance. I would even go so far to say that there was an absolute interdependence of relatives when it came to feeding, clothing, and sheltering families.

The network functioned simply: goods, clothes, and food were distributed from a particular family to other relatives in need, and, in hard times, the same family could expect to receive in return the same consideration. This system of help pervaded the whole social-economic life of southern Blacks. Very few southern Blacks could hope to acquire a surplus of food, clothing, and other goods because the needs of the entire community were so great.

The most noteworthy feature of this system was its ability to take in all kinds of people. Children, aged, homeless, and unemployed were incorporated into a particular family and domestic kin network and could be transferred back and forth from household to household depending on need and resources. For example, at various times in her life Sarah Jones, a former “hoe-cropper” from Anderson, South Carolina, had thirteen children in her home. “I cooked and cared for them,” she related in one interview, “raised them all as best I could …. as if they were my own children.” The children belonged to her sister who “couldn’t get a farm to work on,” her brother Sam, who died at twenty, and her sister-in-law. Earlier in her life she cared for her handicapped brother, and later she cared for her mother and other children. Amelia Davis lived ten years with her Uncle Wash and Aunt Martha. Lillie Whittaker was sent to Philadelphia to live with her uncle; and James Lee was raised by his grandmother. The exchanging of children was common and also found expression in communal discipline and solicitude for all Black children in a particular neighborhood.

In the 1920’s and the 1930’s many southern Blacks found it necessary to reach out and bring more money into families which had fewer resources of their own upon which to draw. Black men and children in large families no longer could find work on the small farms in the South which remained. In other words, the sharecropping system was collapsing (or more correctly, consolidating) and could no longer support so many idle men. These laborers were leaving the southern states to find other unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in the North.

What was happening? First, as the boll weevil spread north along the Atlantic Coast from the Gulf states, there was an absolute decline in the amount of sea-island and short-staple cotton grown in the early 1920’s in areas such as South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Then, as never before, migrants (men ) came directly North where they could get steady, good-paying jobs instead of the seasonal employment in local industries.

Later, in the thirties, white landowners, encouraged by the practices of the Roosevelt administration and facing economic ruin, began a movement akin to “enclosure” in nineteenth-century England, no longer accepting part of the crop from the cropper as payment for using land. Most wanted to diversify their crops, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration paid them for plowing their cotton under. They then

took their land and put it in cattle, pines, and pushed the person off that were making their living on the farm. The farmers – the land lords – are now getting millions of dollars for their crops. They’re selling pines … and the people that made their living [were] pushed off.

The areas most affected by enclosure were the inland cotton growing regions of South Carolina, Georgia, Ala­bama, and Mississippi. And in these states the most af­fected regions were not the marginal areas but counties in which the average value/acre was above the state average and where there was a potential for extensive develop­ment of the land. In these areas the number of farms de­clined drastically during the 1930’s as many landowners sold out and consolidated.

In South Carolina, for example, Anderson, Greenville, Spartansburg, and Pickens counties in the northwest Piedmont were the primary areas which sent masses of Black migrants North. Bus stops were teeming in the thirties and forties as people came up out of this part of South Carolina. “Every stop had many families waiting to get on the bus. The worse stops were Anderson and Greenville.”

These new migrants brought with them a legacy of co­-residence, family sharing of the burdens of child rearing, kin-based sharing of scarce goods, elastic household bound­aries, social controls for the collective raising of children, and even taboos against the formation of marriages that would endanger the entire community.



Harrisburg was a major hub of transportation in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Railroad and bus lines radiated in dif­ferent directions; there were connections with Philadelphia and the East, Pittsburgh and the West, and the South through York and Baltimore. By connecting with Balti­more, Harrisburg became one of the major entrepots of Black migrants from the South. (Harrisburg drew masses of people from as far south as Florida and Georgia.) Both the railroad and motor coach remained relatively cheap and convenient means of keeping contacts alive with relatives in the South.

The twenties, thirties, and forties witnessed a migration of rural, poor, southern-born Blacks to Harrisburg as well as to other urban centers of the United States. According to the United States Census Harrisburg’s Black population doubled between 1920 and 1930 to nearly ten thousand and grew by another five thousand in the 1930’s, while Harrisburg’s population grew only five thousand in the 1920’s to eighty thousand. The major Black area of town ran several blocks deep on either side of Cowden Street from North to Broad. Compressed into an area twelve blocks square was a teeming population not only of Black poor, but also “Hungarian people, Lithuan­ians, Jewish people, Slavish-Hunkies we used to call them.” In this area there was little social strife since “they were all poor and felt no class distinction.” Beyond this area, Blacks lived between Sixth and Seventh streets up to Hamilton Street. Housing for the Blacks was restricted to an area bounded by North and Hamilton on the south and north respectively, and Sixth and Seventh on the west and east. It goes without saying that housing in this area was dilapidated, archaic, and congested.

State government was and still is the city’s major employer. Yet only a minuscule percentage of state employees were Black between 1920 and 1930. There was little heavy industry. Though Harrisburg Steel (called Pipe Bending then) hired many southern Blacks and foreign-born, work there was uncertain. Most available jobs for Black men were intermittent and seasonal – cinder snappers, coal haulers, contract laborers, railroad workers, draymen and teamsters – making it necessary to continue to utilize kin and friendship networks for employment information, sustenance, and shelter. The steadiest means of employ­ment was through the personal networks labor contractors used to recruit working and “street corner ” Black men to labor gangs. These gangs worked in Harrisburg’s hinterland, picking fruit in Adams, Cumberland, and Perry counties and vegetables in upper Dauphin County and the Tri-Valley area of western Schuylkill County.

Black women were invariably service workers and domestics-maids, cooks, scrub women, etc. Here, a number of patterns formed in the South continued. Two illustrations should suffice: Sarah Jones came to Harrisburg in October 1941, and stayed with her niece until December. Her kin helped her to find a place to live.

Of course, my mother and two brothers was here and I had brothers in Chicago. They sent me a little money. One brother in Chicago was in pretty good standard and he sent me a few dollars once in a while to help out till we could get started to work. Here the Black middle-class didn’t do too much for the poor. They’re just like the white man. The rich is a Negro, and the middle-class is a Negro, and the poor has to work the best he can. I stayed alive because I gave. When I had a piece of bread and you come over, you got to get a piece …. They would lend each other whatever they had backwards and forwards. That was little, but long as I have, you have too.

K____ B____ moved to Harrisburg to work as a domestic in 1920. After her employer died she went to work for the daughter-in-law of a prominent family. K_____ raised her two children,

J____ from six months to a young lady and her sister from three weeks. Mrs.____ got me on the welfare. They got me in the hospital. Well, I got along good. When Mrs.____ got her back broke, Mr.____ got on the phone and called me and said, “K____, won’t you come and help her out? Mama has broke her back!” I said, “Mr.____, I’m sick.” He said, “I want you to come here ’cause you don’t have to do but three things. Give Mama something to eat, and bring in the mail and answer the tele­phone calls. We have a washer woman and a cleaning woman.” So then the government man come to see me about my Social Security. He said I was not to have a job. Mr.____ said I didn’t have to [listen], that I didn’t make a dollar more than [I was sup­posed to].

I stayed there till she got her back well. So one day I said to P____, the baby, “I’m tired of looking at you. I’m leaving!” So I took my uniform off and took my cap off my head and hung it up. I said, “I’m going home. I been here I don’t know how many years.” Old Mrs.____ come in and said, “K____, you’ve been with us twenty-nine years and ten months.” I said, “That’s long enough to look at one person, ain’t it?” I said, “Goodbye Colonial Park. I’m going home for good.” I didn’t go back no more. I was through.

I can make a few observations based on the above. From Sarah’s narrative, we can infer that a well-defined class structure in the Black community again forced the Black poor to rely on their own resources. A primary emphasis on the trading of goods and services replaced some of the more personal means of help in the South such as co-residence; but a reliance on kin was continued and helped migrants to readjust to the northern environment.

K____ B____’s narrative interests me the most. Besides its poignancy, the narrative reveals the uses and abuses of an overt and benign paternalism that most prestigious Harrisburg families exercised toward Blacks. Here the Blacks identified with the class and race interests of their em­ployers, but used their positions as well. For K____ B____ the relationship carried an exchange value: loyalty and identity in exchange for protection and financial help. Being familiar with this type of racism, K____ was able to channel a good deal of extra money into her family and protect her tenuous hold on life.



Although this essay is highly tentative, it is nevertheless suggestive. A few of the emerging explanations of Black adaptation to the city appear to need qualification. Though Black migrants may have been incapable of using kin to secure industrial jobs in such cities as Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland, kin networks were nonetheless invaluable in procuring seasonal and non-industrial jobs and in channeling money to those Black poor who needed help in both the North and South. While I’m relatively sure that Black youth who migrated to the North had to “make it” on their own, I also want to stress that the initial contacts of these Black youths also led to further opportunities in the non-industrial sector for later migrants. Black women al­most invariably re-established a paternal bond with those white families interested in employing them. Black men worked steadily for white job contractors.

In both Harrisburg and the rural South, arrangements to raise poor Black children appear to be similar. Extensive networks of kin and friends in a community, supporting and reinforcing each other, shared the major responsibility for disciplining these children. These same networks taught the children well how to improvise and form alliances based on trading and exchange networks, as well as a basic Black solidarity.

My discovery of this solidarity and the extensive kin networks has forced me to redefine my idea of family. Traditionally, anthropologists defined husband, wife, and offspring living in a household as the basic family. More recently, social historians have considered an extended family unit, but even that term is inadequate for the analysis of Black family life. Kin groups extended beyond simple household organizations, and members and children could be moved about in them. The sexual, economic, reproductive, and educational functions were a part of this larger kinship network. A better definition of family would be one that considered the enduring network of kin and friend diffused over several households.

I also wish to call attention to the implications of inequality and exploitation in Harrisburg and the South. Black and white middle-class exploitation forced certain hard social and economic realities on the urban and rural Black poor. The exchanging of children and indigent as well as food inside kin groups was a hallmark of urban Black society as it was of southern society. In both societies strategic resources were distributed from a family base to other kin, and exchange transactions pervaded the whole socio-economic life of the participants. Neither the rural poor nor their northern urban contemporaries had the opportunity to control their environment or to acquire a surplus of scarce goods.


Carl Oblinger, editor for this issue of Pennsylvania Heritage, received his M.A. from Johns Hopkins Univer­sity. His publications include Interviewing the People of Pennsylvania: A Conceptual Guide to Oral History and articles in International Family History Newsletter and Historical Methods Newsletter. Mr. Oblinger is director of oral history projects for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.