CHICAGO – Janet Riley is not from Louisiana, but her parents were born there, and so she spent part of almost every summer in New Orleans, visiting with her aunts, uncles and cousins and marveling at how friendly people were – smiling and wishing “good afternoon” to the little girl from Chicago standing on her grandmother’s porch.
Riley’s parents moved to Chicago after World War II to pursue the educational and economic opportunities a huge Northern city offered to black men and women. But roots and family always mattered – and never more than now.
The strong ties between Northern and Southern relations meant that when Riley’s 80-year-old uncle and his daughter needed a place to stay after evacuating Metairie, La., in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, she quickly offered her home in the Chicago suburb of Calumet City.
“This is when you realize how important your family is,” said Riley’s cousin Gail Williams, 46. “This is when you know who the people are that really care about you.”
Their story is being repeated in large urban areas like Detroit and St. Louis and throughout Chicago, where African Americans have maintained strong cultural and family attachments to the South. Now these Northern migrants and their descendants are making room in their homes for Southern cousins, uncles and aunts, while black churches in the North mount huge relief efforts.
Black Americans first began leaving the South following the Civil War and the end of slavery. But that trickle turned into a river during World War I – as many as 1 million Southern blacks moved to Northern cities between 1914 and 1919.
Another million headed north in the next decade, and the exodus continued in the following years, as men and women were drawn to the Northeast and Midwest by industrial jobs and the hope of better lives.
Still, the roads home were never abandoned.
Children are sent to the South for summers to get to know their extended family, annual reunions are anticipated for months, churches exchange choirs. Groups like the “Greenville, Mississippi, Social Club” in Chicago allowed Delta migrants a place to interact and socialize.
“There is a constant flow of communication in ideas, people, money, church choirs and bits of culture from North to South, South to North,” said Christopher R. Reed, a history professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
Today’s phenomenon of storm evacuees finding homes with family up North “is the manifestation of a network of self-help at work – a network that was put into place probably in the earliest days after the end of slavery,” said Reed, author of the just published “Black Chicago’s First Century.”
Black churches have taken a large part in relief efforts. In Detroit, for example, the Greater Grace Temple filled three 25-foot rental trucks with supplies bound for Alabama, and at Oak Grove AME, pastor Robert Brumfield – a New Orleans native – has a brother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and nephew staying with him.
Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Tommie Haynes has taken in nine family members – including his 75-year-old grandmother, his niece and her 6-week-old baby at his 5-bedroom house in Washington Park, Ill.
Haynes moved North almost 20 years ago, frustrated that he couldn’t find a job in New Orleans, but he returned often for family reunions, Thanksgiving and the occasional Mardi Gras.
“They came here on a wing and a prayer,” Haynes said of his relatives, who thought they would be displaced for just a couple of days. “It is crowded here, but we’re making it.”