Experiences of African American in the United States Mobility Since the Civil Rights Movement

Nicolas Raulin's picture
Call for Papers
May 6, 2022
Subject Fields: 
African American History / Studies, Black History / Studies, Immigration & Migration History / Studies, Race / Ethnic Studies, Sociology

Experiences of African American Mobility since the Civil Rights Movement

One-day workshop at the Sorbonne University (Paris), May 6th, 2022

According to historian Ira Berlin, “no aspect of black life in the United States has been untouched by the great migrations—by the contrapuntal interplay of movement and place” (Berlin 35). This workshop takes shape around the idea that migration occupies a central place in the African American experience. By acquiring the status of citizens in the aftermath of the Civil War, Blacks gained access to the liberty of movement, among other things, which granted them the possibility of seeking better life conditions elsewhere, in places that were sometimes far from their native South. Their migration to large cities within the South, their exodus towards Kansas in the 1880s (Painter) and the different waves of the Great Migration to the industrial centers of the North, Midwest and West (Grossman; Gregory; Wilkerson; Tolnay) represent powerful examples of the migratory processes set in motion by the will to strive for a better life. When chosen, geographic mobility has always been intertwined with projects of social mobility.

The historical scholarship on the migrations and movements of African Americans in the period preceding the Civil Rights Movement is rich. In view of the fact that the First and Second Great Migrations represented the largest internal population movement in the country’s history, this facet of black history has logically been central to the broader historiography on the African American experience in the first half of the twentieth century. Scholars do not however agree on what came next. For historian Andrew Wiese, the chapter following the Great Migration is undoubtedly black suburbanization (1-2), while demographer William Frey argues that it is rather the so-called “return migration” of Blacks to the South since the 1970s (Frey; "New Great Migration"; Frey "Diversity Explosion"). Ira Berlin considers that the migration of African people to the U.S since the 1960s constitutes the new phase in the history of Black migration (Berlin 288), while Patrick Sharkey has noted that since the Civil Rights Movement, black communities around the country are rather characterized by immobility (222).

These different forms of geographic mobility or immobility reflect a variety of social trajectories as the socioeconomic conditions shape the possibility to migrate: the relation between migration and capital has indeed long been established by scholars (Lee). Moving to the suburbs for example, is both the promise and the result of moving up the social ladder and suburban areas are precisely the spaces that have grown more diverse since the 1960s as African Americans have joined the middle class (Wiese; Nijman; Patillo-McCoy; Landry; Lacy). Similarly, upward social mobility through education sometimes went along with geographic displacements in schools or universities far from the family home and in spaces that are predominantly white and middle class. Studies of the black migration to the South have shown that the individuals moving to Atlanta, Houston or Charlotte are those who are doing best socioeconomically speaking (Frey “Diversity Explosion” 121). On the other hand, Christine Leibbrand has revealed that the migration decline in the U.S was disproportionately affecting black men and women (14-15) and that the living conditions of black non-migrants has significantly deteriorated since the 1970s. As geographic mobility is conditioned by class, migration can thus be seen as a possibility that is less and less accessible for certain black social groups.

While the Great Migration is central in the historiography of black migration, black mobility has never been restricted to interregional movements. Migration can be observed at different scales: the national, the regional, the State or even the metropolitan level. Looking at the metropolitan scale, one can see different dynamics triggered by migrations: busing policies to desegregate schools driven by both public authorities and private institutions (Delmont; Batson); a dependency on public transportation to overcome the spatial mismatch between the urban core where people live and the suburbs where the jobs are (Thompson 52; Bullard et al. 56); the process of black flight, echoing white flight, in which black pioneer migrants in a white suburb start to move out to escape the decay of their neighborhood (Woldoff). At the other end of the spectrum, rather long moves can be observed when thinking about the examples of African Americans moving temporarily or definitively to West Africa where they hope to find the land of their ancestors (Hartman).

Migration studies also suggest we pay close attention to the different forms migration can take: it can be the result of a choice and a desire to move up the social ladder but it can also be constrained (Petersen 280). When it comes to gentrification, moving is not a choice but reveals, on the contrary, the consequences of belonging to the less advantaged strata of the black communities living in cities. Migration can thus also be seen as undesirable, which is something that scholars have noted: being rooted in specific places (Falk) or the unwillingness to leave a neighborhood led certain people to think of strategies of resistance to migration (Chapman).

Since the 1990s, migration studies have also built upon new work focusing on the gendered circumstances of migrations. For example, scholars have challenged the vision of migration as solely constituted by men and have revealed the central role and place of black women in migration processes (Green 109-110). Black women did not migrate for the same reasons as men, nor did they move in the same fashion (Hine). Moreover, women played an essential part in the development and maintenance of migration streams towards the North during the Great Migration (Jones 134). Demographers have also noted that the majority of migrants moving South in the twenty-first century are women and that are highly educated (Hunt et al. 1400). These observations suggest the need to focus on the relation between geographic mobility and social mobility through the lens of gender. In addition, the movement of young queers of color towards large cities represents yet another process that links migration on the one hand and sexuality and gender on the other (Spears; Bartone).

This one-day workshop will thus provide an occasion to discuss the various links between geographic mobility and social mobility for African American populations since the Civil Rights Movement.

Among other things, speakers can choose to tackle the following topics:

  1. Geographic mobility and social stratification: Among African American communities, which movements have participated in the development of the black (upper) middle class? What consequences have migrations had on African Americans unable or unwilling to move?
  2. Mobility and the color line: At work, in the suburbs, in gentrified neighborhoods or at school, how has social/geographic mobility synonymous played a role in integrating white America? What are some of the obstacles encountered in the process of integration? How do these new environments and relationships affect the formation of black identities and communities?
  3. Mobility and Intersectionality: Experiences of mobility need to be understood and studied by taking into account the interplay of gender, class and sexuality. How do these factors affect and transform the social and geographic mobilities of African Americans? Various trajectories can be studied here, like the moving of black LGBTQI+ populations to large cities or the specific mobility of black women.

Presentations will be about 20-minute long and can be in French or English. Abstracts (around 300 words) along with a short biographical notice should be sent by January 15th 2022 via this form: https://framaforms.org/cfp-les-experiences-de-la-mobilitie-africaine-americaine-experiences-of-african-american-mobility


Organizers: Sarah Harakat (sarah.harakat@sorbonne-universite.fr), Nicolas Raulin (nicolas.raulin@ehess.fr)



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