Restored locomotive at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, commemorating a railway used by many African-Americans migrating north in the middle of the 20th century.
Andreas Hörstemeier/Wikimedia Commons
book excerpt / family

One Family’s Story of the Great Migration North

Bridgett M. Davis tracks her mother's journey from Nashville to Detroit.
From their inception in Harlem, the Numbers made their way not just to northern cities but to southern cities too, including Nashville; and so by the 1940s, my mother and her siblings were familiar with the Numbers. Surely, Mama occasionally played some numbers as a young woman, even as she soaked up can-do lessons from her father. Family members recall that her older brother Napoleon was briefly a runner. But no one remembers my mother taking any keen interest in the business back then. “I don’t think Fannie fooled with the Numbers down South,” recalls Aunt Florence. “She got in it here, in Detroit.”

That makes sense. Fannie was a colored girl from a good, working-class family of brown-skinned folks, coming of age in the 1930s and 40s. As was the norm, she married her childhood sweetheart, John Thomas Mathew Davis, when she was 18, and within seven months, their first child, a girl, was born. I wonder what my mother’s life choices might have been had she not gotten pregnant, had held off marriage, had been able to do the thing she’d desperately longed to do—attend Vanderbilt University, major in history.

Anyway, two years later, another daughter was born, and four years after that, on their sixth anniversary in 1952, my parents had a son. Fannie was 24, with three children under the age of six. John T., as everyone called him, was 26. Given that my grandfather had taught his son-in-law how to plaster and  paint, he had decent, honest work that mostly sustained the young family for several years; but my father wasn’t entrepreneurial, and working for my grandfather didn’t allow him to fully support his own growing family. Nor could he count on the low-paying, menial work available to a black man in the South with no more than a high school education.

Besides, Fannie wanted more. When exactly did the idea to migrate north first take hold in her? Maybe it came shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, when the Supreme Court got rid of separate but equal education. Maybe that spurred Mama to aspire to more, to trust that certain parts of this country were inching toward making good on its Constitutional promise.
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