Immigrant and Migrant Experiences
Throughout history, people have chosen, whether individually or as a group, to move great distances seeking a better life. These decisions were often made to escape oppression, whether it be through racism, poverty, or famine. Likewise, the goal of traveling was to create a safer life and newfound success in the new place through safety, religious freedom, or economic means. These movements may take place across small or great distances, and also across countries or the world. Using a variety of sources, including Isabel Wilkerson’s oral history book, entitled, The Warmth of Other Suns, about three families’ experiences with the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the American South to the North; Guarding the Golden Door, an informative history about American immigration policy since 1882; and an interview with my friend and classmate, Feven Alemu, whose family immigrated from Ethiopia, I was able to learn more about the large parallel between migrants and immigrants. All of these migrants and immigrants were willing to make great sacrifices to find better lives for themselves in whichever way they defined it.
Historians of immigration use push and pull factors to understand why someone made their decision to move. Push factors, reasons one was driven to leave their home, as well as pull factors, reasons one was inspired to go to a particular location, are great ways to see the divide between previous and new-found homes. In Wilkerson’s writing, she tells the stories of George Gladney, George Starling, and Pershing Foster, along with their families, all of whom traveled to escape the dangers of the Jim Crow South. The Gladneys were pushed out when they heard about the beating of Joe Lee, George’s cousin. Joe Lee was accused of stealing turkeys, and although he did not actually commit the crime, being a black man in the South essentially meant that he could not defend himself. Lee was beaten to tremendous measures and almost died from his injuries. This confirmed the helplessness and dangers of being black in the South to the Gladneys, and they decided to move North. [i] George Starling ran into similar fears after he attempted to create a union-like organization among his fellow fruit-pickers in Florida. After negotiating as a group with their boss, Starling was able to get the workers an increase in pay. The unionizing tactic was something that he had learned during his time in Detroit, and it seemed to be working well.[ii] However, after an unsuccessful day of negotiating, his fellow fruit-pickers blamed Starling, leaving him to be an easy victim. After hearing rumors about the boss’s plans to hurt or kill him, Starling immediately left again for the North.[iii] And finally, Pershing Foster was a well-trained surgeon, but he did not receive the respect he deserved. His fellow doctors would often disregard Foster’s suggestions, and, when Foster was working in Austria with the United States Army, they would take the white patients away from him whenever possible.[iv] The realities of Jim Crow were drastic and difficult to escape, giving black southerners little options other than to move north.
Many push factors caused Asians and Europeans to be driven out of their hometowns as well. For instance, the Catholic Irish fled a potato famine in the 1840’s, a major loss of crops that caused the death of more than a million Irish.[v] The Chinese experienced great economic turmoil when they too suffered from agricultural issues. A blight in their crops gave them great reason to leave.[vi] And finally, Feven’s family left Ethiopia because her mother wanted greater opportunities for her entire family. Jobs were hard to come by in Ethiopia, and the education, an important part of the Alemu family’s values, needed improvement[vii] Although her reasoning was not nearly as urgent as the others, I do think Feven and her family were making the best decision for their well-being. It is interesting to note that Feven still sees Ethiopia as a place of great prosperity and certainly misses living there. She is proud of her Ethiopian heritage and hopes she will not lose touch with it during her time in America. Her identity is one of an Ethiopian and not an American, despite the fact that she recently earned her American citizenship.[viii] Feven even made plans to visit Ethiopia for a month and is excited to be reunited with her hometown and family.[ix] The migrants and immigrants of earlier years did not have the convenience of affordable, fast transportation that Feven has in the 21st Century. The transitions they made were also permanent and visits were not likely, making the move a bigger decision in earlier years than it is today. No matter how difficult the transportation had been, however, all of the described immigrants and migrants decided that they experienced enough push factors to want to leave their hometowns.
In addition to the impacts of push factors, these people also had large pull factors that influenced their decisions on where to go. The families Wilkerson describes had the opportunity to live in a place with a dramatically decreased presence of racist dangers, especially lynching. The racism in the North was significantly less prevalent than in the South, where Jim Crow was not just kept in place by societal pressures, but it was also enforced by the police and court systems. No black person was safe from lynching in the South, a terrifying and motivating factor for many. Additionally, Starling had the attraction of coming to the North during the war, a time when domestic jobs were plentiful. At that time, he had traveled to Detroit temporarily, where got to fully experience the North but did not permanently settle.[x] In the 19th Century, the Asian immigrants were drawn by the high labor demands in the West, particularly through the California Gold Rush and creation of the Transcontinental Railroad.[xi] Although this influx would create problems and lead to strict immigration policy reforms, the pull at the time was strong and promising. These Chinese travelers, typically men, would come and send a portion of their money back to their families.[xii] Feven’s mother was drawn to America so her children could receive a better education and greater chances at success. The schools, particularly colleges, were not as strong in Ethiopia, and job opportunities were not as plentiful.[xiii] Her relatives were encouraging and told her, as she recalls, to “Go better yourself. Find better education. Find a job. Make something of yourself.”[xiv] Feven’s mother was able to find a job in America, and she worked long night shifts for seven years to support her family.[xv] Feven’s mother encouraged her to do well in school, get into a good college, and help support their family, including her younger siblings. This pressure to succeed, which Feven takes as a constructive form of encouragement, influenced her to embrace her journey to and in America.[xvi] Additionally, the Atlanta region pulled Feven in particular because of its large Ethiopian population. Atlanta contains one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the country, and Feven’s family knew of some distant friends in the region.[xvii] This type of relationship caused what is known as a chain migration. Feven was similar to the participants of the Great Migration and those involved in the Gold Rush and California Gold rush in that she knew of friends and family in the new area. This knowledge often provided confidence in the travelers’ decisions to migrate or immigrant and caused even more people to join, resulting in a chain reaction. I believe that many of the participants in the Great Migration and immigration from Asia to America, in addition to the Alemu family, were, for the most part, successful in finding the pull factors that they had come for. Improved safety in the North for blacks, jobs in America for immigrants of the 19th Century, and success in Atlanta for Feven all seemed to be legitimized.
Unfortunately, there were bound to be some hardships for all people when making such a big journey. For instance, we know that when Starling came to Detroit temporarily, he witnessed the Race Riots of 1943. The typical vision of the North for black southerners was one of equality. However, the Race Riots proved that the North was still not perfect and contained its own forms of racism. The riots, involving over 5,000 people, were extremely harmful and caused the municipal hospital to admit approximately one victim per minute.[xviii] Similarly, Foster went to Austria to be a surgeon for the United States Army. Although he expected to be treated well while outside of the South, his commanding officer was from Mississippi and was extremely derogatory.[xix] This shows how hard it was to escape the effects of Jim Crow during the time. Unfortunately, places of complete freedom from fear were hard to come by for African Americans, anywhere in the world. Chinese immigrants experienced many difficulties as well. The Chinese Exclusion Act, officially named, “To Execute Certain Treaty Stipulations Relating to the Chinese,” was put into place in 1882 and would not be repealed until 1943. The act set strict quotas on Chinese and eventually led to a complete blockade in 1884.[xx] Also, Chinese were extremely resented in the United States. American citizens thought that Chinese were taking the jobs that they deserved and came up with stereotypes to counter this. For instance, Chinese were said to “not [have] sufficient brain capacity”.[xxi] Chinese women were typically thought of as prostitutes and were regarded to be more menial than the men.[xxii] Feven was bullied for her accent upon arrival in Georgia. In addition, neighbors and other students were hesitant to get to know Feven and her family if they knew that their English was not yet perfected. Although Feven now has a complete understanding of the English language and has assimilated well, her mother still struggles. Feven notices that her mom misses out on a lot of events because of the language barrier and judgments that come with it. However, through her teacher at an international school that she attended for several months, Feven learned that the bullies could not affect her if she did not let them.[xxiii] She carries that knowledge with her even today, which I found touching. Feven and her family certainly made many sacrifices, such as leaving their friends, needing Feven’s mom to work a difficult job, and requiring the entire family to adjust a new language and culture. It made me realize that although the journey may not have gone entirely as planned by any of the immigrants or migrants mentioned, their journeys probably gave them skills that would benefit their future but at a personal cost.
The ways that each migrant and immigrant made their journey also affected their overall experience. For instance, George Gladney and George Starling traveled by train to get to their destinations. When the Gladneys passed the Mason Dixon Line on the Illinois Central Railroad, the signs that labeled the colored section of the train when lit were turned off. This dynamic of being able to physically cross a border to leave the Jim Crow-dominated region is intriguing and shows the fragility and absurdity of the concept of racism. It also showed the Gladneys that their troubles with Jim Crow were about to improve. Foster Pershing had a particularly difficult journey, as he had to drive from Louisiana to California by himself. Along the way, there were no motels for African Americans between Loredo, Texas, and Lordsburg, New Mexico, so he had to drive through complete exhaustion until he reached safe lodging.[xxiv] The immigrants coming from Europe and Asia had to endure long ship rides and risk being rejected at Ellis or Angel Island, America’s immigration stations.[xxv] Having traveled in 2007, Feven and her family were able to take a plane to America. Their experience was more pleasant than the other travelers mentioned and set them up for success in America. Perhaps negative thoughts and regrets about moving occurred in the other travels more often because of the taxing journey leading up to their arrivals.
Finally, the events that were occurring during the travelers’ time of immigration or migration dramatically affected their experiences. Gladney, Starling, and Foster came North during the Great Migration, a time period that lasted from 1915-1970. During this time, thousands of African Americans were traveling to large cities in the North and West. Therefore, the group experience created a more assuring atmosphere. The Chinese immigrants focused on in Guarding the Golden Door came during predominantly industrial periods: the California Gold Rush and creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. Additionally, the Great Depression occurred toward the end of their restriction policies.[xxvi] The end of the depression presumably led to the increased demand for laborers, which served as reasoning to remove the boundaries. And finally, Feven traveled to America in 2007, when she was nine.[xxvii] Being that this was after the tragic events that transpired on September 11, 2001, the security was presumably stricter than beforehand. Although Feven does not particularly remember the process in the airport, she remembers that her mother had to fill out a lot of paperwork for Immigration and Naturalization Services.[xxviii]
All in all, I believe that the immigrant and migrant experiences of the African Americans during the Great Migration, Asians and Europeans during the industrialized era, and Feven, as a young girl, all contain great similarities. Similarly, Wilkerson wrote in her book, “Thus the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether felling twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, deserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.” [xxix] I agree with her in the sense that when people make the effort to change their lives as much as they do when migrating or immigrating, the push and pull factors must be extremely strong. People do not simply move across the country or world for insignificant reasons. Instead, great thought and reflection must be put into such a decision. Therefore, I believe that although the stories described in Wilkerson’s or Daniels’s books, as well as Feven’s interview, may seem entirely different, they come together in a sense of collective movement towards a better way of life.
[i] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, (New York: Vintage Press, 2010), p. 148.
[ii] Wilkerson, p. 150-152.
[iii] Wilkerson, p. 156 & 157.
[iv] Wilkerson, p. 146.
[v] Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigration since 1882, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), p. 9.
[vi] Class Notes
[vii] Oral History Interview of Feven Alemu taken by Sarah Kreulen, Oxford, Georgia, March 19, 2016, Oxford Oral History Project, p. 7.
[viii] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 8.
[ix] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 3.
[x] Wilkerson, p. 127.
[xi] Wilkerson, p. 12.
[xii] Wilkerson, p. 12.
[xiii] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 7.
[xiv] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 3.
[xv] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 6.
[xvi] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 7.
[xvii] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 1.
[xviii] Wilkerson, p. 131.
[xix] Wilkerson, p. 146.
[xx] Daniels, p. 19 & 20.
[xxi] Daniels, p. 18.
[xxii] Daniels, p. 19.
[xxiii] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 2.
[xxiv] Wilkerson, p. 194.
[xxv] Daniels, p. 25.
[xxvi] Wilkerson, p. 12.
[xxvii] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 1.
[xxviii] Feven Alemu Oral History, p. 3.
[xxix] Wilkerson, p. 179.