Three-year-old Mildred “Sugar Pie” McCraley was too young to remember the exhausting train trip from Pontotoc, Mississippi, to Rock County in 1916.
But years later, she told her family how her father migrated from a tiny town in the South to the unknown city of Beloit to find a factory job.
McCraley’s father was a black farmer who worked for a white landowner, who kept him in debt long after he paid off his mortgage.
Eventually, McCraley’s father got fed up.
McCraley’s father, whose wife had died, pulled up longtime roots to take a manufacturing job in Beloit.
When he sent for his family, he told the children and their older cousins to kill and cook the chickens on the farm so they would have something to eat on the long train ride north.
Most of the dining car was partitioned off for whites, so there was no guarantee the family would get food along the way.
McCraley’s father was not alone in his decision to seek deliverance from the South. He was among almost 6 million black citizens who fled their homes for northern and western cities looking for better lives.
From 1915 to 1970, they made up one of the most important, yet little-noted, shifts in American history. When life became unbearable because of prejudice and unmet promises made after the Civil War, African-Americans fanned out across the United States in search of the security other Americans had.
Historians eventually called their movement the Great Migration.
Today, many African-American families in Rock County trace their roots to someone who left the South in the silent pilgrimage.
On Friday, March 22, Beloit College and the Beloit Historical Society will host a “history harvest” at New Zion Baptist Church in Beloit. During the free event, students will document oral histories and artifacts related to the Great Migration.
People who want to tell their family stories are welcome to take part and to bring artifacts related to the Great Migration, including photos, letters and travel documents.
Students will photograph and digitally catalog historical items and return them to their owners.
Later, they will preserve stories and materials in a public online archive honoring Beloit’s black community.
“History has been skewed or nonexistent in telling the story of African-Americans,” Jackie Jackson said. “In Beloit, African-Americans have a rich history, and it is important to celebrate that story and to preserve it for present and future generations with a little help from technology.”
Jackson is one of three leaders for a college class on African-American migration to Beloit.
She called it fascinating to learn along with the students.
Beatrice McKenzie, professor of history at Beloit College, is another class leader.
She called the history harvest a new way to uncover stories and artifacts of history that have not been adequately covered.
To prepare, students have read Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns.” In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the author views black migrants as a modern version of the Europeans who flooded the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What linked them was their heroic determination to find better futures.
“Wilkerson talks about what was better in the North, including access to jobs and less racialized violence,” McKenzie said. “What wasn’t different was entrenched racism and the kinds of jobs African-Americans could hold and where they could live.”
Harsh conditions in North
Carrie Harrell-Payton of Janesville is Mildred “Sugar Pie” McCraley’s granddaughter.
She grew up listening to McCraley’s stories of what it was like when McCraley’s father migrated north and provided the details in this story.
Harrell-Payton’s great-grandfather and his young family were forced to live in a tent city when he arrived in Beloit.
“The white supervisors said that the homes built for new workers were too nice for the black workers,” Harrell-Payton said.
Eventually, black families could move into concrete-block apartments known as the Flats apartments on Shore Drive.
During World War I, business boomed at Fairbanks Morse, a Beloit engine manufacturer that helped put Rock County on the map. The company was unsuccessful in recruiting labor from Chicago, so it looked south to bolster a workforce that climbed from 1,750 to 4,500 between 1915 and 1920.
Fairbanks Morse needed housing for its black workers. In 1917, the factory built four identical buildings with six two-story units across the Rock River from Fairbanks Morse.
At the same time, the company also built 138 separate units next to the plant for the factory’s white employees. Architects from New York furnished plans for the modern, artistic homes, known as the Eclipse Homes Addition.
Today, the Flats apartment complex is a rare example of segregated company housing and the only known community housing built exclusively for black workers in Wisconsin.
Harrell-Payton said her great-grandfather’s family lived for a while in the Flats. Eventually, her great-grandfather bought a two-apartment house, where McCraley lived after her father died.
Harrell-Payton has many loving stories about her grandmothers, McCraley and Lizzie Owens, known lovingly as “Big Ma” because of her highly held status in the family.
Both grandmothers worked full time as domestics in Beloit. Still, McCraley, encouraged by her husband, George, always made time to fix big meals for her family.
“We never missed a meal because they did not want us to go hungry,” Harrell-Payton said. “They knew hunger. They knew hard times.”
Harrell-Payton treasures a 1937 homemaker’s guide and cast-iron skillet owned by Owens and a roasting pan owned by McCraley.
Harrell-Payton, who worked many years as a para-educator with the Beloit School District, embraces her family history.
“I’m proud,” she said. “I’m beyond proud when I think of the courage he (her great-grandfather) had to look for something better for his family. I think that’s where my family gets its strength.”
She told her 25-year-old daughter, Lexi, to honor the family’s heritage.
Lexi, who is a college student and works full time, shares her mother’s pride. She is especially appreciative of the strong women in her family.
“To say that I am proud is an understatement,” Lexi said. “I love hearing the stories of the women who came before me. It is exciting to know their blood flows in my veins. I sit back and wonder how did they ever live through it all?”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.