In the 20th century, a wave of African-Americans migrated from the Deep South to northern cities for jobs and a better future. A public history course is helping to preserve the stories of those who came to Beloit.
Part of the city of Beloit’s little-known history is seeing the light of day, thanks to a new public history course at the college and a collaboration with the community called “Coming Up North: A History Harvest about Black Migration to Beloit, Wisconsin.”
The aim of the project is to record, preserve, and share stories, photos, and the material objects of southern African Americans who moved to the industrial city of Beloit in search of a better way of life.
Last spring, Ellen Joyce, associate professor of history and chair of Beloit’s history department, Beatrice McKenzie, Keefer Chair of Public Humanities, and Jackie Jackson, a retired social worker for Beloit Public Schools and now a sociology professor at Blackhawk Technical College, teamed up to teach the History Harvest course for the first time. Jackson was a point of contact with the black community and assisted in preparing students for their oral histories.
The project resulted in a free digital repository, hosted on a website, that helps fill out the picture of one of Beloit’s vital yet historically overlooked groups of residents, unearthing stories from the people who participated in what became known as the “Great Migration” and their descendants, many of whom still live in Beloit.
The Great Migration stretched from about 1910 to the early 1970s, a time when African-Americans sought to escape the prohibitive laws and attitudes of the post-Reconstruction South and a new order of servitude—sharecropping—that had taken hold. The bold decision to move north sometimes meant heartbreak and danger, but in places like Beloit, the newcomers also built vibrant communities, the stories of which are now captured in a unique online repository that includes audio and visual data.
To prepare for a public “harvest” event that invited citizens to share their stories, students read The Warmth of Other Suns, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. The book, which received the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Nonfiction, chronicles the movement of nearly six million people northward. Three protagonists emerge—Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Some of Ida Gladney’s descendants still reside in Beloit, including retired educator Barbara Hickman, Gladney’s niece, who participated in the History Harvest.
Ersey Edmond accompanied his sister, Janet Elzy, to the Harvest. In Edmond’s oral history interview, he recalled how their father and uncle got them out of Mississippi at two in the morning. “Why at 2 a.m?” asked interviewer Bre Partida-Castillo’20, a history and Spanish major from Pasadena, Texas. “Because the police and the sharecropper people who owned the land wouldn’t let you leave,” Edmond said. “So you had to sneak out.”
Edmond family artifacts include photo albums and a pinwheel quilt from the 1960s that Elzy’s mother, Ester Lee Pounds, made for her. Pounds, born in 1925, became part of the Great Migration when she and her husband packed up their belongings that night and fled north from Shannon, Mississippi. Elzy’s quilt and the family’s photos are pictured on the History Harvest website.
Elzy also recalled her family’s return visits to the South when she was young, when they had to plan ahead, so they would not have to stop along the way. “Before we left Beloit, we packed all kinds of food and plenty of water. My parents never told us until later that we wouldn’t be welcome after a certain point,” Elzy says. Her memory is similar to those of other black families recounted in The Warmth of Other Suns.
“We were happy to have a reason to pull together memories of our own family’s part in the Great Migration, and we were treated with respect,” Elzy says of the experience with the project. “Contributing to the History Harvest helped me keep thinking like a historian and thinking about my family. It was very worthwhile.”
Educating the community on its own black history was important to Jackson. “Everybody wants to know where they belong and where they came from,” she says. “These people gave up a lot to come North, to come to a strange land and not know what would happen, and they took root in this community and are an integral part of it. I think it’s important that our young people have a sense of history, particularly our young people of color.”
How to Harvest History
Students involved in the History Harvest divided into teams to explore different aspects of the journey north and its aftermath. Joyce says the methodology for the project comes from a national movement that originated at the University of Nebraska.
On the day of Beloit’s Harvest event at New Zion, the class of 12 students organized into groups and collected and photographed some 62 items from a dozen local residents and families. “It’s like creating a map or organizing a newspaper page,” Joyce says of the process.
“The best way to learn about how to do this is to do this,” she explains. Joyce taught the component of the class that focused on writing for the web, which showed students how to write online copy, create effective photo captions, include audio clips, and accurately cite sources. Students organized the materials they received into thematic exhibits on the topics of family, churches, work, community, and origins.
Partida-Castillo was part of the “places of origin and mapmaking team,” which had her learning how to use a mapmaking site that she found “finicky” but that enabled her to produce two interactive maps. “I just had to learn to deal with its nuances,” she says. “Earlier in the class I found out that I love taking oral histories.”
Partida-Castillo, like her classmates, will put these skills to use in the wider world. But the project also stoked her fascination with the city.
“Sometimes when we come to Beloit, we become insulated,” she says. “The city of Beloit has one of the most amazing histories in the country. We’re making inaccessible history available.”
Nadia Mitnick’20, a history major from Los Angeles, was most excited about experiencing history in action. “Public history is so great because it’s relevant to all people, not just academics,” Mitnick says. “Our particular goal in recording stories of the Great Migration is especially crucial, before they are lost or forgotten. The harvest and the community came together and created something pretty awesome and wholly accessible.”
Morgan Lippert’21, a history major from Williams Bay, Wis., focused on the topic of Beloit’s businesses and working community. “There’s a rich history of the city’s workforce. A lot of sharecroppers in the South were seeking a better life in the North, and local industries were eager to hire them,” Lippert says.
Besides learning technological skills involved in digitizing the collection, Eva Laun-Smith’21, a history major and Beloit native, says she learned how personal stories can be very different from written history.
“In the oral histories, compared to many written narratives, there were positive experiences. Sometimes the move North was for finances or to rejoin friends,” Laun-Smith says.
Fiona Cismesia’21, an anthropology major from Downers Grove, Ill., says the class taught her about digital archiving, gave her experience conducting oral histories and organizing community events, and changed her outlook on the community. “The course has helped shape the way I view Beloit,” she says. “It’s allowed me to leave the ‘Beloit bubble’ and to explore and share the rich history of Beloit’s Great Migration, making me feel more connected to Beloit as a whole.”
Through the course, students met many Beloit community members who were integral to the project. According to Joyce, the collaboration with Jackson was critical to the Harvest’s success. In addition, Beloit native Wanda Sloan, a retired human resources diversity/staff development specialist at Blackhawk Technical College, served as a community liaison. The Beloit Historical Society is a partner in the harvesting project, including John Sabaka, a Historical Society volunteer, who’s devoted many hours of research to the Great Migration.
“The entire class was an exercise in teamwork,” Joyce says. “The students stepped up to manage the logistics of ‘project management’ admirably. They all learned the basics of website building and of writing and editing materials for an online exhibit, which is to say they ‘translated’ their historical findings into a form that would reach a general audience.”
McKenzie says it’s interesting how individual’s personal histories fill out the picture of a group history. She describes the Coming Up North project as “an enlargement of history” and situates it in ongoing efforts by Beloit College Archives and the Beloit Historical Society to build digital archives.
In the spring, she says the history department will offer another digital history harvest, this one focused on 20th-century immigration to Beloit, showcasing the migration and contributions of several groups, including Latino, African American, and Italian immigrants among others. They hope to hold their public harvest event in Beloit’s new Powerhouse.
“With funds from the Keefer Foundation, our goal was to dramatize history by bringing more stories forward,” McKenzie says of the History Harvest. “Personally speaking, we are giving our students an insight to the Beloit community that was missing. And professionally, I feel lucky to teach where we can explore new methodologies and work enthusiastically with students with support from the college. There’s a feeling of exploration at Beloit College that allowed the History Harvest to happen.”
Sherry Blakeley’77 is a Beloit-based writer and a Beloit city councilor.