Growing up in Peoria, I barely remember a time we lived alone. There were my parents, my sisters, my brother, me, and always an older cousin or two fresh from Mississippi.
This was the late 1950s, early 1960s. Sharing the house seemed normal, no matter how many rooms or how few. There was the big house on Sanford Street, the little brown house on Hillyer Place, the green house on the corner of First and Allen Streets. My parents are gone, the houses are gone, the streets are gone or their names changed. But I will be endeared to those cousins forever.
I still call them my big-sister cousins. They made me feel special. Claudia fed us teacakes. Roberta introduced me to fine fashion. Mary saved me from at least one neighborhood fight.
I didn’t realize until many years later how special they were. They weren’t just young Black women moving from Mississippi to Peoria to finish high school or find jobs. Like my father (their uncle) from Mississippi, like my mothers’ parents from Texas, they made history. They were the living, loving heartbeat of the Great Migration.
And the migration was historic. One by one, family by family, ordinary Black people left Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and the rest of the south, making history. Six million people from 1915 to 1970, one of the largest mass movements in the nation’s history. They reshaped northern cities, large and small. Peoria’s black population ballooned 385 percent from 1930 to 1970. In comparison, the city’s white population grew 21 percent during the same 40-year period.
They were running from and running to — running from sharecropping, segregation, lynchings, and the daily indignities of the Jim Crow south, running to new hope in the north. Each came with their own passions and innocence, losses, and loves. They weren’t perfect, but in most cases, they were exploring a new world, willing to take a chance on an unknown future. “The Great Migration was, thus, a Declaration of Independence,” wrote Isabel Wilkerson in “The Warmth of Other Suns.”
Two World Wars, labor shortages, and industrialization contributed to the forces pulling Black people west to states like California and north to states like Illinois, which is a reminder that American history is Black history and Black history is American history, and our historical journeys are not so far removed from the people stranded at the Mexican border.
The idea of Black History Month often gets boiled down to the first this and the first that, the leader of this or the founder of that. But true history is full of movements, not moments. My big-sister cousins didn’t think their personal choices were part of a broad, historical pattern. John Gwynn, the long-time NAACP leader, didn’t think he was stepping into history books when he moved here from Tennessee. Nor did the Adams, Porters, Jacksons, Davises, Kirkseys, Cannons, Danages, or the (insert the names of your families, neighbors, and friends.)
Almost any ode to Black Excellence in this town is an ode to the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration. The journey has not always been easy and it is far from over. But the beauty of Black history is in ordinary people always moving toward a better day, always paving a way for new histories.