We have come over a way that with tears
have been watered,
We have come, treading our path through
The blood of the slaughtered.
—JAMES WELDON JOHNSON
Part 1: Northbound
Willie Mae Wade, 22, didn’t feel so alone as she walked from Trenton, Tennessee to the Illinois Central Railroad station one morning in 1919. Her borrowed suitcase brushed her dress as she went, and the lull of it was broken by a mockingbird. It was somewhere ahead, guiding her, its sing-song refrain an announcement of what was behind and what was ahead. She hurried on. The sun was blinking behind the trees in shadow and light, like hope striving.
She held her ticket in hand and kept her eyes straight at the station. Gracing past hard looks, she made her way to the Jim Crow car, which doubled as a luggage car for whites. She sat with her own kind in silent tension. The leavin’ whistle wailed and as the engine belched soot and smoke, Willie Mae pressed her nose with a rag and looked out the window. The world she knew soon went rushing by in clicks and clacks. She was leaving; leaving the dirt farms, cotton fields, and the simmering hostility of peculiar Christians who didn’t know the ABCs of Christianity. She was leaving the land of no hope.
She was also leaving a husband and five small children: Mary who wasn’t walking yet; two-year-old Sylvester, named for his father; Aaron, three, named for her father who was born a slave; four-year-old James, and six-year-old Bruce. Her kinfolk took them in. If the good Lord saw fit to smile on her, it wouldn’t be too long before she found a job and a home for them up north.
Willie Mae Wade was one of a half-million African Americans streaming out of the South between 1915 and 1919. They had good reason. White Southerners—self-defeating, paranoid, and brutish—tightened the screws on their labor pool after Reconstruction was deconstructed. Racial violence hung heavy in the air. There were seventy-six lynchings the year Willie Mae left. “Every time a lynching takes place in a community down south,” said a member of the Chicago Urban League, “you can depend on it that colored people from that community will arrive in Chicago inside of two weeks.” There were several lynchings around Trenton at that time. Over in Lexington in April 1918, a local bootlegger was hanged and lit on fire by a mob. Not fifty miles away in December, a black veteran newly discharged from the U.S. Army was hanged from a tree, still wearing his uniform. In Estill Springs, over a thousand whites surrounded a black man they had chained to a hickory tree. He was tortured, mutilated, and burned alive, but his nerve never broke. He died cursing them all. A preacher who had tried to help him was shot and killed.
Willie Mae would have read what happened to those four men and gazed upon her four boys.
She joined the largest walk-out in American history, though she and those who left with her were also beckoned. Northern cities had opened up. There were jobs amid the concrete, and better pay than what could be pried from dirt. The sons and daughters of slaves began looking up. “All we want is a chanst,” read one letter to the Chicago Defender. Messages were often scrawled on the sides of Jim Crow cars headed north that said “Good ‘n Gone” and “Bound for the Promise Land.” These cars doubled as luggage cars and were usually up front behind the coal-fired engine. When the train crossed the border of Illinois at Cairo, it ground to a halt and black migrants were shuffled out of the luggage car to an integrated car. If there were more segregated cars, they were detached, banging and screeching, and integrated cars were attached.
It meant something.
Or did it? When her train finally pulled into Chicago station, Willie Mae made her way to the South Side of the city where over 90% of her people were huddled together in what was called the “black belt.” The 1920 U.S. Census zeroes in on an overcrowded tenement at 2979 Cottage Grove Street. “A kitchenette; with no heat,” said Langston Hughes. “Yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,” said Gwendolyn Brooks. Willie Mae stayed there with ten other lodgers of both sexes, all “rural negro” migrants from the old slave states, all but three in their twenties. They were laborers, waiters, and porters. She was a mail order clerk.
Living too close at 2903 Cottage Grove Street, was a twenty-five-year-old white baker named George Stauber. He was at the beach near 29th street on a hot summer’s day in 1919, when he spotted a raft floating down Lake Michigan. A black teenager lounged on it, unaware that he was floating past some invisible line into ‘white territory’. Stauber threw a rock at him. More rocks followed and Eugene Williams, 18, drowned. Black witnesses approached a police officer, but the officer refused to arrest Stauber. Other witnesses said the officer prevented swimmers from trying to reach Williams. Word spread and a mob of black men went after the officer, who fled into a drug store. After night fell, white gangs retaliated by beating, shooting, and stabbing thirty-eight blacks they found in their neighborhood and mobs stopped trolleys to pull out and pummel commuters. Cars driven by young whites with rifles careened through the South Side shooting into crowds. Then they burned down tenements. It was reported that some had their faces blackened.
On July 30, a special correspondent for the New York Times reported that “bands of negroes were to be seen at the railroad depots, preparing to flee the city. Every train that left Chicago yesterday carried many of them, men, women, and children, some of them carrying little bundles of household articles.”
Did Willie Mae witness the violence? The rioting spilled over every corner of Cottage Grove Avenue and the local police station was overwhelmed. The state militia had to be called in.
After five days 28 were dead, mostly black; and 520 injured, mostly black.
Halfway from Chicago to St. Louis sits Peoria like a pearl on the Illinois River. It was once a stop on the Underground Railroad and the site of Lincoln’s speech against slavery, which made it and him irreconcilable. Peoria was more integrated and less hostile than larger cities. It was a safer place for a black mother to raise her children. It was tugging at Willie Mae’s sleeve.
By 1921, she was renting a place at 2403 South Washington Street in Peoria and working as a maid. It was around this time that she reunited with her children and by 1923, she was living at 2022 South Washington. It would prove to be an auspicious move—eerie even. Professional fighters blasted out of that very block like soldiers from a foxhole. There was Red Keith, a heavy punching middleweight who fought Billy Papke in the early part of the twentieth century. There was the tragic Kid Farmer, born in 1884 only a stone’s throw from the Wades at 2006 South Washington, whose boxing career reportedly stretched over twenty-three years and 637 fights.
Willie Mae moved a total of four times before she finally found a half-decent apartment at 142 Green Street and put down roots. We find her there in the 1930 U.S. Census paying $18 a month rent and working as a domestic, what she would have called “day work.” She cleaned houses for white people and came home at night to collapse in a chair. Waiting for her were her boys Bruce, James, and Aaron, now teenagers, and Mary, 12. They didn’t own, or couldn’t afford, a radio.
No demographic in Depression-era America had it worse than African-American women. According to one study, the unemployment rate for white males in the North was 18.1%, for white women, 28.2%. For black women in the North, it was just under 50%. Willie Mae was a mother alone with several children, struggling to sell her labor not only as a maid and a domestic but as a janitress and laundress until 1932, when life took a desperate turn for the Wade family.
The city directory reveals that by 1933 Bruce had married and moved out. Sylvester had arrived up from Trenton and Aaron was a high school dropout working as a dishwasher. Willie Mae is listed as having two dependents though it is unclear who they were. Mary disappears from the historical record by then and James, 18, was very sick at the time. He would die in the Peoria Tuberculosis Sanitarium in August of that year. The manner of his death points toward the family’s desperation; overcrowding and malnutrition are risk-factors closely associated with tuberculosis. James’s service was held at home.
In 1934, Aaron was working a mile from home at the Nine Cents Shoe Repair, but he saw no spit shines and snapping rags in his future. With a spirit inherited from his mother, he was pursuing something that would make a tiger out of him—something blinking in shadow and light.
Graphic: “During the World War There Was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes,” by Jacob Lawrence. Panel 1 from “The Migration of the Negro” (1940-41).
The Crisis, vol. 15-18, ed. W.E.B. Du Bois (1917); Anatomy of Race Riots: Racial Conflicts in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921 by Lee E. Williams and Lee E. Williams II (1971); The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2010); “The Migrants Keep Coming,” by Jack Conroy in The Negro in Illinois; The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 Carl Sandburg; “Peoria: 1920 and 1921” by Norman V. Kelly; Chuck Burroughs’ scrapbook, undated article by Paul King; Come out Fighting: True Fight Tales for Fight Fans, by Chuck Burroughs, 1977; “Invisible Women of the Great Depression” by Kathy McMahon; Records for Peoria TB Sanatorium; Peoria Evening Star, 8/11/33.
Special thanks to Amber Lowery of the Peoria Public Library.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .