Cairo Association of Teachers


The following “musical thread” is by Charles E. Cobb Jr...his thoughts on “the Blues”, his great-grandfather (Samuel Rueben Kendrick), and his Aunt Hattie...

Between 1915 and 1970 more than five million African Americans left from every field and corner of the South, most going to the nation's booming cities.

Many joined the migration of blacks from the South along what came to be known as the "blues highway' connecting New Orleans and Chicago.

As an educated black landowner, my great grandfather was in a tiny minority. But the freedman's blues he suffered linked him with the most uneducated black sharecropper. Across the South in the late 1800s Jim Crow laws tightened racial segregation, curtailing freedoms gained as a result of the Civil War. Curfews banned blacks from streets after sunset. Mississippi's 1890 state constitution effectively stripped blacks of voting rights. Years later Sam Kendrick's youngest daughter, my great-aunt Hattie, said she couldn't look at the TV movie Roots because it reminded her of those bitter Mississippi days. "I find my throat dry, and stuff kind of boils up in me " she said.

THE CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE between slavery & land sharecropping was the relative freedom to move: from field to field, from field to factory. Moving on is a frequent theme in the blues, a refrain that is really a code for freedom and opportunity.

By the turn of the century tens of thousands of African Americans had already left the South, some joining land rushes to Kansas and Oklahoma, others going to northern cities, where opportunities seemed greater and oppression less. But with the advent of World War I and the accompanying demand for increased production in the industrial North, the real exodus from the Delta - and the entire South - began. America's most widely read newspaper, the Chicago Defender, ran this ad: "The Defender invites all to come north. Plenty of room for the good, sober, industrious men. Plenty of work. For those who will not work, the jails will take care of you. When you have served your 30 days at hard labor you will then have learned how to work. Anywhere in God's country is far better than the southland... Come join the ranks of the free."

Eighty percent of America's ten million blacks lived in the South in 1917, when the nation entered World War 1. Chicago's busy brickyards, meatpacking houses, and steel mills had long attracted European immigrants, but the war halted this flow. Meanwhile white factory workers in the U.S. were going to Europe to fight, leaving a vacuum just as industrial demand was soaring. Southern black labor was a solution. Once under way, the movement out of the South ebbed only during the 1930s Depression, with the numbers between 1940 and 1970 exceeding a million people a decade.

In 1918 a ticket to Chicago from New Orleans cost about $20 - nearly a month's pay on some plantations. Many people sold their belongings - often at a loss - and gradually moved north, working and saving enough money in one town to move to the next. Sometimes families split up...

The Chicago Defender's militant drumbeat contrasted lynching and racial oppression in the South with glowing descriptions of a free and prosperous life in Chicago. "Copies were passed around until worn out," said one reader. People coming back home for a visit brought gifts, flashed money, and were full of all the news about living large in the big city. The North, the "promised land," was the talk in cotton fields, on street corners, in churches, barber shops, and juke joints. As one Chicago letter writer noted, there was more to it than the search for jobs: "My children are going to the same school with the whites and I don't have to umble to no one. There isn't any 'yes sir' and 'no Sir'."

FOR THOSE LEAVING the Delta, the port city of Memphis on the Mississippi was the first major stop...

FROM MEMPHIS it's on to Cairo, Illinois, the halfway point to Chicago. As Judge Irving had told me in Tutwiler, Cairo was where the North began. "They had a black curtain on the bus-white folks in front, us in back. They took it down in Cairo.' Hattie Kendrick, the youngest of my great grandfather's five children, moved to Cairo in 1927 at the urging of a cousin who'd come up from Mississippi. In this "oasis," as Aunt Hattie called Cairo, she settled into a boarding house and began teaching in a one-room school.

I hadn't been to Cairo since I was a small boy. Then, I didn't know enough to ask my aunt the questions I wished to ask her now. She died in 1989 at age 94, but I'm grateful that during the last ten years of her life she put her recollections on cassette tapes.

Like many African Americans taking their first steps in the promised land, Aunt Hattie found that life in it wasn't all that had been promised. She was angered that black teachers earned less than whites, and in 1941 sued the Board of Education to equalize teachers' salaries. Thurgood Marshall, who was then chief counsel of the NAACP and would in 1967 become the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, took the case.

"Let me tell you a good story," Aunt Hattie liked to begin, when recalling the day her case came to court. "Thurgood and this other attorney were being called 'boys' by the defense attorney. He went on about how only a 'brilliant attorney' like the one who'd won a case like this in Tennessee could win this one. After he finished, Thurgood got up and bowed to him and thanked him, saying: 'I am that qualified, brilliant attorney who handled that case'. The whole courtroom burst into laughter." The case was won.

In 1973 Hattie Kendrick charged that Cairo's at-large system for electing the mayor and four councilmen discriminated against the city's black population. Seven years later her complaint paid off - a consent decree resulted in the creation of five wards, two with a black majority population.

Aunt Hattie, like her father Samuel Kendrick, sang no blues, though many of her tapes are punctuated by songs she remembered from childhood and church. Yet her life is a blues story, not for any hurt that came her way but because of her determination to move on to something better. Like the great blues singers, Hattie Kendrick was set on making her mark.

For the complete article, go to...

Traveling the Blues Highway