Great Migration creates ties between Mississippi, Illinois

Published 7:02 am Sunday, April 25, 2021

It was a near-miss snake bite that finally spurred Clodie Casey to leave his job at a Fulton sawmill and head north.

Not that he hadn’t been considering leaving the South already. Many Black people had for a host of reasons. But nearly being bitten must have caused Casey to re-evaluate his situation, because that same day, he headed for Illinois.

“My dad went up there for opportunity to work, opportunity to, of course, raise his family,” said his son, Jim Casey, who lives in Tupelo. “It was a time of mass migration to the North.”

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That “time of mass migration” is known as the Great Migration, a decades’ long stretch — From 1916 to 1970 — during which approximately 7 million African Americans left the South for the North. Chicago was a particular hub, attracting over 500,000 African Americans in that period, with many from Mississippi.

That included Clodie Casey, who relocated to Champaign, Illinois following his service during World War II.

According to his son, Clodie Casey’s destination, like that of so many of his fellow Black Mississippians, was Chicago. But he stopped short because, Casey said, he couldn’t afford to continue his journey.

“Why did he stop in Champaign, Illinois? I guess one of the reasons was, he didn’t have enough money, so he ended up in Champaign,” Jim Casey, 81, said.

By 1980, 8% of people born in Mississippi lived in Illinois, according to a 2014 New York Times migration study. According to James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, the Great Migration left a dramatic political, cultural and economic legacy.

“The country is reshaped,” Grossman said. “When 7 million people move from one region to two other regions, the West and the North, every aspect of national life is affected.”


Black southerners headed north for any number of reasons: political power, better living conditions, housing, educational opportunities. According to Mississippi State sociology professor Robert Boyd, following the Civil War, African Americans moved to Mississippi to build freedom through land ownership.

This hope dissipated by 1910 as the percentage of landowning African Americans plateaued, then declined. and started decreasing, said University of Mississippi professor of history and southern studies Ted Ownby. Although Mississippi sent a Black man to Congress in 1870, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 severely curtailed Black political power by disenfranchising Black voters through racial segregation laws.

“This kind of possibility of Mississippi as a hotspot, as a, in religious language, ‘a promised land,’ Mississippi had become fairly clearly not that,” Ownby said.

According to Boyd, an early 20th century boll weevil infestation, reduced cotton demand as countries such as Egypt and India began growing cotton for export, and the great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 also pushed Black sharecroppers and farm laborers out.

“They faced unemployment, and it was a pretty bleak situation, so that’s usually a pretty powerful motivation for people to start looking for work elsewhere,” he said.

At the same time, vigilante violence, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching intensified to oppress Black people. Racial violence, or the threat of it, was an everyday experience in the South, Grossman said. Emmett Till represented that reality. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, was part of the Great Migration. Mobley’s family originally fled Mississippi for Illinois to escape violence, so when she sent 14-year-old Till to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, she warned her son to be careful, according to TIME magazine. Till was brutally killed by two white men after being accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman.

“If you think about what happened to someone like Emmett Till, crossing the line was dangerous,” Grossman said. “You always had to be careful about knowing where your place was as a Black southerner.”


Increased industrial need and halts to European immigration during World War I opened new economic options to Black southerners. According to Boyd, They moved North for factory and steel mill jobs in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York for higher wages than those available through the largely agricultural or domestic labor in the South.

Grossman said they’d often refer to migrating as “bettering my conditions in the letters they sent home.

“It means (they tied) being full citizens with access to not only jobs, access to institutions, to education . . . together in terms of the motivations of why people left,” Grossman said.

Though more prevalent in the Delta, Tupelo saw African Americans flee north in those early years, said Oren Dunn City Museum curator Leesha Faulkner. In his book “Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community,” author Vaughn L. Grisham Jr. details an incident during a 1918 labor shortage in which 80 train cars of cotton stood out in the weather because there were no workers to unload it. Following that event, the Tupelo Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance requiring businesses to give all their workers a card to ensure they worked six-day work weeks.

“Grisham does tell you that there were agents who came into Tupelo who recruited African American families to go north, Chicago or Detroit or to east Saint Louis, with promises of better work, better pay, a better life,” Faulkner said.

World War II sparked a second boom that stretched well into the 1960s and drew far more migrants than the first wave. As a result, Mississippi transformed from a majority African American state to a majority white state in the mid-20th century, Ownby said.

According to Grossman, family connections were crucial to facilitate the boom in northward migration. Since work opportunities weren’t as plentiful in the South, migrants moved to places where they already had contacts.

Clodie Casey was among that boom. Born and raised in Fulton, he moved to Champaign to work as an evening engineer at Chanute Air Force base. Like many migrants, the Caseys had a pool of relatives in Illinois, so he already knew jobs were available.

“It was almost like, in those days, the Underground Railroad,” Jim Casey said. “You had a relative up there, relatives of course, and they would communicate with you and tell you to come on up, we’ll help you find a job. You’ll be able to work up here.”


Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender were an important stimulant for the Great Migration, Boyd said. The paper shared news of migrants’ comings and goings by having pullman porters, men hired to work in sleeping cars along the railroads, distribute copies from the railroad route between Chicago and New Orleans. This created a link between Black Northerners and Southerners.

The Black women’s club movement cut down the idea of disconnected migrants by helping make connections. According to “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America” author Nicholas Lemann, some parents and grandparents who were frustrated by urban life sent their children to parts of the South they hoped would be safer and more welcoming.

Jim Casey split his teenage years between his hometown, Tupelo, and Illinois. He attended Carver High School, Tupelo’s high school for Black students prior to desegregation, but spent his summers working in Chicago. His first summer in Champaign, Illinois, in 1957 was a change in atmosphere and society, he said.

“Getting away from Jim Crow, also, was an advantage,” Casey said. “Being able to go to restaurants and public places without seeing a sign that says ‘whites only’ or ‘blacks only.’ It was a breath of fresh air, opportunity. I think that’s what many Blacks who left Mississippi and other Southern states had: an opportunity to be treated as a person, as a man. An opportunity to enjoy (a) high quality of life.”


In many ways, the North was not the promised land Black people were sold. Faulkner points to Henry Ford in Detroit, who hired Black laborers specifically because he could pay them less. Additionally, housing restrictions pushed Black people into Chicago’s South Side, leading to overcrowding. The disappearance of factory jobs hit the Black working class especially hard. By 1970, a shift occurred that caused some people to fall into poverty because their source of entry level employment was gone, Boyd said.

“It’s sad because it’s these promises — come to the promised land, come live free, come live and not be afraid, come escape Jim Crow — and you get into another situation,” Faulkner said. “It’s the same profiting off the backs of people who believe and believe in a dream, and for many African Americans, the dream didn’t happen.”

Despite the challenges, Black people left the South because “there had to be a better life somewhere,” Faulkner said. Out of the Great Migration came not just countless individual success stories and changes for the Black American population, but a transformation of the entire American population.

“We certainly would not be the same country if the Great Migration had not occurred,” Boyd said.

Moving North enfranchised millions of African Americans, impacting the political sphere, Grossman said. Black migration to urban cities like Chicago strengthened Black voting power, made the Democratic party in particular much more responsive to Black voters, and led to the election of local, state and even national Black leadership, Boyd said.

Black owned businesses and an increased consumer market grew. According to Ownby, Chicago became a place where African American infrastructure, leadership, church, political and economic institutions could thrive in a way they couldn’t after Mississippi failed to provide the economic possibilities they’d hoped for.

“Chicago became another step,” Ownby said.

Black migrants added to the cultural diversity of the cities they moved to, Boyd said. From it came books, music, and work that showcased Black artists’ protest and heritage of pain, said Faulkner. Richard Wright, a native Black Mississippian, moved to Chicago and produced writings that gave a voice to the experiences of Black people and exposed lynching in the South. Southerners also brought their own brand of religion to the North, and Mississippi blues influenced the Chicago blues.

Casey created his own success in Illinois. After graduating high school in 1956, he attended Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, working as a work study student and a general laborer during summers in Chicago to pay his way through Lane and later the University of Illinois. He spent his first three years as a teacher in Jumbo, Tennessee, as a high school business teacher, but got another job in Champaign, Illinois. Immediately, he adjusted from teaching in segregated schools to integrated schools.

In Champaign, Casey worked as an elementary teacher, junior high teacher, principal at Columbia and Ben Franklin, and a consultant. He also shaped young lives outside the classroom by serving on various committees, working with the local food bank and being part of the Urban League, local NAACP and an active church member. He coached multiple sports, including a Little League team one summer. When he retired in 1994, his impact was felt strongly enough that when a group of retired teachers held a reunion in 2018, they talked extensively about the difference he made in their lives.

“I knew what education could do,” Casey said. “That’s what educators do: make a difference in the lives of young people. That was my greatest motivation as a teacher and as an administrator.”


After retiring, Jim Casey did something his friends questioned: He returned to the South, to Tupelo. By the 1980s, many Black people, often the children and grandchildren of the people who originally migrated, moved to the South. This possibly signals a reversal of the Great Migration by the beginning of the 21st century, Boyd said.

Casey wanted to return to warm weather, family, and his hometown. Growing up in Tupelo made a big difference in his life, so when he came back, he became an active member of the community. He volunteered at church, served with Meals on Wheels and the AARP, joined the local NAACP and in official roles with the city election commission and transportation committee.

Casey wanted to do his part, because this was home.

“I’m very proud to be a Tupeloan,” he said. “Education and the impact and motivation that we receive as a citizen here in Tupelo and other areas makes a difference in our lives, so we just try to give back.”