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Voices of the Great Migration

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This is a guest post by Tenesha Hare and Jasmyne Post, 2018 summer interns with the Junior Fellows Program in the Library’s Recorded Sound Section. Tenesha is a senior at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, studying Political Science with a concentration in Government and Public Relations. Jasmyne is a sophomore at the University of Louisville, majoring in Political Science and Economics.  

Tenesha Hare and Jasmyne Post, 2018 Jr. Fellow student interns, with their display, July 25, 2018.

In the summer of 2017 a group of high school students visited the Recorded Sound Research Center in search of recordings from the Great Migration. Those students might never know the impact of their visit that day on the lives of two undergraduate students accepted into the Library’s Junior Fellows Summer Internship program in the summer of 2018. As 2018 Junior Fellows, we are forever grateful for those curious minds that gave us the opportunity to have a summer filled with intellectual exploration as well as personal and professional development. We worked in the Recorded Sound Section on a project that was inspired by the high school students’ request.

The “Voices of the Great Migration” subject guide we created was designed to tell the story through music of the account of millions of African-Americans who relocated from the South to the North and other areas of the U.S. between 1916 and 1970. Those who chose to leave were seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children. They were pursuing decent jobs, education, improved social conditions. In doing so they ultimately changed the political and cultural landscape of the U.S. for generations.

Many told the story of their journey through song. By researching different blues and jazz artists of the era, we compiled a selection of songs that reflect their experiences. For example, we were drawn in by the compelling story of Ms. Alberta Hunter who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee to a mother who worked in a brothel. At the young age of eleven she decided to move to Chicago and become a singer. Success did not come at first, but after performing in a night club near the boarding school where she lived and worked, she made enough money to support herself. Soon she saved enough money to bring her mother to come live with her, but her mother passed away after a few years. Because of this Alberta turned away from music and attended nursing school. Working as a nurse for many years she had to retire when the hospital decided she was too old. It was then she returned to singing. We were very glad to include her music in our subject guide. Her story was unique, but we saw the same pattern repeated over and over in the narratives of the artists we researched.

Finding artists like Alberta Hunter required a process that made our research very interesting. Before we started looking for recordings we learned how to search the Library’s many sound recording catalogs and databases. We did so through the patience and guidance of the Recorded Sound Research Center staff. At the beginning of the summer neither of us knew that there was more than one format for sound recordings, but we now freely and effortlessly discuss the 78, 45s, and cylinders we requested to be digitized at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. We learned that by searching key words such as Chicago, New York, and New Orleans and setting search parameters to before 1970 we could uncover a plethora of songs from the blues and jazz artists that migrated. We both believe that because we were listening to people tell their life stories first hand through music and interviews we became connected to the artists and their music in a way that no other medium could have made us feel.

This connection made us passionate about our work and made Display Day, where Jr. Fellows showcase their projects, especially exciting as we had the opportunity to share the music and stories of the people we had been researching and admiring for the past nine weeks.

Voices of the Great Migration display.

The project seemed to come full circle on that day when a group of young students with matching firefly tee shirts came to our table. The students said that they were studying the Great Migration the following year in school.  We were able to tell them the history and provide memorable examples of famous performers such as Nat King Cole and Big Bill Broonzy. We hope they will bring back what they learned to their classroom.

Many people asked how our project would affect our future. At the beginning of the summer, neither of us could have answered, but we found this project has opened our eyes to the world of sound recordings and taught both of us, Political Science majors, a new way to look at history.

At the end of this summer we have not only learned about the tremendous impact that the Great Migration had on the history of music but we also learned a lot about ourselves. The recordings taught us to go beyond our history books to look for the stories of people using their own words, because that is how you truly understand the humanity of a moment. The Library taught us that all knowledge is important and everyone should appreciate the past to learn about the future. Finally, we taught each other that two heads are better than one, especially when you are working with sound recordings because you can listen to twice the number of songs.

Sound recordings highlighted in the “Voices of the Great Migration subject” guide are available for listening at the Recorded Sound Research Center, Madison Building, Room LM-113, Monday-Friday, 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.

Comments (3)

  1. Is it possible that your research and recordings will be made available to the public over the LC’s website? Your work sounds so interesting and something people of all ages would enjoy. I know teachers could use it in their classrooms. Thank you!

    • Thank you for your comment. We hope to make our research available soon including materials for teachers to use in their classrooms.

  2. Great story! Good job!

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