This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 1/2, "Here Come a Wind." Find more from that issue here.
The following article contains anti-Black racial slurs.
Before World War I, American industry—which was almost entirely in the North—had an abundant labor supply to draw from. For 50 years, an annual average of 500,000 new immigrants had offered their services to the expanding US economy. Blacks were not a major portion of Northern industry; they continued to live in the South, most still fastened to the land by the sharecrop system.
The war and the resulting restrictive immigration policies changed that. A major source of laborers suddenly dried up and industrialists actively recruited Southern black men for their factories. Some of these workers moved to jobs in Southern cities, but a larger stream began a migration to Northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit. For example, according to one estimate, blacks entered Chicago at a rate of 2,800 a month during 1917- 1918. A few found their way to smaller Northern towns like Beloit, Wisconsin, where 19-year-old D.W. Johnson moved in 1919.
The new policy of hiring black laborers such as Johnson conveniently fit into the anti-union efforts of many industrialists. Business leaders discovered that a labor force divided along ethnic lines poses great difficulties for union organizers; by importing blacks, a cheap work force could be gained and unionization efforts weakened at the same time. In the two decades 1910-1930, more than one million blacks left the six Deep South states, compared to only one-fourth that number during 1890-1910.
Most of the new, black industrial workers migrated northward on the recommendation of friends and relatives. Some responded to the powerful, persuasive voices of counterband black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, which persistently urged black workers to take advantage of opportunities in Northern industries. Others were persuaded by the covert inducements of labor agents who were hired specifically for the dangerous work of penetrating Southern states to recruit blacks. Rev. D. W. Johnson served as one of these recruiters.
Johnson was born in Macon, Miss., in 1900 to sharecropper parents. He first left home to work for the Gulf Mobile & Ohio Railroad when just 17. About a year later, he returned to Macon as a labor recruiter. He made several more trips to Mississippi and neighboring states to offer black men opportunities as line workers for the railroad.
In 1919, he left the South for Beloit, Wise., and the foundries of Fairbanks, Morse & Co., a corporation which aggressively recruited black workers from north-central Mississippi during and after World War I. After two years in Beloit, Johnson returned to Murphysboro, Illinois, where he resumed his responsibilities as a labor agent for the GM&O. Railroads were among the most active recruiters of black labor at this time; the Pennsylvania Railroad alone brought 12,000 blacks North to maintain tracks and equipment.
Agents like Johnson were unwelcome guests in Southern communities during and after World War I. Elaborate legal and quasi-legal mechanisms had arisen in the post-Civil War South to keep blacks tied to the region’s plantation economy. In The Emergence of the New South, George Tindall cites a licensing regulation in Macon, Georgia, which required each labor agent to pay a $25,000 fee and to obtain recommendations from 10 local ministers, 10 manufacturers and 25 merchants. Many Southerners were more direct, however, and used guns and gallows to eliminate suspected recruiters.
Today, Johnson remembers the risks he assumed but he perceives himself as having contributed a measure of opportunity and freedom to many of his people. Besides, he says, he enjoyed riding the trains.
The work that Johnson and scores of other labor agents performed for Northern corporations has been of crucial importance to the nation’s labor history. They radically altered the development of industry, unions and especially the South. Yet they have often been invisible characters. Stories of them have been told, references made of their accomplishments, but very rarely have labor agents explained in their own words their actions and adventures. D. W. Johnson is one of the first.
The following recollections have been taken from an interview which Clem Imhoff conducted with Johnson on February 29, 1976, at his home in Beloit, where he eventually resettled. This interview is one of a series which historian Imhoff and others are conducting as a part of bicentennial oral history project on Beloit’s black community. The project was funded by the Wisconsin Bicentennial Commission with matching money from several local sources.
(For an illuminating discussion of the migration of black workers to the North, see Jay R. Mandle, “The Plantation Economy and Its Aftermath,” The Review of Radical Political Economy, VI, 1, Spring 1974.)
My father was a devout, old man. He meant to do good. He was a meek man, could just take it on both sides. You could say somethin to him that could be awful nasty, but he’d have a kind word. And I love him for that today.
That old man were recognized for his attitudes and for his knowledge. He was among em all, but that didn’t keep him out of meetin little problems. He wasn’t eliminated from any of it.
But we were fortunate not to get whipped up. You know, there were people in those days, you dared not to say very much to em. The first thing they wanted to do was knock you down or beat you up or somethin like that, which it did happen. Oh, my God there’s unnumbers of times I remember!
Fortunate enough for us, Dad would tell us when we left home how to conduct ourselves. First thing, his word was, “Keep your head up.” He meant, stay level. Try to meet people as you want to be met, talk to them as you want to be talked to. And then sometime you have to go a little further. He would always try to teach a method that we could get along and be thought of as a human. We loved Dad for that, cause now that he left us none of us have to beg for bread.
My mother was a clean old lady. She taught her children to go straight. If I acted up some way, maybe it was just a rumor, she’d take me in and set me down beside her, and begin to read the Bible to me. I believe that Bible, cause Momma taught it to me. Dad was the same way, but Momma was closer to me in a way.
I grew up like other boys. I was tryin to get away from them, but that was the awfulest thing I could do — try to run away. I’d get into somethin every time. I’d get hurt or somethin would happen to me. I’d find myself runnin back there just like a little old lamb.
Well, I do appreciate it now. My parents taught me to be honest. That old lady would tell me, “Son, your behavior will get you where your money won’t. Your money’ll be counterfeited, but if you practice livin a good life, you’ll have a way when you get there.”
My father was a minister in Macon, Mississippi, never fortunate enough to have a church large enough to furnish much finance. So, that required all the scufflin that we could do to help him to get along.
As soon as I was about eight or nine years old, I would work for the different people in the little town, whatever I could do to bring in a little somethin to the home. I would get to go to school part time, not too much. I always saw that my sister would stay in school, cause I knew that someday she would appreciate an education.
I can get more money
I was born with a lot of drive and ambition. When I got 17 years old, I were workin then as a man. I was workin for this old man, Asa Lever, drivin a team of mules. This job was to haul wood to the light plant. They burned wood in those days.
He’d be out in the woods cuttin it, and then I hauled it in and ricked it up at the light plant. He paid me five dollars a week. That was 1912.
One day he said, “You know as hard and good a worker as you are, you’d be an awful good railroad Negro.”
I said, “Is that right?”
He said, “Yeah.” Well, he give me an idea.
I had some threats too. I had some threats. Previous to workin for Asa Lever, I’d worked for another one, name a Charlie Bonds, for two dollars a week.
When I drove into town that next Saturday after I quit at Bonds, I ran into this fella’s son, Henry Bonds. He was a big stout guy — wanted to know why I leaved his dad. I told him, “I can get more money.”
He said, “If you don’t come back to Dad by Monday, we’ll do away with you.”
I knew what that meant. He and his brothers were gonna get me if I drove for Asa Lever on Monday. I didn’t dare argue with him, cause maybe he’d got me right then.
There was a recruiter, a fella by the name of Will Parlot, happened to be in town the same time He’d grown up in Macon, then he went to Selmer, Tennessee, with the G. M. & O. He would come back and get men.
I got in touch with him. He explained what it was and what they paid, the livin conditions and all. I was encouraged to go, because it were more than I were gettin. So we left Sunday night for Selmer, Tennessee. I didn’t go back to Macon for quite a little while, until I eventually went back as a recruiter.
Quite a few left to come into Tennessee. From there they’d go to St. Louis, Murphysboro, some to Detroit, in fact all over the East. None went as fast as I did though.
I was in danger of my life when I left Macon. It seemed like it was a period when white folks was angry. The Negroes were leavin out, and they were leavin out by numbers. They were comin north because jobs were open. They may not have been the best, but they were far better than we had there.
They were very rough in that period. They beat up a lot of our people, left em out on the road. The flies got in some of em before the people found em. Just because they were tryin to better their condition. It was awful rough in that time. When they began to leave, if you owed these fellas a quarter, you daren’t talk about leavin. They’d say, “You owe me money.” And they’d make it whatever they want to, and you dare not leave. So, I beat the rap by gettin out of there that Sunday night.
I never made contact with the Bonds family. I never even had to swap words with em. I guess that’s a blessin from the Lord, cause he took care of me.
But I did know the outcome. The Bonds didn’t get to be very old men. When I went back, one of those fellas was blind. The other son was crippled up — he couldn’t walk. They were kind of a rude family. They didn’t come out good. It didn’t pay off.
Keep yourself in the clear
I got acquainted with a foreman, Jim Raymond, in Selmer. After I learned the way around, I would go to the foreman or the roadmaster and ask for a book of passes. They’d give me as much as 35 — men I could bring back, you know. So, I was very successful, but I run into a problem back in Macon.
When I got to Macon, I told the fellas there was a man goin to Meridian — course it were me, but that keep me in the clear — he had passes for 35 men. He’d pick em up if they would have a quarter to buy their ticket to Brookville, Mississippi, which were ten miles from Macon. Then this man had the passes — which were me — but I told em the man was goin to Meridian. They took my word for it.
That night there was others there who had passes at this little old Jim Crow station waitin to go to Brookville. There must have been 40 or 50 men. Train gonna run at 12:30 to bring us out of there.
But about midnight that door swung open, and there were three great big red-faced guys — one was Mac Henry, a farmer, and another was Swans, and I can’t remember the other. Now they had a bullwhip on their shoulder, and a rope, and each one a big gun. They said they gonna kill every so-and- so Negro they found that had a pass.
They searched us one by one. Got to me. Said, “Where you goin?”
“Goin to Selmer, Tennessee, sir.”
“How in the hell you gonna get there?”
“Well, sir, my partner’s goin to Meridian. He got the pass for two of us. When he get back, he’ll check me up here in Macon.”
“You better be damn sure you’re tellin the truth. We gonna kill the son-of-a-bitch we find with a pass tonight.”
And they searched me, all but pulled off my shoe where the pass was. Had they pulled off my shoe, that would’ve been it for me.
And this Will Parlot, he in there the same night. One of em said, “Anybody here know Will Parlot?”
Will said, “No, sir!” And he swallowed that pass! Boy they wanted that fella that night.
Go in there to recruit
In 1922 I went back to Illinois, to Murphysboro. That’s when I did most of my recruitin. I didn’t get into nothin as serious then as the first time.
I was just like a little mole. I’d get in there, get a bunch and get out. I had to use a little chicanery, I would say. Maybe a snake. You had to get through without gettin caught. I had a pretty good hitch on it. I could do a good job now.
I’d get in there and I’d tell em that there’s a man goin to such-and such with a pass. And I got the pass in the toe of my shoe, They wouldn’t take that shoe off. But they’d search every part of you. Oh, my God. They’d turn down the cuffs of my pants.
They’d say, “Where ya gonna go? How ya gonna get there?”
I’d say, “I got a man gonna pick me up. He got a pass for two of us.” Biggest lie I ever told, but I’d get away with it.
You got to know what language to use. You got to tell a little white lie.
You got to make a guy believe there’s one thing, to get him you got to tell him the facts about it. I told the men there would be jobs for them in Tennessee and Murphysboro, Illinois. Now Murphysboro was a railroad center and there was quite a bit of work there for laborin people. They hired all that would come.
But gettin out of there with him, you got to find your own method to do that. Cause if he go tell somebody that Johnson’s in here with a pass, that’s all for you.
You got to tell him some kind of fairy tale about somebody gonna come from here or yonder, and he’ll be there at a certain time. Don’t ever let it be you! That’s what I’m talkin about. You got to tell a little fair lie! You never let it be you in person. You got to always have a dummy over there somewhere. You got to always figure out some way to keep yourself in the clear.
The minute they find out it’s you, they may not get you this time, but maybe next trip they’ll be all set for you. And they didn’t care what they’d do to you. They’d just as soon kill you as see you come out alive, if you were takin the Negroes out of there. It was pretty dangerous, but I got by.
I go all the way in on the G. M. & O. Railroad. I just liked to ride anyway. I had a lot of fun on the trains.
Then maybe I’d go into Mobile. I’d loaf around all day. I’d walk up to a guy and say, “What do you do?” I’d question him — get all I can out of him.
Then I’d say, “I’ll tell you what. There’ll be a fella on that train. He’ll pick you up.” And I got him! I did that a lot of times. I’d pick up from one to ten and bring em in. I could never tell em it were me. But all the time I was goin down there, I never did get trapped.
The white guy dare not go in there to recruit either. They’d kill him quicker than they would a rattlesnake. Damn Yankee comin down here gettin these niggers. No strange white man go to get nobody.
There was another thing. There was a number of people in Macon that I’d known all my life. They was farmers. Some of em had sons my age. All those fellas I was acquainted with. I would tell them a story about better conditions, they would believe it. Only thing they had to do, they couldn’t dare tell those fellas they was gonna leave. They’d get in trouble. They’d do em some harm somehow.
Macon was a mean little town. I could tell you some things that didn’t seem like human. There was some, they called em the mob crowd. Brother, them guys had blood in their eyes. There was Ku Klux I guess too, but these fellas was known as the mob crowd.
When you say, “The mob crowd will get you,” that meant they comin in for you. Shoot you full of holes. Burn your house or do anything to get you. Nothin too bad for those fellas to do in those days.
I had experienced some pretty mean times, but it seemed that this time they were determined that the Negroes wouldn’t leave. If they found a group thinkin they was gonna leave, they were in danger. They might beat em up or even kill em. And that lasted a long time.
I recruited white people to work, too. It was the same. You still had to be a shadow or somethin. Then you could check em on your pass. I didn’t bring any of the whites out of Mississippi, but out of Kentucky and Tennessee.
I only got my regular money, three or four dollars a day. Once in awhile I’d get a little bonus. But all I was doin was ridin, so that wasn’t too bad. I did it for the benefit of those fellas, if I could help them to get better. I risked my life to help somebody. I still do. If I can help somebody to have better conditions, I think he’s entitled to it. If you don’t help the people, maybe they’ll never get an opportunity.
Well, I came the hard way. My past experiences have been pretty rough. But all the time I managed to have a clear glass of water, and one I could share with somebody else. Therefore, I’m very happy.