At first the South was proud and ambivalent, pretended that it did not care. “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune happily noted.
Then, as planters awoke to empty fields, the South began to panic. “Where shall we get labor to take their places?” asked the Montgomery Advertiser, as southerners began to confront the reality observed by the Columbia State of South Carolina: “Black labor is the best labor the South can get. No other would work long under the same conditions.”
“It is the life of the South,” a Georgia plantation owner once said. “It is the foundation of its prosperity.… God pity the day when the negro leaves the South.”
“With all our crimes of omission and commission, we still retain a marked affection for the Negro,” wrote David L. Cohn in the 1935 book God Shakes Creation. “It is inconceivable to us that we should be without him.”
The Macon Telegraph put it more bluntly: “We must have the negro in the South,” it said. “It is the most pressing thing before this State today. Matters of governorships and judgeships are only bagatelle compared to the real importance of this negro exodus.”
Yet as reality sank in, nobody could agree on what to do about it, debating to the point of exasperation. “Why hunt for the cause when it’s plain as the noonday sun?” wrote a white reader in the Montgomery Advertiser. “He doesn’t want to leave but he knows if he stays here he will starve. They have nothing to eat, no clothes, no shoes, and they can’t get any work to do and they are leaving just as fast as they can get away.… If the Negro race could get work at 50 cents a day he would stay here.”
And a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, put this question to the ruling caste: “If you thought you might be lynched by mistake,” the paper asked, “would you remain in South Carolina?”
When the South woke up to the loss of its once guaranteed workforce, it tried to find ways to intercept it. Southern authorities resurrected the anti-enticement laws originally enacted after the Civil War to keep newly freed slaves from being lured away, this time, however, aimed at northern companies coveting the South’s cheapest and most desperate workers …
… But by the middle of World War I, those laws were useless. Northern industries didn’t need to recruit anymore. Word had spread, and the exodus took on a life of its own. “Every Negro that makes good in the North and writes back to his friends, starts off a new group,” a Labor Department study observed.
So the South tried to choke off the flow of information about the North. The chief of police in Meridian, Mississippi, ordered copies of the Chicago Defender confiscated before they could be sold, fearing it was putting ideas into colored people’s heads.
When the people kept leaving, the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union, which was forming at the same time across the Atlantic. Those trying to leave were rendered fugitives by definition and could not be certain they would be able to make it out. In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with fifty colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up the tickets of colored passengers as they stood waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out. In Savannah, Georgia, the police arrested every colored person at the station regardless of where he or she was going. In Summit, Mississippi, authorities simply closed the ticket office and did not let northbound trains stop for the colored people waiting to get on.
Instead of stemming the tide, the blockades and arrests “served to intensify the desire to leave,” wrote the sociologists Willis T. Weatherford and Charles S. Johnson, “and to provide further reasons for going.”
To circumvent the heavy surveillance, some migrants simply bought tickets to cities two or three stations away where they would not be recognized or where there was less of a police presence. There, under less scrutiny, they bought tickets to their true destination. Those who had somehow gotten on the wrong side of somebody in the ruling class had to go to unusual lengths to get out, one man disguising himself as a woman to flee Crystal Springs, Mississippi, for Chicago in the 1940s.