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A Tenant Farmer’s Daughter Remembers Leaving Mississippi

In 1917, ten-year-old Rubie Bond left Mississippi with her parents and migrated to Beloit, Wisconsin. Her father, who worked as a tenant farmer in the South, had been recruited to work at a factory in Beloit. In 1976, she was interviewed as part of an oral history project documenting the experiences of African-American migrants who moved to Wisconsin between the 1910s and 1950s. In this excerpt, Bond describes why her parents decided to leave the South.

I'm wondering why your family decided to leave Mississippi. How was that decision made and why was it made? 

Well, the North offered better opportunities for blacks…. I've heard that recruiters were often in danger in Mississippi if they came down to get workers for northern companies. 

Do you recall him ever expressing any fear about this job that he was doing? 

Yes. I know that many of the blacks would leave the farms at night and walk for miles. Many of them caught the train to come North…Usually they would leave with just the clothes on their backs. Maybe the day before they would be in the field working and the plantation owner wouldn't even know that they planned to go and the next day he would go and the little shanty would be empty. These people would have taken off and come up here. 

Was there a fear that the plantation owner wouldn't let them go or that they couldn't leave? 

That's very true. They wouldn't. Plantation owners had much to lose. [African-American farmers] were illiterate and they had to depend on the plantation owner. He would give them so much flour for use during the year, cornmeal or sugar or that sort of thing and then at the end of the year you would go to settle up with him and you would always be deeply in debt to him. That was his way of keeping people. You never got out of debt with him…. 

Now, as a young girl, did you agree with this decision to move North? Did you think it was a good idea? 

Yes. I think I did. Because even as a child I think I was pretty sensitive to a lot of the inequalities that existed between blacks and whites, and I know that after we came here my mother and dad used to tell me that if I went back to Mississippi, they would hang me to the first tree. 

What role did the church play in your early life in Mississippi? 

Well, I think the church played a very important part in the life of all blacks in Mississippi because it was religious center as well as social. That was one place that they could go and meet and discuss their problems. Relax. So just the--their big picnics and big church meetings they used to have…. 

Given the opportunities that were available in the North, why did anyone decide to stay in Mississippi? 

Well, I think that it was a lack of knowledge of about what the North had to offer until these agents came there to get them to come up here to work. 

You were leaving at least a few of your relatives and friends behind. How did you feel about those people that you left behind and weren't ever going to see again? 

Well, I think it comes back to a matter of trying to exist, really, and trying to improve your own lot.

Source | Bond, Rubie. Interview. Tape Recording, 1976. Beloit Bicentennial Oral History Collection. Beloit College Archives, Beloit, Wisconsin; from Wisconsin Historical Society, “Oral History: Rubie Bond, the African-American Experience in Wisconsin,” Audio Number 637A/1, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/teachers/lessons/secondary/rubiebond.asp.
Interviewer | None
Interviewee | Rubie Bond
Rights | Used by permission of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Tenant Farmer’s Daughter Remembers Leaving Mississippi,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 20, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1595.

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