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First Person > Dr. Ruth B. Loving

Dr. Ruth B. Loving - 1914-1929: World War I and the Great Migration

Ruth's childhood memories

Ruth Loving remembers much about her childhood. She recalls with fondness her participation in her school's fife and drum corps, and becoming a youth member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She also well remembers the important lessons that her mother taught her about fairness...

Learn more about Dr. Ruth B. Loving: View a timeline of her life and listen to her full interview.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/loving1914_helpwanted, alt: help wanted newspaper ad

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The Booker T. Washington Social and Industrial Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, advertised for “Men!!” through The Chicago Defender in December of 1917. They promised that potential workers would find affordable housing and wages ranging from $2.50 a day to $6.00 a day.

Between 1915 and 1930, 1.5 million black Americans moved from their homes in the South to live in the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. For many, the decision to leave the South was difficult. The expensive train fares were hard to manage, and this often meant that some family members had to be left behind, at least temporarily. Still, there were compelling reasons to make the move, and Ruth alludes to some of these. She refers to her brother-in-law who made the move from Savannah, Georgia, to New York, where he could earn many times the wages that he had earned in the South. Ruth also learned that people did things differently in the South, that white people and black people did not share public spaces. As Ruth explains it, “Then I learned that there was a separation of the races. Race! It was done because of their race, not because they were bad or rebellious or anything.” Hoping to find freedom in other parts of the country, many African Americans decided to leave behind the South and its traditions of segregation.

The Chicago Defender, December 1, 1917, Courtesy of the New York Public Library, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1231425

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/loving1914_migration, alt: family of eight with suitcases

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With a couple of suitcases and a few extra coats, this family, newly arrived “in Chicago from the rural South,” posed for a group portrait. Their picture appeared in The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot published in 1922.

Prior to 1922, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations polled African Americans who had migrated to Chicago, to find out why they had come north, and what their experience in the city had been. Most respondents said that they had moved to Chicago to earn more money. Some said that they had been persuaded by friends and relatives. Most said yes when asked “Do you feel greater freedom and independence in Chicago?” Many people valued their increased voting privileges in Chicago and felt more freedom in public places. One person remembered having “to take any treatment white people offered me there [in the South and being] compelled to say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘yes sir’ to white people, whether you desired to or not. If you went to an ice cream parlor for anything you come outside to eat. Got off sidewalk for white people.” The change in climate and the crowded housing conditions were what most interviewees believed were the difficulties that “a person from the South meets in coming to Chicago.” While some people felt that they could earn more money in fewer hours in their new home town, others felt that because of the increased cost of living, they had to work harder in the North. One person thought the trains could be difficult, “Just the treatment some of the white people give you on the trains. Sometimes treat you like dogs.” Another reported having “more money to spend but when you have to live in houses where landlord won’t fix up you can’t have much comfort.”

“A negro family just arrived in Chicago from the rural South,” 1922, Courtesy of the New York Public Library, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1168439

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/loving1914_naacp, alt: W.E.B. Du Bois in a group portrait with the Junior Auxiliary of the NAACP

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W.E.B. Du Bois posed for a group portrait with the Junior Auxiliary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Cleveland, in 1929. Ruth remembers saving her pennies so that she could afford a youth membership to the NAACP.

In 1903, Civil Rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a reflection on the situation of African Americans in the United States during the progressive era. He set out his intent for the book in "The Forethought" which began,

HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line…. Leaving, then, the world of the white man, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,-the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.

Ruth was about six years old when she learned that the color line would not be tolerated in her family. It was a lesson that has remained with her throughout her life. One day, Ruth protested when Tony, her brother's white friend, sat down to eat dinner with her family. As she and her mother stood in the kitchen discussing the girl's outburst, Ruth's mother was clear: "Any body can eat at our table, okay?" she said. "Anybody. Anybody." As she grew, Ruth became aware that not all people held her mother's attitude. She remembers hearing, "these people down South…'cause they weren't treating us like that up in New Haven, Connecticut. I could…hear…to 'em saying that they to go back doors to eat, they couldn't eat at restaurants. I could eat down in Newberry's and …the five-and-ten cent store, to the Kresge’s, et cetera, and I couldn't understand then at uh…eight, nine, ten, … I couldn't understand until I got older this discrimination."

Delegates from Junior NAACP, Cleveland, with W. E. B. Du Bois, 1929; photo by Cole (no city), Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Story Clip #1:

Ruth is born in May 1914, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. She moves with her family to New Haven, Connecticut during World War I

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Audio also available in MP3 format

I left there when I was about four years old because the world war...was coming...one was coming on and my dad and his seven children, Ma, moved to New Haven, Connecticut, from Phoenixville, to work in Winchester...where the guns were being made for our ... army at the time, the United States Army.

Story Clip #2:

"Any body can eat at our table...Anybody": young Ruth is taught a lesson in fairness.

Audio also available in MP3 format

When I say "people", even though I'm an African American, I mean people. I don't look at a color of people, and when I was a little girl, I remember I had friends and I remember I was taught that, though. I remember the first time I learned about discriminatory action and I didn't know then. I must've been about six years old, and my oldest brother Alexander had a friend, Tony. And I know Tony came in one night and I hear...heard...to...to...to Alec that he wanted to stay and have dinner...he liked the dinner my mother was having, 'cause he had to go home. And I remember I'm listening and Ma says, well you can stay, but you have to go ask your mother first. He lived down the street, and he went back...he came back, the two of 'em, and I'm looking at him again, and uh, he said the mother said he could, but come home when the dinner was over. And uh, I looked up and I said to my mother, he not gonna...eat our dinner! And I remember...Ma said, well absolutely! Now go sit down, go sit down. And she...I could see her fixing a plate for Tony and Alec and the rest of us. And Pa was at the end of the table, and I kept looking at him, looking at him...Tony...and I says to 'im, wasn't gonna eat, 'cause I didn't like Tony. Tony couldn't...couldn't set at the table. He was white. And my mother took me...she says, c'mere. And she took me out to the kitchen, and she...and she said, look. Anybody can eat at our table, you hear me? You don't go by who they are. I said, yeah, but...And she'd, no. Any body can eat at our table, okay? Anybody. Anybody. She says, now you remember that. Remember that as long as you live. Anybody can eat at your table. And as I grew older, I knew then that...I learned that I was looking at him because of his color because I was hearing it as a youngster, you understand? But I had a mother who was wise...

Story Clip #3:

Ruth learns about the color line and a great migration of people to the North.

Audio also available in MP3 format

Well, as a youngster, you're hearing of the southern people who were coming up from the southern states, and the cousins and uncles and nieces were stopping, who knew Ma and Pa. And you...I'd listen, and they were coming up, leaving their homes that they didn't want to leave because of how they were being treated by the people they worked for who were white. You take the women that didn't want to...had to take care of the children, had to cook the meals and stuff...they wanted to come up here where they could do either one, take care of either the house or the children. And the men came up because they wanted to take care of the families, not on a little bit of money, five or ten dollars a week. They wanted...they knew up North that they had uh...maybe twenty-five or thirty dollars a...that they could get in a couple of days and kinda feed their families. So what I was hearing is...is...these people down South...'cause they weren't treating us like that up in New Haven, Connecticut. I could...hear...to 'em saying that they to go back doors to eat, they couldn't eat at restaurants. I could eat down in Newberry's and um...uh...the five-and-ten cent store, to the Kresge's, et cetera, and I couldn't understand then at uh...eight, nine, ten, ele...yea...I couldn't understand until I got older this discrimination that were going on. Then there's the kids that went away to college...they was talking about they could only go and sit in certain places down in southern states where a lot of them were going to school at. Then I learned that there was a separation of the races. Race! It was done because of their race, not because they were bad or rebellious or anything. And that's when I...I felt too, along with my mother, that was wrong, and that anybody should be allowed, like Tony, who sat at our table...if he had permission from his mother, he should be allowed to sit down and eat with us. And that's what he should...now that's the way I saw growing up with that. And I'm still that way...same way today, that the uh, cord that we have around this great country should belong to any of us if we want it. We work for it. We should have it. And it should...even the immigrants coming to this city, if they're...they're trying to do the same thing that we did years ago, work for their families to bring them and have the things that they wish for their kind of happiness, they should be allowed to do it. The only thing is, I don't think it feels as though if there're uh, rules and regulations that they're not following to get into the country, I think that needs to be taken care of. But they should be allowed the same privileges as I who live here.

Story Clip #4:

Ruth joins the Fife and Drum Corps at the Gregory Street School.

Audio also available in MP3 format

My first participation...I remember when they had a ...drum corps that were open all around the nation at the time, and ... I was at, ...Gregory Street School in the sixth grade. They were organizing a fife and drum corps, and I was very excited because musically...I liked music, and I was about uh, twelve years old, and I remember going home saying, Ma, I wanted to join the fife and drum corps. ...That was back in nineteen hundred and, let's say, um, 1920s. ...Girls really didn't mix with boys. I didn't know it was an all-boy outfit. I knew I wanted to learn how to play the fife, and uh...I remember my brother, one of my brothers, Louis, got excited, said, she can't join that! That's got boys in it, Ma! Said well, if she wants to join, we'll find out from the principal if they'll allow her to join that, she can join it. And they were aghast! And I was the only...I have a picture of that, me in the white sailor suit which was our outfit, joined when I was about twelve years old, and uh ...played in the Gregory Street School Fife and Drum Corps, and I was just as proud as I could be, playing in the uh...only girl...and so that I guess I was like, when we did parades, they wanted to see me, not so much as the other things, and I got kinda used to that, with that kind of an attitude of ...if I wanted to do things that made sense, do them!

Story Clip #5:

Ruth saves her pennies and becomes a youth member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Audio also available in MP3 format

I was hearing the...about the NAACP. My mother was trying to save a little money to pay for her ...dues for the NAACP and we could hear her, people coming up from the southern states, stopping off at New Haven, and I would be listening to the reason why they was coming up from the south, 'cause the way they were being treated, ...like my sister married at the time...he came up from Savannah, Georgia, because his average wage was less than five dollars a day; where he came up, and he... got on the New York pay department, I think, and his pay was then something like five dollars an hour because he drove one o' those great big department of public works trucks. Then I learned and I listened as Ma was telling me this new organization was forming to help the Negroes here in the United States to live a better life. And I'll never forget that I've got to put my pennies in so I could get what they called a youth membership, and I joined the youth membership of the NAACP, and went to their meetings and listened what was happening.

Related Resources

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