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Intergenerational Dialogue on the Great Migration: Alvesta Smith

When: July 28, 2022 at African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County


  • [00:00:14] CHARITY HURT: Hi, my name is Charity and the purpose of this interview is just to get your perspective on what happened to you during the Great Migration. Would you mind telling me your age?
  • [00:00:27] ALVESTA SMITH: I'm 79 years old.
  • [00:00:29] CHARITY HURT: Seventy-nine, okay. Would you mind telling me your date of birth, please?
  • [00:00:33] ALVESTA SMITH: June 25th, 1943.
  • [00:00:36] CHARITY HURT: Would you mind telling me your birthplace?
  • [00:00:38] ALVESTA SMITH: Goochland, Virginia.
  • [00:00:41] CHARITY HURT: Me, I'm a high school student. I'm just doing this interview to show the world the different perspectives of what happened during the Great Migration. They say that the Great Migration is often overlooked even with it being the largest relocation of people in history, so what is your opinion on that?
  • [00:01:05] ALVESTA SMITH: [LAUGHTER] Quite a question there. The Great Migration was taking place starting in the South where there was slavery taking place and Blacks especially did not have a chance to make money and live a productive life, and so they decided that they would go North. The first time they started out they used the stars and moons to move from one place to the other because they had to be very careful because there were catchers, white men out to catch them. Then sometimes later on there were candles put in windows to let them know there would be a good place for them to go and spend the night. When they spent the night, they would have to crawl into really small spaces like between chimneys or I guess maybe under beds or wherever just to try to make it. They would spend the night and they would have to get up early in the morning, make sure that dogs were not around so they would start barking.
  • [00:02:15] CHARITY HURT: Okay.
  • [00:02:16] ALVESTA SMITH: To start on their trip again.
  • [00:02:18] CHARITY HURT: All those factors that you stated are reasons why people left. What factors of leaving did you seek in the North that prompted you to make your Great Migration?
  • [00:02:28] ALVESTA SMITH: [LAUGHTER] I don't think I was part of the migration but some of my ancestors, my aunts and great-uncles and aunts and all were probably part of it. But I was not personally part of the Great Migration.
  • [00:02:46] CHARITY HURT: Do you know what prompted them to leave?
  • [00:02:48] ALVESTA SMITH: Do I what?
  • [00:02:49] CHARITY HURT: Do you know what prompted them to leave from the South to the North? The reasons, have an idea?
  • [00:02:55] ALVESTA SMITH: Do I what?
  • [00:02:56] CHARITY HURT: Do you know what prompted them to leave from the South?
  • [00:03:00] ALVESTA SMITH: Yes. People back in that day would leave the South trying to make a better life or better home for themselves in the North. You'll find that people from the area of Mississippi, around that area they went to Chicago. I'm from Virginia, so a lot of my relatives went to New York. Different ones had a different travel space, I would say, moving from one area to the other.
  • [00:03:29] CHARITY HURT: Did they find the job opportunities? Did they find what they were looking for in the North when they first arrived? What was it like?
  • [00:03:35] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, I think most of the ladies did housework and they would live in the homes and on every Thursday they were off and every other weekend they were off and so they would have probably someplace to go and I'm thinking way back there they would probably go out in the daytime and maybe shop and do whatever they wanted but they would have to go back and stay at the homes because when they first moved, they didn't have any other place to go. But later on, when they were able to make enough money to get their own homes, then when they took off on Thursday they could go home.
  • [00:04:11] ALVESTA SMITH: Okay.
  • [00:04:12] ALVESTA SMITH: Then on the weekends, they could go home. [LAUGHTER] Then they got into religion, visiting churches and all.
  • [00:04:20] CHARITY HURT: What church did they visit most often?
  • [00:04:22] ALVESTA SMITH: Whatever church was around them I would think because at first when religion started with the Blacks they first started in homes. Well, I would say no, they first started in trees. Going out under a tree and worshipping. Then finally they started to worship in homes till they would get enough money and they would build churches. They were able to build churches with what they made way back is unbelievable, they weren't making that much. But the value of money at that time was much more than what it is today.
  • [00:04:59] CHARITY HURT: How did health care differ in the South than in the North? How were like how did health care?
  • [00:05:05] ALVESTA SMITH: Now you're asking me a question [LAUGHTER] I'm not really able to--because to me, I'm from Virginia.
  • [00:05:14] CHARITY HURT: Well, in Virginia, how did it differ from Virginia like health care differ from Virginia and then here?
  • [00:05:21] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, I'm from a segregated area where we had our own schools, own doctors, own lawyers, principals we had everything we needed. I was raised on a farm in Virginia where we raised everything we needed from animals, pigs, cattle, cats. Well, we didn't eat those but the chickens, turkeys, things like that. Vegetables, fruit. We had everything we needed. From time to time we would go to Richmond, Virginia to shop but not very often because we had everything we needed right there on the farm. Moving I went to school in '62 I went to Virginia Union University and that's when it was a little bit different because I always have had Black teachers all the way through until I got to college. There we would begin to have some white professors. Then from there I went to University of Michigan and Eastern University and all we had white professors, it's a little different.
  • [00:06:25] CHARITY HURT: When you had come to the University of Michigan coming from the college in Virginia, what was the differences? Was it different? Was it the same?
  • [00:06:38] ALVESTA SMITH: Not with me because I had been through the university. I've lived in Texas. I've been to the university in Texas. I've been to other universities. Montclair, in New Jersey, I went to school there. Yeah, I had gone so it's no big deal.
  • [00:06:51] CHARITY HURT: Many Northerners have decided to go back to the South. I just took a trip to Atlanta and a lot of them are from Detroit. What is your opinion on going back? Would you ever go and live in the South? Would you ever go live there?
  • [00:07:06] ALVESTA SMITH: Yeah, the South is very progressive but I personally don't think I would go back because of my age and all. I have my home and everything.
  • [00:07:20] CHARITY HURT: How were older family members cared for in wherever you were living in Virginia, in Michigan? How were they cared for?
  • [00:07:31] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, back there at that time family would take care of families. Because my mother was raised by her grandmother and we lived with our, she was my great grandmother. She was a nurse for a white doctor in Virginia. Family back there used to take care of family. My mother's sisters and brothers all went to New York but my mother wanted to stay to take care of grandma. They took care of others. Today people are put into nursing homes and it's a little bit different today. Also, sometimes people are able to stay at home if they're able to take care of themselves.
  • [00:08:14] CHARITY HURT: When you look at your mother being a nurse and all of that, how was it like? What did you see from that?
  • [00:08:22] ALVESTA SMITH: This was my great-grandmother.
  • [00:08:24] CHARITY HURT: Oh, your great-grandmother. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:08:25] ALVESTA SMITH: That's okay. My great-grandmother was the nurse for a doctor and they traveled by horse and buggy, way back there. She was born in the 1800s. My mother was born in 1912 so it was a little bit different.
  • [00:08:50] CHARITY HURT: With that, is there anything you would like to say about your experiences in regards to anything during the Great Migration and all of that?
  • [00:09:00] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, I think I've had a good life and I don't particularly feel as though I was part of the Great Migration, as I said because I'm a few generations removed from it. But it's a good thing that they did make the migration because they were doing it to better themselves. You must remember, I don't know if you're aware of this years ago when Blacks were brought over from Africa. They were captured and put into these holding places. I don't know how they got water or how they got food. It was very dark, I've seen pictures of that. Then they were caught later on when the ship came, put on ships, and then they were chained down on the ships. Have you ever seen examples of this chained down and brought, and if you didn't have salt in your body you didn't make it. You had to have salt in your body. I don't know if that's why a lot of Blacks have hypertension today because you had to have salt in your body to make it, otherwise, you die.
  • [00:10:10] CHARITY HURT: With this being said, the Great Migration is often overlooked in history even though it was the greatest relocation of people in history.
  • [00:10:19] ALVESTA SMITH: Against their will.
  • [00:10:20] CHARITY HURT: Yeah, against their will. It was roughly six million Black Southerners relocated to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Why do you believe that it's overlooked in your opinion? What's the reason why you believe it was overlooked?
  • [00:10:39] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, I don't think a lot of Caucasians want to hear a lot today about slavery and how Blacks were treated. They're trying to get away from that. They don't really want their children, in some instances, taught about slavery. They don't want anything but you must be aware of your history in order to be able to move from one point to the other. Yeah.
  • [00:11:02] CHARITY HURT: Thank you for doing this interview and thank you for taking time to do this interview. Thank you. Now, you have a good rest of your day too.
  • [00:11:15] ALVESTA SMITH: Thank you.
  • [00:11:15] FEMALE SPEAKER: We had to put you on the spot.
  • [00:11:21] ALVESTA SMITH: Yes, you did. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:11:23] MALE SPEAKER: No pressure. I'm ready when you are.
  • [00:11:34] CHARITY HURT: Do you have any stories about your relatives coming back from New York?
  • [00:11:39] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, I remember one year we were still living at our great-grandmother's house and aunts and uncles came back from New York and they would be cooking. It was on a weekend, I think they were cooking and talking and all. I had one aunt who made this peach cobbler. [LAUGHTER].
  • [00:12:02] CHARITY HURT: My mom makes rolls of pieces of peach cobbler. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:12:07] ALVESTA SMITH: My uncle Hayes was saying, "Oh Ruby, it was just delicious." As they were eating and then when she agree with it, "Oh really, Hayes. You really think it's that good? I'll go back to the kitchen to get you some more." [LAUGHTER] She went back to the kitchen to get him some more. He would stand up and the window was open [LAUGHTER] and throw it out. "Oh, this peach cobbler is so good." Anyway, that was a story that I'd remember them coming back.
  • [00:12:41] CHARITY HURT: Do you have any advice for the younger generation coming up?
  • [00:12:47] ALVESTA SMITH: Well, advice for the younger generation. They need to remember or learn as much about that history as possible. I think one of the best ways is to get with an older person to discuss it. Reading books. You can read books too, help you. But it's very important because if you do not remember your history sometimes we might have to repeat it. It's very important.
  • [00:13:18] CHARITY HURT: Thank you.
Graphic for audio posts


July 28, 2022 at African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County

Length: 00:13:24

Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library


Turner African American Services Council
Great Migration
Black History
Fugitive Slaves
Domestic Work
American Slavery
Middle Passage
Oral Histories
Race & Ethnicity
Alvesta Smith
Goochland VA
Richmond VA