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Intergenerational Dialogue on the Great Migration: Betty Thomas

When: July 26, 2022 at African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County


  • [00:00:14] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Well, thank you for being here once again. My name is Mashod Evans Jr. Today I just really want to have a conversation with you, get to understand more about our history, more about my history, and know how I'm in this position today and how we have come to be in this position today. First off, I'm just going to ask you your name, if you could share your name, your date of birth and where you were born.
  • [00:00:47] BETTY THOMAS: The date of birth?
  • [00:00:49] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Yes, please.
  • [00:00:50] BETTY THOMAS: My name is Betty Thomas. My birthday is June 18th, 1942, just at my 80th birthday.
  • [00:00:58] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Happy belated birthday to you.
  • [00:00:59] BETTY THOMAS: Thank you. Welcome.
  • [00:01:01] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Where were you born?
  • [00:01:03] BETTY THOMAS: Columbus, Georgia.
  • [00:01:05] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Columbus, Georgia. I've some family in Georgia too. Just so you know a little bit about myself, I represent the Bethel AME Church YPD, I also represent Jack and Jill. I serve as president of both of those organizations. That's who I'm representing today. Like I said, I don't want it to be more of a interview or an interrogation. I just want to have a conversation and get to understand a few things, tackle a couple of topics. That's the main thing I'm looking to do here. Also if I make you feel uncomfortable at anytime, just let me know. I don't want you to feel uncomfortable. We just really want to be able to hear your story. That's what we want to do today. Once again, I just want to thank you for being willing to participate and taking time out of your day to be here today.
  • [00:02:08] BETTY THOMAS: You're welcome.
  • [00:02:11] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Getting started. The first topic I want to look at or tackle is just getting to know your family's experience migrating from the South to the North. You said you're from Columbus, Georgia, but could you let us know where your family's from and their experience migrated from the South to the North.
  • [00:02:31] BETTY THOMAS: I was raised in Columbus. I don't know if you have ever noticed on the map, Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama are like one place, you know what I mean, the city buses from Columbus run in Phenix City. We had moved to Phenix City before we migrated here. I say I'm up here from Columbus by way of Phenix City.
  • [00:03:02] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Just a quick question, I'm sorry. My grandfather himself, he is around Blakely, Georgia, which is not too far from another place in Alabama, so right along that line. Are you familiar with Blakely or any county in Georgia?
  • [00:03:19] BETTY THOMAS: No. Phenix City and Columbus sit on the Chattahoochee River. You just cross the river into the other place. Phenix City at the time was not built up very much. Belleville often reminds me of Phenix City. Not now, but it did, because a few people were able to buy a little piece of land and build their own houses. That's what my husband's family did. That's how we left Columbus and went to Phenix City.
  • [00:03:56] MASHOD EVANS JR.: I see. Could you just give us a little bit of, maybe a timeframe like how old you might have been when you were moving?
  • [00:04:06] BETTY THOMAS: No, that will embarrass. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:04:09] MASHOD EVANS JR.: I'm sorry.
  • [00:04:11] BETTY THOMAS: I was a teenager when I married my husband also. Well, that was '57, I married in 1957.
  • [00:04:26] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Could you share with us your family's experience migrating from the South to the North? Or maybe that might have happened a little bit later after the Great Migration.
  • [00:04:35] BETTY THOMAS: It was unusual the way we came because we weren't thinking of jobs. My mother-in-law came here first to be with her daughter who had lost her husband at the time. While here, she went to work in her place, domestic. At that time in Phenix City and Columbus, domestic workers were getting three dollars a day, the whole day. My mother-in-law found out that here she got a dollar and a quarter an hour. To her, that was great. [LAUGHTER] Our story goes from there. She was a mother of 12. I call it recruiting, she eventually recruited all of her kids up here except for one. Eventually, all 11 kids got here, and we were looking for jobs. Most of the women started working right away because it was easier to find some domestic work or what have you for us to do. The men it took a little while until Ford Motor Company started hiring. Well, we arrived here in 1961.
  • [00:06:06] MASHOD EVANS JR.: In Michigan?
  • [00:06:08] BETTY THOMAS: Yes, in Michigan. It took a while and it wasn't too long after that, a few years, maybe that Ford started hiring quite a few people. I think Reverend S. L. Roberson--forgive my senior mind.
  • [00:06:36] MASHOD EVANS JR.: [LAUGHTER] No, you're fine.
  • [00:06:41] BETTY THOMAS: Reverend S. L. Roberson was a conduit for getting a lot of our men to work at the plant. That really changed things for us, because I never worked before I left Columbus and it didn't do any good. Well, you know if you're making three dollars a day, you weren't making much money.
  • [00:07:10] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Can you just share, maybe, the differences you experience when you transitioned from the South to the North? Maybe what the cultural differences or just some of the differences you experienced something you may have noticed right away when you were transitioning once you've moved from the South to the North, from Alabama to Michigan?
  • [00:07:37] BETTY THOMAS: When I moved here, it hadn't been too long, I guess, that segregation was stopped in the South. I was in the South. I grew up in the era where, there was a line on the bus that you didn't dare go cross. That's the way it was in Georgia, Phoenix City. When I got here, I didn't have to be concerned so much about where I was going or what have you. That was a big difference. Still, when you come from that culture, you're always cautious about, what you're doing or whatever.
  • [00:08:29] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Excuse me, if you will. I just wanted to ask if you might have heard a story of any discrimination or racism that you experienced while you were in--?
  • [00:08:43] BETTY THOMAS: Oh, I grew up with that. I can remember I'd go into the back door of restaurants to order food you couldn't go in the front. I remember the Black and white water fountains. I can remember walking in stores and standing there waiting for the cashier to wait on me, and they see you, but they ignore you until another white person walks up, and they would wait on them. I can remember running home from school not every day, some days, because we had to go through this white neighborhood walking. The key is, and nobody would say a word, it was okay. I remember a lot of things. But most of all, you couldn't get ahead because of the long pay. I mean, the low pay, I'm sorry. Not long pay [LAUGHTER]. But it's a lot of things you don't like to remember, but they happened, and the sad thing is they're still happening.
  • [00:10:00] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Would you say that I know you shared that your family the main reason was for better opportunities with work, $3 a day to a dollar and a quarter an hour? Would you say that contributed to the reason that you guys were going there, or maybe some of the experiences that [OVERLAPPING].
  • [00:10:21] BETTY THOMAS: No, it was the pay, really, we were looking for to get ahead. When I came, I had three small children, and we were blessed in that my mother-in-law had this huge house that you could stay in until you get on your feet and get your own place. In the beginning it was tough because the five of us shared one bedroom. [LAUGHTER] You're so blessed to think about where you came from. It was hard getting here, but it was worth it because we started out and our car broke down in Tennessee, and we had to find somebody willing to take us in. I think it was about 10 people in one car [LAUGHTER] which was unheard of, but that was before your seat belts and all that stuff, I think there were four in the front seat and the back was full. But that was how we got here. You count your blessings every day that you survived what all was going on and thankful that you got here. And say look where I am now compared to when I first got here.
  • [00:11:54] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Thank you. Would you mind if we could take a quick break? I need some water. I should have probably got some before [LAUGHTER] [BACKGROUND]
  • [00:12:22] BETTY THOMAS: But everybody in Ann Arbor is going to know my age, now. I'm well known. Well, between Bethel anyway and my church, New Hope.
  • [00:12:34] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Oh you're at New Hope?
  • [00:12:35] BETTY THOMAS: I go to New Hope.
  • [00:12:39] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Bethel is just around the corner.
  • [00:12:41] BETTY THOMAS: I know. I've been to Bethel many times.
  • [00:12:45] FEMALE SPEAKER: Betty, would you like some water too?
  • [00:12:46] BETTY THOMAS: No [LAUGHTER] I have my own water bottle.
  • [00:12:54] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Is Green a pastor there? My dad is the pastor of Bethel.
  • [00:13:07] BETTY THOMAS: Oh, okay, I like your dad. I've been introduced to him, and I've been over there a few times.
  • [00:13:18] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Are you fine? I don't want to make there's no equipment around.
  • [00:13:22] MALE SPEAKER: Oh, yeah, do you need to get up and move?
  • [00:13:25] MASHOD EVANS JR.: No, I just want to make sure if I will just set this down here.
  • [00:13:30] MALE SPEAKER: Oh, yeah. You're just fine. We've tried to keep the cables away from everybody. And it's all pretty durable. It's got a little pinch point, yes, there you go. As soon as Ben gets back, this will be pass below. We'll resume.
  • [00:14:17] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Did you guys move to Detroit when you moved here?
  • [00:14:20] BETTY THOMAS: Did we go to Detroit?
  • [00:14:21] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Did you move from Alabama to Detroit?
  • [00:14:24] BETTY THOMAS: No, we've been in Ann Arbor ever since. We lived up on Fuller Street. They have big white apartments there now, near State Street. But it was great big house up on the hill there that we lived in.
  • [00:14:44] MASHOD EVANS JR.: I also moved from Alabama to Michigan. I moved from Birmingham, Alabama.
  • [00:14:48] BETTY THOMAS: Oh, okay.
  • [00:14:51] MALE SPEAKER: Okay. I'm ready whenever you are.
  • [00:15:00] MASHOD EVANS JR.: As we get started again, next topic I want to get into is your older family members, maybe your grandparents or great-uncles, your older family members. Then the time while you were younger or if you could just share how they were cared for while you were in the South. Because everybody is different. But for my family, we always want to make sure our elders are taken care of and they're doing well. Can you just share how they were cared for and if they might have migrated with you to the North?
  • [00:15:38] BETTY THOMAS: No, that would be hard for me to do. I was very young when I married and I left home. My parents and grandparents were still in Columbus. I grew up in a housing project. That's where my mother and father lived. My grandparents lived in another area of town and at that time they had clinics, and then if you could afford to, you could go to the doctor. But there were a lot of clinics or what have you, that people could go to.
  • [00:16:19] MASHOD EVANS JR.: You would say your grandparents stayed in Georgia?
  • [00:16:28] BETTY THOMAS: My relatives. Yeah. I remember, my mother-in-law was the one that recruited. My father-in-law eventually came up too, but they were peers. I didn't know my husband's grandparents. No, I didn't. They were deceased, I think.
  • [00:16:49] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Would you know why your grandparents stayed in Columbus?
  • [00:16:57] BETTY THOMAS: Oh, when you get older like that, [LAUGHTER] you don't move. They said, "I don't want to leave home." In fact it's surprising that my mother-in-law, well, the only reason my mother-in-law left was because of the death in the family. Now, she probably would have never left Phenix City had it not been for that. Then when she got here and experienced working and making so much money, then she thought, well, and you have to remember, she had built her own house in Phenix City. But still to her, the living was better here. So it was nothing for her and I don't know exactly how old she was, but out of twelve kids, her youngest was in his 20s. She was up in age when she came up here. Older people even when they need to go into a nursing home, "I'm not leaving my house." [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:18:08] MASHOD EVANS JR.: When you talk about the clinics and health care, can you just explain how your family received health care while you were in the South?
  • [00:18:20] BETTY THOMAS: No, I don't remember them really needing and it seemed they needed more when I left home. Because I remember I got word my grandpa broke his neck. He was in the hospital while I was in Florida at that time. I don't know if my mother and father, they were pretty healthy when I was younger. But I don't know of them receiving any care.
  • [00:18:54] MASHOD EVANS JR.: All right. Out of your entire family, you guys didn't really need to.
  • [00:19:01] BETTY THOMAS: No. I tell you one thing that happened in my life that was different when my second child was born in, I think it was '59. She was delivered in a Seventh Day Adventist hospital, I think it was. Because at that time they weren't allowing Black doctors in the hospital. This was only place, I take that back. She was delivered in what they call a lying-in hospital. Two or three of the doctors had bought this little building strictly for having babies and because they weren't allowed in the big hospital. I remember that happening now. My third was born by a midwife at home.
  • [00:20:09] MASHOD EVANS JR.: When it comes to receiving health care or when you were looking for a doctor or a nurse, your family would tend to go to the Black doctors or the [OVERLAPPING]?
  • [00:20:20] BETTY THOMAS: If you could find one.
  • [00:20:22] MASHOD EVANS JR.: If you could find one. Wow.
  • [00:20:24] BETTY THOMAS: Yes.
  • [00:20:25] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Was that by--?
  • [00:20:28] BETTY THOMAS: At that time I wouldn't have trusted a white doctor. You know what I mean? Not in that situation that we were in.
  • [00:20:38] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Okay. I see. You guys hear any stories or anything that might have caused you to not trust them or was it just the culture that was going on?
  • [00:20:50] BETTY THOMAS: It was just the culture.
  • [00:20:52] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Wow.
  • [00:20:52] BETTY THOMAS: Yeah.
  • [00:20:58] MASHOD EVANS JR.: When it comes to African American, the doctors and nurses, I understand there weren't many.
  • [00:21:04] BETTY THOMAS: No, very few.
  • [00:21:06] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Would you know if they were being able to receive the education for it or was it something that was just not common? You wouldn't, I'm sorry, I'm trying to figure how to phrase it.
  • [00:21:22] BETTY THOMAS: Well, I would imagine not many could afford to go to school at that time, don't you think? Very few probably could afford to go to school. Then they probably couldn't get in where they wanted to anyway. Times were really different. I try and tell young kids that they didn't grow up in it so they don't know. I remember once in Boston when they were trying to integrate the schools, I think it was, and the people was setting the school buses on fire. My kids said, "Well mom, why are they burning the school buses?" I had to explain to them and they think it's so strange that I went to all-Black school.
  • [00:22:18] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Wow.
  • [00:22:19] BETTY THOMAS: I say only time we saw a white person was when they were on program or something in an assembly. Times were quite different. It was a relief to come here at least. I don't know how I want to say it. But anyway, you weren't so anxious all the time, let's put it that way, as you were in Georgia and Alabama.
  • [00:22:55] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Another quick question I'd like to ask. Obviously, there weren't many Black people that were pursuing a medical health profession in the South. What professions would you guys look to pursue or what was the most common thing that you'd see Black people working at the time?
  • [00:23:22] BETTY THOMAS: In Alabama and Georgia?
  • [00:23:23] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Yes.
  • [00:23:26] BETTY THOMAS: Hard labor and service work. A lot of domestics. Factory workers, especially Columbus, was full of mills that processed cotton. There were a lot of mills around that. My father and my grandfather worked for a company called Bibb Mill. They made material and threads and stuff out of cotton.
  • [00:24:05] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Mainly hard labor?
  • [00:24:06] BETTY THOMAS: Yeah. That and all that stuff.
  • [00:24:10] MASHOD EVANS JR.: All right.
  • [00:24:11] BETTY THOMAS: A lot of service jobs.
  • [00:24:20] MASHOD EVANS JR.: You said it was a lot different when coming here compared to the jobs done, the jobs here in Michigan, would you say they were a lot different compared to the jobs and all of them in Georgia or?
  • [00:24:30] BETTY THOMAS: Well, let's put it this way. You had access to them because [LAUGHTER] you knew not to try and get some of them, but here you had access to get whatever job you want.
  • [00:24:45] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Okay. I just want to transition really quickly. I know you guys experienced some discrimination or racism in the South. I understand that may have been frustrating and disappointing. You guys were happy to be able to have access to those jobs when moving to the North, access to a better life moving here. But were there any disappointments you experienced when you moved here to Michigan?
  • [00:25:18] BETTY THOMAS: No, I've never.
  • [00:25:21] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Nothing.
  • [00:25:21] BETTY THOMAS: No, not for me.
  • [00:25:25] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Would you say there was anything that was really unexpected when moving here? Maybe what your mindset was on Michigan on the North and something you guys just weren't expecting when coming here?
  • [00:25:45] BETTY THOMAS: I was young and hadn't done much, you know what I mean? I just lived in that area so everything was an experience to me. Like I said earlier, the anxiety wasn't there, when I went shopping, what have you. I don't know. No, I didn't have any disappointments. Let's put it that way.
  • [00:26:21] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Okay. You were mainly just glad to be here.
  • [00:26:30] BETTY THOMAS: Thankfully every day [LAUGHTER]. I thank God, that He made a way for me to get here.
  • [00:26:37] MASHOD EVANS JR.: You'd say your family definitely benefited?
  • [00:26:40] BETTY THOMAS: Yes, we often sit and laugh about, what a poor position we were in when we first arrived and where we are now. Thank God for that, kids are doing well. We managed to raise them without any problems and I help out the grandkids and what have you. Yes, we are alive. I couldn't see, and it may be happening now in the South, but at that time, it wasn't back in the early 60s. We arrived here in '61.
  • [00:27:31] MASHOD EVANS JR.: You guys definitely benefited. Can you share some of the sacrifices that you may have made or maybe your family have made in order to get here to Michigan from Alabama?
  • [00:27:46] BETTY THOMAS: Sacrifices?
  • [00:27:48] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Yes, maybe you had to give up, sacrifices.
  • [00:27:53] BETTY THOMAS: Didn't have to care, what we gave up we were happy to give up [LAUGHTER]. Just meant leaving my other family because as I said, most of my husband's family ended up here, but none of my family did. I really didn't give up anything, to me I gained a lot because I was able to go to work. [NOISE] Excuse me. Eventually, we got on our feet and got her own house, and then a few years later we were able to buy our own house. Just thank God it's been up and up.
  • [00:28:43] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Okay, so one question I'm curious about, or something I'm curious about is maybe the Civil Rights Movement. Were you participating in the movement at the time?
  • [00:28:55] BETTY THOMAS: I was too young. It was a lot going on my mind and I was too young. In my young days, I was pregnant. [LAUGHTER] Excuse the expression. But no, I wasn't anywhere near in it that really, so I didn't participate in any of the Civil Rights Movements.
  • [00:29:22] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Okay. You were young, when you came to Michigan, what was the support like towards the Civil Rights Movement? Was there a lot of support coming from the North for the Civil Rights Movement? Would you say or?
  • [00:29:36] BETTY THOMAS: I don't really have any idea. I can't answer that for you. I wish I could. I was not involved in any of it when I first came here. I really don't have an answer for you there, but I know I wasn't involved in any of it. I've never been at a protest. The only thing I've done is voting, let's put it that way. But as far as going to protests, all this stuff, I haven't done that.
  • [00:30:19] MASHOD EVANS JR.: When it came to voting, was it relatively easy to vote in Michigan?
  • [00:30:27] BETTY THOMAS: Yes, it's easy. I was too young when I left Georgia. I never voted in Georgia or Alabama.
  • [00:30:37] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Okay, what it sounds like to me is that the culture and just the overall, how do I put it? The feel of Alabama and Michigan is completely different, two completely different worlds.
  • [00:30:57] BETTY THOMAS: It was at that time, I think a lot has changed in the South now, but it was at that time two completely different areas.
  • [00:31:09] MASHOD EVANS JR.: Well, I don't have any more questions for you, so I just want to say thank you once again for.
  • [00:31:17] BETTY THOMAS: I'm sorry, I couldn't answer them all for you but [LAUGHTER].
  • [00:31:22] MASHOD EVANS JR.: But thank you for taking your time. Thank you, being able to share with us your experiences and your story. I really appreciate that.
  • [00:31:28] BETTY THOMAS: You are welcome. More than happy to.
Graphic for audio posts


July 26, 2022 at African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County

Length: 00:31:36

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

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library


Turner African American Services Council
Great Migration
Black History
Domestic Work
Ford Motor Company
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
New Hope Baptist Church
Health Care
Cotton Manufacturing
Oral Histories
Race & Ethnicity
Betty Thomas
Mashod A. Evans Jr.
Mashod A. Evans Sr.
Rodrick K. Green
Rev. S. L. Roberson
Columbus Georgia
Phenix City AL
Fuller St