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Intergenerational Dialogue on the Great Migration: Savannah Williams

Sat, 10/01/2022 - 3:20pm

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


  • [00:00:14] KALEB JOHNSON: Hello, My name is Caleb and today I'm interviewing you about your or your family's experience and participating in the Great Migration. Do you mind if I ask you your age and birthplace, date of birth?
  • [00:00:29] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: My age is 38 and my birthplace was Nashville, Tennessee.
  • [00:00:34] KALEB JOHNSON: Nashville. Nice city.
  • [00:00:37] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: I like it, it's growing.
  • [00:00:42] KALEB JOHNSON: A little about myself. My dad is from Benton Harbor, Michigan, and my mom originated from Pennsylvania, specifically Philadelphia. But my mom's mom originated from Florida in the South Carolina area, and my dad's family originated from the same area in North Carolina, South Carolina. How about your family?
  • [00:01:11] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: My mother's mother, my grandmother, was originally from a place called McKenzie, Tennessee, in a smaller town called Trezevant. That's where she met my grandfather when my mom was seven or so, they moved up to Nashville. But I had other relatives who moved further North, like Detroit, Gary, Milwaukee, later on in their lives.
  • [00:01:56] KALEB JOHNSON: Would you tell me a little bit about your family's experience, feelings migrating from the South to the North? What impact did it have on them?
  • [00:02:08] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Sure. My family's experience moving from McKenzie, Tennessee up to the North, they were just looking for a better opportunity. They knew that living in the South, that the opportunities as far as the jobs available were limited. [NOISE] Excuse me. They wanted better opportunities, chance to have better wages, and so they made the decision to migrate North. It was hard leaving family behind, but they had to do what they needed to do in order to provide for themselves and their future generation.
  • [00:02:55] KALEB JOHNSON: I feel like my mom had the same feeling when she had to move away from her house, in Philadelphia and she went to her college up in Boston area of Massachusetts. Well, would you tell me a little about how older family members were cared for in the South versus in the North?
  • [00:03:20] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Sure. Very much like still in the South in my family anyway today. At that time, they didn't have access to hospitals, so they had doctors that would come visit the home, if a woman was pregnant, she'd have a midwife. But mainly they were cared for by their family members. You'd be kept in the home, maybe isolated if you were sick, if your family member had mental illness or something like that. Again, you weren't sent to mental health institution, you were cared for at home, and sometimes it was limiting, in the quality of care that you received. That also in the end also had an impact on your longevity for life. But in the North, one of my cousins was saying that when they moved to Detroit, they had access to a pediatrician. Her brother had a cough, they were at the pediatrician's office getting seen, getting what they need and that is not something that would have happened in the South.
  • [00:04:38] KALEB JOHNSON: Would you say that racial discrimination in the South affected family members going to see a professional in terms of mental health or bodily health?
  • [00:04:48] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Definitely, they're just those resources for Negroes back then, it wasn't available. Yes, it had a big impact.
  • [00:05:07] KALEB JOHNSON: Reaching back to moving from the South to the North, could you list a few reasons, I suppose you did, but any specific reasons why some of your family members might have moved from the South to the North?
  • [00:05:20] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Yes. [NOISE] Excuse me. Specific reasons on why my family members move from the South to the North included better job opportunities, like I said, better wages, also being able to own a home, or had that opportunity to own a home in the North versus the South. Even though it was still a struggle, especially in those neighborhoods, they were not African-American neighborhoods, it was hard for them to find housing. But they were able to find some living accommodation in areas that were primarily African American. The access to educational resources for their kids too. In the South at least for my mom and the way she describes it, there was a real discrepancy in the resources that they had down South. But if not, they had access to a little more, maybe not the equivalent of their white counterparts, but at least they had some of the things that you wouldn't find in the South. I think those were the big things for my family.
  • [00:06:36] KALEB JOHNSON: I think going back to education, could you give some, if you could, some specific examples of how education differed in the South versus the North?
  • [00:06:45] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Well, the schoolhouse for one, I remember my mom talking about how she was still very much in a one-room school type setting when she was coming up, as opposed to when I hear my cousin talk about her experience living in Detroit, the school seemed to be more updated and they had access to better materials, and also she talks about being educated in their communities, going to the church and being educated on social things and things like that. She talks about access to that, she talks about how education as far as job opportunities, having access to some of those jobs that you wouldn't get in the South, they had opportunities to work as elevator operators and things like that, which they wouldn't have access to working in the South, they were more manual labor jobs, carpentry, things like that, agricultural jobs.
  • [00:08:02] KALEB JOHNSON: When your family moved from the South to the North, did they make any sacrifices moving there?
  • [00:08:10] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: I think the biggest sacrifice for my cousin was just not having family around. It was just her, her dad, her mom, and her brother, and where her and her brother were able to find community through school and things like that. Her dad worked for General Motors and the post office, so he was pretty busy there and found community there. Her mother struggled to find some community because she was a stay-at-home mom and and things like that. I think finding community where they live, for her mother, that was a concern. But she said everybody live in around her was going through the same thing, it was just normal for her life, and what she had was just normal for her. She wasn't aware of needing or wanting to have different because for her where she lived was what she knew.
  • [00:09:35] KALEB JOHNSON: Were there disappointments your family saw in the North when they moved to there?
  • [00:09:45] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Excuse me. Again, disappointment, my cousin, she knew what she knew like where she lived, what she had. That's what she was used to so it was hard for her to be disappointed in the life she had because everybody around her was living the same life so she really didn't want for more than what was around her. Besides coming from the South, they did hope that they'll get away from the discrimination they saw on the South and the issues with Civil Rights, but of course, that wasn't the case that they were able to get away from it. But when I talk about their move up here from Tennessee, she said that's the life I knew, so it was hard to know or expect anything else. This is the life she knew for her.
  • [00:10:51] KALEB JOHNSON: Going back to discrimination, would you say that discrimination in the South differed far more than discrimination in the North? Was it more blatant in the South?
  • [00:11:00] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Definitely. She would have said that, yeah, it was definitely more blatant. They definitely felt more of the segregation issues in the South just because that was the culture in this South. Especially the war which allowed more African Americans to take positions, which allowed them to better themselves, that gave them some, I don't know, I don't want to say leverage, but it allowed them to have advancements that Negroes in the South didn't have.
  • [00:11:59] KALEB JOHNSON: How well did your family adjust to the North once they moved there? Did it take them a while to get used to society in the North versus the South or did they adapt quickly?
  • [00:12:14] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: That's a very good question. Well, she talked about how church was a big important thing for them. A lot of their community came from the church. Having that built-in community of church helped them to find jobs and resources. I think that helped them adapt pretty quickly. Then, like I said, having the friends she made at school and things like that, she adapted pretty quickly.
  • [00:12:56] KALEB JOHNSON: Yeah. For my mom's family, they grew up poor so the church really helped them during tough times and it really felt like a really great community to be a part of.
  • [00:13:05] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Yeah. She talked about when her dad first moved to Detroit to get a job, one of the things he did was be very active in the church. By doing that, the deacons were willing to put his name on a referral list for jobs at the plant which helped him get his job at GM. Yeah, very important role in my family and having them to adapt to being in the North.
  • [00:13:38] KALEB JOHNSON: Going back to religion, would you say there is a lot of differences in religious practices in the North versus the South?
  • [00:13:46] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: I don't know if there's a lot of differences, but I do know she talks about how there were more groups in the North. She talked about the Jewish community that was there, the Catholic community that was there. I don't know how that differed in the South, but there were various options at least across cultural differences in the North.
  • [00:14:22] KALEB JOHNSON: Yeah. Do you have any fun stories from family members you'd like to share?
  • [00:14:41] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: One thing she talked about that I thought was pretty funny is she talks about the trips back down South during the summer to be with her cousins. Her dad and her mom would load her and her brother up, and they'd make the journey from Detroit back down to McKenzie. They'd stay for a while with family, aunts, and cousins and hang out. One of the things my cousin's dad missed was the food, which food is such a huge part of my family even still today. One of the things that my cousin dad's would make sure to bring back to Detroit was rag bologna from the South. [LAUGHTER] She talks about how on one trip back up, her dad had given them permission to make a sandwich with some of his rag bologna that he purchased, but by the time they get back to Detroit, there is no rag bologna left [LAUGHTER] and her dad was really not happy because that's one of the things like he really enjoys bringing back from the South. But I thought that was pretty funny because her and her brother devoured that tube of bologna on the way back from Tennessee.
  • [00:16:06] KALEB JOHNSON: I really feel that. My dad loves Southern food, chitlins, greens, yeah.
  • [00:16:10] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: For me, it's where we pass some of our culture on. We put on a family reunion where we have anywhere from 150-250 people that comes from all over the United States to come and be with that branch of our family. One of the things they love is that we don't cater it through a restaurant. Our family members who host it cook all the food and so they feel and they taste the love in that food. That's one of the reasons they keep coming back for the family reunion down South.
  • [00:16:50] KALEB JOHNSON: Thank you. Those are all the questions I have today. Savanna, I want to thank you for participating in this interview.
  • [00:16:57] SAVANNAH WILLIAMS: Well, thank you, Caleb, you did awesome.
Graphic for audio posts


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

Length: 00:17:09

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

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library


Turner African American Services Council
Great Migration
Black History
Health Care
Southern Cooking
Oral Histories
Race & Ethnicity
Savannah Williams
Nashville TN
McKenzie TN