Home > Stories > The Great Migration: An American Odyssey

The Great Migration: An American Odyssey

World War I created a boom in war industries in the North. Philadelphia, like other northern cities, found itself in want of workers, a problem that only became more severe when the United States entered the war. In 1916, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to remedy the problem by offering free transportation north to African Americans in the South who were willing to work on the railroad. Pennsy provided free transportation to over 12,000 southern African Americans before the program ended in 1918. These migrants represent only a fraction of the millions of African Americans who came north during the Great Migration. Of those millions, tens of thousands came to Philadelphia by boat and by train. The journeys these men and women embarked on defined their lives, and their presence in Philadelphia changed the city forever.

Crosby Brittenum (b. circa 1899) grew up in rural Arkansas before traveling by train seeking work. In 1920 he was brought to Philadelphia by his step-uncle and got a job as a waiter at Green's Hotel. In his 1984 interview, he shares his experience watching the arrival of hundreds of southern migrants by train and his familiarity with Philadelphia's neighborhoods and communities.

William Steffens (b. 1897) was born to Fannie and Manuel Steffens in Jacksonville, Florida. Life in Jacksonville exposed Steffens to discrimination and racial violence at an early age. On April 5, 1917, he took a boat from Jacksonville to New York City. A few weeks later he moved to Philadelphia, where he would work as a carpenter and contractor for the next to 65 years.

William Fields (b. 1889) the son of a farmer in Denton County, Texas, left home at the age of 17. He soon married, started a family, and moved to Dallas, Texas. Though he had a good job, Fields in 1917 hopped a train for Philadelphia. Though he traveled up on the free transportation the Pennsylvania Railroad offered to those willing to work on the railroad, Fields never did a day’s work for them. Instead, he worked a number of other jobs including Baldwin Locomotive Works and Hog Island Shipyard. He spent the next seven decades living in Philadelphia and during that time, the City of Brotherly Love became his home.

Ernest Grey born off the coast of South Carolina on Cat Island, Ernest Grey (b. circa 1894) spent most of his childhood moving among family members in Georgia and South Carolina. Never learning how to read or write, Grey worked as a sharecropper. Around 1916 he found free transportation to Philadelphia, where he lived the rest of his life. Grey did not return to South Carolina until 1982, when a church-sponsored trip enabled him to meet relatives he had not seen in close to 70 years.