On a visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History a few years ago, my husband and I stood misty-eyed for a long time in front of one particular image. It is of an African-American girl of about seven, travelling to a Northern city in a bedraggled railroad car. She sits alone, sleeping. She has a note - presumably with her name and destination - pinned to her blouse. A lot of hopes were pinned to her, too. Her people would have hoped that she'd get there unharmed and meet up with her city relatives, that she'd find a good job, that she'd get a bit more education than down home. She sleeps with her head tilted back and a cardboard box of food is on the seat beside her.
This girl was part of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North.
My husband was part of the migration, too. He traveled alone by train from Marianna, Florida, to Newark, New Jersey, to join his parents when he was a small boy in the 1950s. They temporarily left him in the South with his grandparents, who maintained a self-sufficient farm. His grandfather was a tall, austere, light-colored man. His grandmother was a short, bird-shaped, brown-skinned woman with a beautiful face. She had let him stand on the front porch until dusk on the day parents left him to come to Newark. Then she'd said softly, "Gus, come on now."
His grandmother must have been the one who prepared him for the train trip north to join his parents. She would have organized his clothes and packed his food and quashed his her own fears. He doesn't remember what instructions she gave him, but she would have recited a litany of "remember this, don't forget that."
My husband says he can't remember having been frightened. He must have been. He was very young and he traveled overnight. He sat by himself the whole way. He slept, like the girl in the photograph, on his seat. He ate from his cardboard lunchbox like the one that was next to her. He remembers fried chicken, layer cake, and deviled eggs. I questioned the deviled eggs because I wonder if his grandmother would have chanced his getting sick on spoiled mayonnaise. The Red Cap probably brought him a glass of milk from the dining car. He says he doesn't recall, but he, too, must have had a note pinned to his clothes. He arrived in Newark in January on or about his sixth birthday. He says it snowed in Newark the day he arrived - a wonderment for a little Floridian.
He doesn't remember whether his parents boarded the train in Newark to get him off, or whether he walked off by himself. He remembers snow.
Breena Clark is the author of River, Cross My Heart. A native of Washington, D.C., she now lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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