Reflective Essay on Migration and the American South
This Web project explores migration out of and into a three-county area in the piedmont of North Carolina during the period 1940-1999. These counties--Granville, Vance, and Warren--are located on the Virginia border north of Raleigh, North Carolina. Traditionally, the local economies of these counties were dominated by agriculture and, in the case of Vance County, textile manufacture. Traditionally they were counties characterized by low average wages and incomes and higher than average unemployment and poverty--particularly in Vance and Warren. Over the last twenty years, new industries have located in Vance and Granville counties, and the service sector has expanded in such areas as health care, education, and government. However, the booming economy that has transformed so much of the South is still a faint echo in much of this region. This is an area that was a net exporter of people for much of the period that is studied. Substantial numbers of African American citizens left the area during the period 1940-1970 and settled in cities and towns in the northeast. This exodus was part of the "Great Migration" that swept the entire South. A significant internal migration was also taking place with rural people—whites and blacks-- moving to the more urbanized areas of the counties.
Over the last decade or so, the out-migration has slowed substantially, and a small number of people are moving into the area despite its relatively anemic economy. These new migrants are a varied lot but two groups stand out: African Americans "returning" to the South from northern cities and people originally from Mexico who work as laborers on the local farms and as workers in the local factories. There is also a steady trickle of northern retirees migrating to the area and professional people who are drawn to the area by the rural and small town lifestyle and the availability of waterfront homesites (there’s a large man-made lake on the Virginia border). Some of these professional people are employed in the Research Triangle or in Raleigh or Durham and commute to work.
Migration and the American South is intended to serve as a Web assignment or group exercise in a college American history class. It features a number of primary sources and secondary sources that students can explore to help them better understand the "push and pull" causes of migration and how migration affects the people who migrate and the people who don’t. I also hope the website will help students develop a better understanding of the vital roles economic change and migration play in shaping our history and the issues and obsessions that drive our politics. By focusing on this small area along the Virginia and North Carolina border, I hope the "grand" issues of migration will be personalized for students.
Migration and the American South was used as an elective assignment in four American History II classes taught spring semester, 2000. Students in one class at Vance-Granville Community College that I taught and in three classes at Tidewater Community College (Portsmouth, VA) taught by Dr. William Paquette completed all or part of the unit for extra credit. At the end of the spring semester, I discussed the unit with students from my class; Tidewater Community College students completed a written evaluation of the unit using an instrument designed by Dr. Paquette. These student evaluations together with Dr. Paquette’s comments on the unit and my own evaluation are the basis of the following reflections. They are also the basis for a thorough overhaul of the exercise that I completed before I submitted the final product to the American Historical Association in June 2000.
In general I think the project has proven to be successful and true to the objectives of giving students a better understanding of: 1) how history is actually written; 2) the use of primary sources; 3) the role of migration in history; 4) and more specifically the economic and social impact of migrations out of, within, and into the American South during the twentieth century. The study questions encourage—perhaps force is the better word—students to ask the questions that historians ask—How? Why? When? The overview certainly provides enough background to develop basic answers to some of the study questions, but students must go to the primary sources assembled on the site to adequately answer most of them. Primary sources truly are at center of the assignment and the assembled materials--interviews, census data, and photographs--are varied and extensive and provide students with enough "raw material" to work with. The on-site secondary source—the overview—provides students with a framework of information with which to understand the primary sources. An array of other secondary sources is available through links for the student who wishes to explore the topics in greater detail.
What most students who completed the exercise did with these materials generally met my expectations. Student responses to study questions were more often than not thoughtful and analytical. Some students even built some degree of evaluation into their answers. Certainly most students were able to connect the health of the local economy with the fluctuations of migration. In class we discussed who is most likely to migrate and who is not and how this affects areas losing population. Most students understood that while an area that is gaining population through migration generally experiences a number of stresses (crowded schools and clogged roads for example), in terms of social and economic costs, losing population is generally the more "painful" of the two phenomenon.
Students evaluating the project found some of the questions vague and repetitive. These and other editorial problems, have, I hope, been corrected. More troublesome and certainly less easy to address through a revision of the exercise are the comments by some students that too much material was provided, that study questions required a lot of research, and that some of the questions required performing simple statistical procedures ("this is history, not mathematics"). Some students felt that the data presented in the tables was so obvious in its meaning that it did not require analysis while others felt that the exercise was biased. Some of the comments by students reflect the idea that the facts can speak for themselves and that interpretation is just another word for opinion and best left alone. Perhaps one of the purposes of an exercise like this is to address these notions. Probably the best way to do this is as a dialogue in the classroom between students and teacher.
Was this exercise a good use of technology? I think so. Certainly much of it could have been distributed in paper form in class, but much of it could not, and the ability to put the exercise on a web site means teachers around the world can use it in their classes. As more and more of this sort of material appears on the Web, teachers will have a tremendous selection of exercises to choose from. Further, students at small colleges with small libraries increasingly now have access to the kinds of primary materials only university students have had access to. What is especially beneficial about this approach is that students who wish to explore a subject in more depth have that capability at their fingertips.
John J. Beck