Henry J. Lewis’s "The Great Southern Exodus"

Last post, I provided a syllabus for a class on migration narratives in African American literature. Today, I want to take a look at a cartoon by Henry J. Lewis that appeared in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1889. The Great Southern Exodus contains four frames that depict the migration of African Americans away from the South during the latter part of the nineteenth century. I had not seen this image until Andrea Williams showed it to me at the NEH’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Summer Institute this past July. The image provides a great visual that couldd be used to explain to students why so many people sought to leave the South after the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. A close look at the cartoon provides a images of the South, the arrivial in the North, and the promise of land in Kansas. 
When Williams started her discussion of this piece, she brought in Farah Jasmine Griffin’s points about  the African American migration narrative, a narrative that traces a major character’s movement “from a provincial (not necessarily rural) Southern or Midwestern site (home of the ancestor) to a more cosmopolitan, metropolitan area” (3). The movement contains four parts: “(1) an event that propels the action northward, (2) a detailed representation of the initial confrontation with the urban landscape, (3) an illustration of the migrant’s attempt to negotiate that landscape and his or her resistance to the negative effects of urbanization, and (4) a vision of the possibilities or limitations of the Northern, Western, or Midwestern city and the South” (3). Lewis’s image above does not show all four of these aspects, but it does show some of them. 

For instance, the top panels (“Why they are leaving the South”) highlights the atrocities that faced African Americans in a system that sought to maintain some remnant of the past after the Civil War and Reconstruction. The panel shows a woman being scourged, a man being lynched, and a man being chased by a bloodhound as he tries to flee. Here, we see a visual representation of violence (event) that propels individuals away from the South and to the North. This panel can be viewed in relation to Dunbar’s stories and poems such as “The Haunted Oak,” works by Ida B. Wells, and works by other authors. 

Reading the cartoon clockwise, we come to a panel entitled “In Dixie’s Land.” Here, a group of African Americans can be seen dancing while a man plays on a banjo. If not for the preceding image, this one might be construed as romantic re-imagination of the South as an idyllic, community oriented region during the Antebellum period. However, this perception does not hold any weight when thinking about the image in relation to “Why they are leaving the South.” Here, I would ask students to think about Dunbar’s “A Banjo Song” and “The Deserted Plantation,” works that appear to memorialize a bygone era, but that in fact focus on the African American community, not a return to servitude.    

The middle images provides the largest panel in the cartoon. We see a large group of people filing through a train station, presumably in the North because the paper boy on the right holds up an edition of the Freeman. The group resembles a train, coming to the forefront of the image. The man on the left holds a dog by the leash, controlling him. The man on the right strums a banjo, bringing part of the Southern life with him. Most of the people appear stoic, gazing straight ahead, not being influenced by what surrounds them. Flanking the column of migrants, we can see white men standing on both sides, looking eagerly at the newly arrived African Americans from the South. They do not interfere with the people, but a couple appear to be sizing up the crowd: the men on the right. 

At the top left of the cartoon, we see a panel entitled “The Negro in Kansas.” The scene takes place in a Land Office, and it shows two African American men conducting business. The message here is clear: the north and west provide opportunities for land ownership and the creation of an identity. It does not show anything negative that may occur like overcrowding or being relegated to specific sections of town. 

How would you incorporate this image in your classroom? What texts, or other images, would you pair it with? Let me know in the comments below. 

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Who set you flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.   

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