Yesterday, I attended a Homegoing Celebration at a small country church. For those who don’t know, a Homegoing Celebration is a term sometimes used among African Americans to describe a funeral. The Homegoing Celebration service that I attended was for my husband’s aunt, (Aunt C), a fascinating woman (although she would have laughed at me if I had said that to her), because of the choice that she made to live her entire life in Alabama.
Her younger sister, my husband’s mother, made the choice to migrate as part of the last wave of The Great Migration. She left Alabama for the north in the 1960’s with two young babies. Although the March on Washington was a blur for her (she told me she had been too busy taking care of two babies to join any marches), I believe that the March was a crucial reason for her family’s journey northward to Washington D.C. shortly after that.
But Aunt C stayed behind. Why?
Professor Lisa Bayer posted an interesting thought last year on Twitter “I always thought the Great Migration was about jobs. It was about freedom.” Very insightful. But to that, I would add that it was also a search for dignity. By joining an organization formed by the Masons, Aunt C found that dignity and did not feel the need to leave home in search of it. As it was described at her service, she became a leader in the organization and found a measure of dignity in Alabama. She, in essence, bloomed where she was planted.
Her obituary described jobs that were typical for an African American female high-school graduate in the late 1950’s: working in a laundry and the high school cafeteria. However, her children also spoke of a thriving farm and her ownership of land. One daughter told me that Aunt C farmed all of her land by herself; she would hitch up her mule and plow the fields to be able to feed her children.
The fact that Aunt C had land to farm was a point of pride. She did not need to move to find her dignity and certainly, her willingness to farm the land proved that. One of the lines in her obituary said that she “[made] sure that her family[‘s] lives were well rounded physically, spiritually and mentally. Her efforts will not be unseen.” Another speaker at the homegoing pointed to Aunt C’s success in “feeding her children.”
Aunt C’s life of quiet dignity in the South is one that complicates my ongoing project about The Great Migration. In upcoming weeks, I use the stories of my husband’s family to explore the questions surrounding the value of the largest internal migration in United States history.
In the meantime, Aunt C is at home with her younger sister. No doubt they are catching up on two and a half years of missed stories and Aunt C is probably puzzling over why her great niece would be bothered to ask questions about a life well lived. My mother-in-law would no doubt say, “That’s Piper. She has her ways.”