A little known and not well understood human migration is the subject of UNC Pembroke sociologist Dr. Roger Guy’s new book “From Diversity to Unity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants to Uptown Chicago, 1950-1970” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007).
Following World War II thousands of Southerners took the “Hillbilly Highway” North for jobs in the nation’s factories. Chicago, particularly Uptown, was a prime destination and became known as “Hillbilly Heaven” to the migrants.
Uptown Chicago “was mythologized in song, legend and later in commercial films,” Dr. Guy said. “To most Chicagoans, Uptown was called the ‘Hillbilly Ghetto.’”
But the images found in the popular TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” or the John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath” did not fit this group of migrants, he said.
“Instead of the humble, rural agricultural laborer in search of the American dream, or the happy-go-lucky hillbilly, most migrants lived in crowded, dilapidated apartments and appeared to many to not be looking for work, but the next drink or knife fight,” Dr. Guy said.
Book Cover: From Diversity to Unity
This group left a small footprint on the urban landscape in terms of schools, churches, restaurants or other institutions, but the migration left its mark, north and south. The migration changed the Southerners, and it would change the North as this band of disparate peoples coalesced into an identifiable group on the cultural landscape, Dr. Guy said.
“There was no viable urban institution that you could associate these migrants with,” he said.
“I argued that this was a diverse group of people who came from different places in the South, who others treated as a monolithic group,” he said. “Eventually, that identity stuck, and then they became proud of being Southerners.”
“They never considered themselves Northerners or even Midwesterners,” Dr. Guy continued. “They are very proud of their heritage.”
The move north brought migrants from remote mountain hollows and rural hamlets into contact with a more sophisticated, urban world, and the experience changed them, he said.
“It changed their views on race for instance, because they came into contact with diverse people,” Dr. Guy said. “As they became active politically, they changed Chicago.
“Southerners were integral in getting Harold Washington (the first African American mayor of Chicago) elected,” he said.
Dr. Guy said research for the book proved challenging.
“The hardest thing was to tie them to something, some institution they coalesced around,” he said. “It was hard to get these people to talk to you. Luckily, I am a Southerner, and I tried to convince them they were part of an important history.”
Two later chapters discuss two institutions that connected with the migrants, the Chicago Southern Center and the Students for Democratic Society (SDS), which attempted to employ community organizing tactics for social justice.
“The Southern Center was a resource for this community as it provided social and economic services,” Dr. Guy said.
Dr. Guy is a Virginian who migrated to New York, Paris, Charlotte, N.C., and later Chicago picking up degrees in higher education along his journey. He is a graduate of Hunter College in New York and UNC Charlotte with a Master of Public Administration and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee where he earned a Ph.D. in urban studies.
He said a conversation with the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson led him to the topic of Southern migration.
“I was a graduate student, so I asked Anderson how to select a research topic,” Dr. Guy said. “He said ‘do who you are.’
“I realized that I was a Southern, white migrant in the Midwest too,” he said.
Dr. Guy was an associate professor of sociology and department chair at Texas Lutheran University before coming to Pembroke. His book may be purchased through online vendors or at the UNCP Bookstore.