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Cover image for The promised land : the great Black migration and how it changed America
The promised land : the great Black migration and how it changed America
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Alfred A. Knopf, c1991.
Physical Description:
410 p.
General Note:
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Between the early 1940s and the late 1960s, more than five million African Americans left the fields and farms of the Deep South and headed for the big cities, where they hoped to find the economic comfort and legal rights denied them under Jim Crow. This great migration changed the United States from a country where race was a regional issue and black culture existed mainly in rural isolation into one where race relations affect the texture of life in nearly every city and suburb; it altered politics and popular culture at every level. Nicholas Lemann's narrative concerns the people and lives that were transformed by this migration. First, he tells the stories of several families who left the cotton plantations and small towns, heading north. He then examines the political figures, mostly white, who formulated the official response to this huge demographic shift. The migration was so gradual that it was barely noticed by the establishment until it was nearly over; suddenly politicians realized there was a crisis in the ghettos that they had to try to solve, even though they didn't understand it.--From publisher description.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 973.0496 LEM 1 1
Book 973 LEM 1 1

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A New York Times bestseller, the groundbreaking authoritative history of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A definitive book on American history, The Promised Land is also essential reading for educators and policymakers at both national and local levels. From the Trade Paperback edition.

Author Notes

Nicholas Lemann, a native of New Orleans, developed an interest in journalism during his teenage years. This eagerness to write was coupled with a keen interest in United States history and literature. He pooled his curiosities, earning a degree in American literature and history from Harvard University in 1976.

Journalism became Lemann's main occupation, as he built his writing career through working for the Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and the Washington Post. In 1983, he joined the Atlantic Monthly staff. His love for American history peaked with the publication of his commentary on the African-American migration to Chicago in search of jobs and a better life.

Lemann's book, The Promised Land, captured the 1991 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in journalism. His articles span many interests, from book reviews and political topics to travel stories about the Catskill Mountains and other natural wonders. He contributes many articles, not only to the Atlantic Monthly but to several other magazines as well.

Nicholas Lemann, his wife Dominique Browning, and their two sons live in New York City.

(Bowker Author Biography) Nicholas Lemann was born in New Orleans in 1954. He has been a journalist for more than twenty years. His last book was the prizewinning The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He lives in Pelham, New York.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

From 1940 to 1970, some five million blacks migrated to the urban North. In a vivid document that spent 10 weeks on PW 's bestseller list and was a BOMC, History Book Club and QPB alternate, Lemann collects personal accounts and refutes the belief that all federal programs to aid the black poor failed. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

In describing the consequences of the great northward migration of black Americans from the South between 1940 and 1970, Lemann (The Fast Track, 1981; contributing editor to The Atlantic) may have written the best book on the tensions underlying American society since J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground (1985). The migration originated in the invention of the mechanical cotton-picker, which made the sharecropper system obsolete. Trivial as this may sound, it caused, as Lemann explains, five million blacks to move north, made race a national issue, and gave the whole country ""a measure of the tragic sense that had previously been confined to the South."" Lemann shows how the migration changed the pattern of city life, disrupted education, made street crime an obsessive concern; changed voting patterns in the country as a whole, and gave birth to the idea that government programs don't work. He complements his analysis with telling accounts of those affected by the movement: Ruby Daniels, for example, a sympathetic figure though married multiple times and with a lifetime on welfare; Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, encouraging blacks to come to Chicago to strengthen his machine, only to find them ultimately breaking it; and the politicians in Washington, fighting over what they never quite understood. Though lacking the vividness of reportage and ocean-deep research of Common Ground, this is a fine and elegant work, marked by intrepid fact-digging and insightful analysis. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

Using the well-traveled route from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago, Illinois, Lemann describes the progress of blacks from the rural South to the promise of a new life in the urban North in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The author focuses on the experiences of individuals in his study, but he also expresses larger matters of more social, historical, and economic concern as he shows how the dreams of escaping from poverty and racism soon soured as hardship and prejudice reasserted themselves at the immigrants' new destination. The book's chapters on the conditions in Chicago in the post-World War II years potently illustrate the challenges these people faced as they became mired in political battles, institutional neglect, and the welfare spiral. The efforts to address--or often to confine--these problems are also analyzed as the writer describes why the war on poverty did not succeed and why the civil rights movement yielded only partial victories in trying to win improvements. While Lemann's interviews establish the human drama of this process, his assessment of the consequences of this great movement both for African Americans and for the entire country raises substantial questions of justice and equality that cut to the heart of the social situation of the impoverished and oppressed today. Notes. ~--John Brosnahan

Choice Review

Lemann has written a very human, narrative history of the African American migration to the North that covers the period from WW I to the present. Although he treats the 5 million migrants who moved after 1940, they come alive in his use of the personal history of one migrant, Ruby Lee Hopkins, and others from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Machines that picked cotton pushed this vast migration out of the South, and jobs, better pay, and the vote pulled them North. But Lemann emphasizes the effects rather than the forces of change. Blacks deserted Clarksdale, Lemann's choice as the point of departure from the Delta, for Chicago, where the promises were limited by white racism, union discrimination, the political machine, and the deline of manufacturing. Social disorganization in the form of loose sexual practices, unstable families, crime, gangs, and a crumbling ghetto followed. Efforts by the fedeal government and by community action programs could not do everything that was needed. Ruby returned to Clarksdale in time, but, although Mississippi had changed considerably for the better from the viewpoint of African Americans, social disorganization was evident there as well. Lemann argues that new, as yet unseen forces will change the ghetto and he suggests that a strong federal program could do what the Great Society had hoped to do. College, university, and public libraries. -L. H. Grothaus, Concordia Teachers College

Library Journal Review

Focusing on the larger post-1940 complement of the black South-to-North movement--the ``Great Black Migration''--that created New York's Harlem and similar black quarters in every major northern city, Lemann traces the roots of Ameri ca's rotting ghettos. Moving between Clarksdale, Mississippi, Chicago, and the nation's capital with skill, Lemann (a contributing editor at The Atlantic ) particularizes and personalizes in life stories the forces that shifted five million blacks North after 1940 and then trapped most of them and their progeny in poverty. His essay in social causation and consequences rings as a manifesto of public policy for the 1990s with the clear theme that the nation can and must undo what its racism has done. It is highly recommended for all collections on contemporary America. Quality Paperback Book Club alternate.-- Thomas J. Davis, Univ. at Buffalo, N.Y. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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