Archives and Memory of the Great Migration: An Interview with Professor Sumayya Ahmed
Below is a conversation between Professor Sumayya Ahmed, Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student of Gender and Cultural Studies at Simmons University. Dr. Ahmed’s current project, Collecting Ourselves: A Conversation between the Archives and Memory of the Great Migration, looks at the archival traces of Black Southerner migration to Chicago through the lens of her maternal great-grandfather, who migrated from Alabama to Chicago in the early 1930s.
Edited for length and clarity.
What is your current project?
Sumayya Ahmed: This project is tentatively called “Collecting Ourselves,” which is a play on the archival concept of collection and gathering of archival materials and also the phrase “collect yourself” meaning “get yourself together” or regain control. I look at the collective memory of one family, my family, or rather one small part of my family of Black southern migrants from northern Alabama to Chicago in the early 1930s.
This project tries to find actual archival traces of my family. By that, I mean documentation of those early years. In my family we have a lot of documentation of the later years, once people were firmly established in Chicago; but in terms of personal documentation, there not being much, I wanted to make a journey to find information from both within my family and then outside of my family. I’m trying to piece together their time because my family members who migrated have all passed. I’m finding answers to questions in a different way.
What inspired such a personal project?
Sumayya Ahmed: Generally, my work focuses on archives, but it's mostly about archives in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf – which I love because it is what I've been trained to do. But I think what started this for me is a trip in 2011; I got a phone call from a family member in Chicago saying a group of my family members was going to Alabama for a week and would I want to come. I was free, so I agreed to join them.
Being who I am, I researched beforehand the town we're from. I had all this information of where we needed to go, saying “apparently there is a cemetery over here we should see,” suggestions along those lines. And to humor me they made a few stops. This trip awakened into me the reality of my family's connection to the South, and our proximity to slavery in a way that I hadn't known growing up in Chicago. I grew up between Chicago and St. Louis, so the South was always there. For instance, my family all speak with a southern accent, even though post-migration they are second and third generations. They still have a subtle tween to the way they talk.
What tiny little parts do each of us know that we can piece together? I realized that every single person has a different piece of information.
Yet the South was always separate, considered a place they’d left for a reason. We didn't make trips there often, whereas early generations of my family did. So, the South both was and wasn't present in my life. Going to Alabama in 2011 made my connection to this place explicit. Especially meeting distant cousins and being introduced to people who were not a part of my life in Chicago. That awakened me to my history and ultimately this project.
You talk about Black southern imaginations of Chicago, which led, in part, to the great migration. What do you think Chicago looked like in Black southern imaginations?
Sumayya Ahmed: This is really interesting, and I think it might have to be a separate article because there is so much to write about in this idea of what Chicago looked like. The Chicago Defender newspaper encouraged Black people in the South to go north, go to Chicago, because jobs were being advertised. The Defender served as a liaison between people who were looking for jobs and people who needed jobs.
The Defender also expressed to Black people in the South that when you come to Chicago you don't have to act like you act in the South — you don't have to say “yes ma'am” or “yes sir” to white people. You can go about your daily life, you can say whatever you want, sit on a bus or train wherever you want, keep your head up and live your life. And there was the seeming absence of lynching. Southern Black people could imagine a bit of freedom; more freedom than they had in the South.
Something very interesting I’ve been reading about is the place of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair in Black southern imaginations. The images of the World's Fair in Chicago, from photographs and films, were seen in the South, and for some people, those images influenced how people thought of Chicago because they saw a very particular kind of Chicago that didn’t look like the South.
Does your research show how those imaginations did or didn’t live up to the reality of being in Chicago?
Sumayya Ahmed: I tried to touch on this, but to be quite honest I got a little stuck in Alabama because of my research focus there. As far as Chicago, for my family, I think to an extent it both did and didn’t live up to the reality. For instance, in Alabama, some of the Black residents owned their own houses, but moving to Chicago they were unable to buy a house at first. So they are living with friends and extended family instead of their own home.
My great-grandparents, however, I assume they felt extremely lucky to have been able to move into the Ida B. Wells homes sometime around 1941 or 42, which was a housing project for Negroes, the term that was used back then. Public housing wasn’t a bad word then, like it is now. The Ida B. Wells homes have since been torn down, but in the 1940s it was seen as a great solution to urban housing especially for a city dealing with tens of thousands of Black migrants from the South. My grandmother would talk about it with pride – she was never ashamed to have lived there because everything was new and clean, there was hope about the public housing system.
They did learn pretty soon that racism still existed, but one thing I tried to say in the article is that Chicago gave them autonomy and the ability to distance themselves from racism. They didn't have to interact necessarily with racist white people because they had an autonomy of Black neighborhoods and businesses; something they didn’t really have in the South.
You also talk about your great-grandparents and “sewing tiny little parts” of their lives. Can you tell me about that process?
Sumayya Ahmed: The process started with me trying to remember, or ask myself, what do I think I know already? So, digging through my mind and memories, what do I think I already know about them, what stories have I retained, what do I remember being told as a child. Then looking at available archival means – in terms of genealogy – documentation like the census and marriage records, and so on, and then speaking with older family members to collect oral histories.
I know what my goal is, but obviously interviews can take me off into other directions. Sometimes when trying to validate my memories of my great-grandparents, I would try to ask my living family members about what I remember. “Why did we say this?” “Why do we call this person by that name?” I’m trying to understand the things that I’ve taken for granted – nicknames or information in family stories.
They did learn pretty soon that racism still existed, but ... Chicago gave them autonomy and the ability to distance themselves from racism. They didn't have to interact necessarily with racist white people because they had an autonomy of Black neighborhoods; something they didn’t really have in the South.
Then trying to see what other information other people in my family have; what tiny little parts do each of us know that we can piece together. I realized that every single person has a different piece of information. To give you an example, I mentioned in one of the interviews a funeral. It was funny because they said, “Oh yes I was at that funeral.” And I asked how old they were. They responded saying “I must have been about eleven.” But they couldn’t have been eleven because the records don’t match up – I know the year that funeral took place, and I know what year my interviewee was born. I said, “you must have been eight years old.” And they say, “Ok, I was eight, then. But I definitely went to that funeral.”
This is funny to me, but also an issue because I’m getting information from them while also correcting their memories. It is an interesting process of correcting our understandings of our experiences, or what we think we remember of our experiences.
Did you ever run into situations where your family members would correct the records?
Sumayya Ahmed: Absolutely. I find a lot of what I would call mistakes, especially in census records. I see people's names misspelled or the wrong last name. I wasn't there, of course, so I don’t know the situation behind those mistakes. For instance, in 1920, what I’m assuming is a white census taker comes to your house. And as a Black resident, how much of the truth about your life do you tell someone you don’t know?
According to the 1920 census, they listed this person as that person's sister; but my family knows that's not true because they weren’t really siblings. Why did they tell the census taker it was a sister, then? I also think people had more fluid lives than can be seen in a census record. But African Americans, my family included, considered day to day who they were talking to and what kind of information they were willing to share.
It is possible that the census taker misheard the name and that is why it was misspelled. Or because my family is African American and the census taker is white, there were certain assumptions made about what kind of name they were told. I can see where it's clearly wrong information, but I can’t always know why a marriage certificate has a different name than the one I knew, for example. So, I’m trying to piece together gaps or inconsistencies.
I also think people had more fluid lives than can be seen in a census record. But African Americans, my family included, considered day to day who they were talking to and what kind of information they were willing to share.
What was the most interesting thing you found out about your family?
Sumayya Ahmed: I think the most interesting thing I’ve found is my family’s proximity to slavery. Even though as an African American I know that we're still living with the aftereffects of slavery, my personal proximity to slavery wasn't as clear before the trip to Alabama in 2011 and then clarified for me even further later on with archival research.
My great-grandfather, who died when I was probably 22 years old, lived a long life. He would have known enslaved people. In fact, his father was raised by a man who had been enslaved. So, my great-great-grandfather was raised by a man who for the first ten years of his life was enslaved. This (my great-great grandfather), was someone my aunts and uncles saw in the 1950s and 1960s as children. Before my trip to Alabama, I didn’t realize the proximity, how close we were to slavery. I know 1865 doesn't seem that far away, but in terms of the personal relationship, it feels a lot closer.
You end your article with the concept of Black genealogy. What do you consider an important aspect of Black genealogy?
Sumayya Ahmed: I’ve read a lot about this idea of Black genealogy. Before 2011 I wasn't invested in it. I’m not really interested in genealogy, to be quite honest with you. I’m not interested in finding, as they say, my first ”furthest-back” Black relative. One reason for that is it is too painful. I mention in the article that my family met a distant relative in Alabama. When I spoke to her for this article, she told me how happy she was when she found the names of some of our family members on the slave register in the Alabama archives.
Because reconstructing our history is going to be different for everyone. Learning more stories about the people I knew is what matters to me.
And I winced. Because I wouldn't be happy to find the names of my family members in a slave registry. I’ve been using tools and tricks of genealogy and archival databases to piece together the parts relating to the Great Migration, but it isn’t about tracing my history as far back as possible. For people who are interested in that kind of family tree, who’ve benefited from seeing their family’s names on registers, I think it is great that structures exist for them to find that information to some extent.
Because reconstructing our history is going to be different for everyone. Learning more about the people I already knew, or knew of, is what matters to me. As I told one of my cousins, our family made the best of a bad situation. I don't need to romanticize it, but I think this is a story that needs to be told.