By Chuck Sweeny
Of the Rockford Register Star
Victory Bell can still remember the night when he boarded the Illinois Central Railroad’s City of New Orleans in Durant, Mississippi, bound for Chicago, then changing trains and ending up in Rockford.
It was 1945, at the height of the Jim Crow apartheid in Dixie that purposely kept blacks poor with few rights. Bell, his mother and siblings were headed north to join his father, who had already moved north to get a factory job.
“We had been sharecroppers,” the 83-year old Bell remembers working near Durant, 60 miles north of Jackson. The family had eked out a living, but opportunities for advancement just were not there for black folks.
“I remember it was in the middle of the night when we boarded the train. We had to sit in the black section. When we got to Illinois, the conductor said we could sit anywhere we liked on the train,” Bell said, “and we no longer had to say ‘sir ‘or ‘ma’am’ to white people, which was new to us.”
His uncle and father had come to Rockford in 1943 and 1944 to get jobs that paid better than sharecropping.
“The machine tool businesses were very aggressive in hiring at that time, and people were able to come to Illinois and get jobs at various machine companies and make a decent salary,” Bell said.
Illinois’ manufacturing industries were working around the clock to turn out planes, tanks, guns and bullets for the armed forces during World War II. The state’s manufacturers continued to boom after the war.
Bell is a living embodiment of The Great Migration, the movement from 1916 to 1970 of 6 million to 7 million black Americans from the states of the old Confederacy to the North. More than 500,000 came to Illinois.
They were fleeing legal oppression. They were looking for better lives for their families, and for the rights to vote, to participate in their government, to serve on juries — in other words, to exercise all their rights as U.S. citizens.
Yes, these freedoms had been won in the Civil War, but when Reconstruction ended in 1877 and the U.S. Army withdrew from its occupation of the former rebel states, white Democrats reasserted their total control and suppression of the “freedmen,” as slaves were called after the war.
From 1900 through the 1920s, whites erected monuments throughout the South in honor of rebel leaders to demonstrate in granite and metal who was back in charge.
The Great Migration’s beginnings also coincided with World War I, when immigration from Europe slowed to a trickle and factories were short of workers.
Migration to the North slowed during the Great Depression of the 1930s but picked up again during World War II and in post-war years when highways were better and cars were relatively cheap.
Although prejudice was not absent in northern Illinois, it wasn’t codified into state laws that were sometimes enforced by night riders in hoods carrying torches.
“When I came to Rockford I was 7 or 8 years old. I started school that same year and I had a great homeroom teacher, Mrs. Burns,” Bell said. Bell had never been to an integrated school before because they did not exist under the mandated segregation of Mississippi.
“Mrs. Burns was the kindest person and made sure I was comfortable in the school. She never showed prejudice. She had a clear understanding of how to help all the kids learn.”
Bell learned well. He got a job as a janitor with the Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and advanced to lineman, installer and then supervisor. Active in Democratic Party politics, Bell became Rockford’s first black alderman in 1971, a post he held for more than 30 years before he retired.
“We knew there was a different standard for blacks here, but Illinois was not as openly prejudiced. Mississippi was just a terrible, terrible place to be in if you were black,” Bell said. “We were kept out of school until November to pick cotton.”
Looking back, Bell said that boarding that train so many years ago “was the best thing we could have ever done.”
Chuck Sweeney of the Rockford Register Star can be reached at email@example.com.