The New City's Trials & Triumphs

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The migration of African Americans to northern urban areas during the earlier part of the 20th century brought with it much joy and promises of a better life. And in light of the conditions for Southern blacks, this was a worthwhile goal. Discrimination, disenfranchisement, police brutality, lynchings, to name just a few, were commonplace in the South. With the demise of slavery came new patriarchal institutions, established to keep blacks in debt, such as sharecropping and tenant farming. Given these conditions, northern cities could only be thought of as havens, comparatively speaking. In many ways, "the city" was a haven. In larger urban areas such as St. Louis and Chicago, a newcomer could be surrounded by people of his or her own color, quite possibly for the first time. There were opportunities for education and higher income, and increased exposure to the flourishing culture.

Of course, like any community, these cities had their problems, too.

Rudolph Fisher's "City of Refuge" tells the candid story of a young, naïve man who makes the move from North Carolina up to Harlem in New York City. King Solomon Gillis, the main character in this honest narrative, is immediately taken advantage of by a man that was supposed to be his new friend. This particular aspect of the story, however, is not unlike any other common theme in human behavior: tricking the gullible rookie - we see it often in many cultures, regardless of race. But what is far more touching (and almost humorous, in a strange way), is Gillis' reactions to his surroundings when he reaches Harlem. One can gather a lot about his background by this, and by the stories he tells.

As Gillis stepped off the train in Harlem, "he grinned at what he saw": (indention): Negroes at every turn; up and down...