March 7, 2018 — While the Great Migration helped create an African-American middle class, many migrants faced similar racial inequalities in northern states that they were trying to escape in the south, according to Cheryl L. Wade of the St. John's University School of Law.
Wade's presentation, "The Historical Significance of Black Migration, the Search for Work, and the Impact of Corporate Governance" was part of the University of Houston Law Center's celebration of Black History Month. The lecture was sponsored by Dean Leonard M. Baynes and the UH Law Alumni Association's Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
"The Great Migration was a pivotal part of American history that impacted the entire nation," Wade said. "It was central to the existential evolution of black people. It began in the second decade of the 20th century, when more than 6 million African-Americans migrated from southern states to northern states. The migration began to wind down in the 1960s and by the 1970s it was virtually over."
Wade attributed the start of the Great Migration to northern industrialists who recruited African-American southerners to relocate and work factory jobs. She pointed to three iconic companies that employed African-American migrants – Ford Motor Co., the Pullman Co., and what was known as the Pepsi-Cola Co.
"The stories of these companies and their relationships with African-Americans is complex and nuanced," she said. "The Great Migration is a story about the power of corporate governance. It's the idea that just one company's founder, one controlling shareholder like Henry Ford or one CEO can dramatically change the lives of masses of people beyond that company."
Most employees who worked for Ford, Pepsi and Pullman disagreed about the controversial decision to hire African-American migrants, Wade said. But the leadership of those companies made any disagreements irrelevant.
"This is the very nature of corporate governance," Wade said. "It's only those at the top of business hierarchies that determine organizational culture. They alone set the tone. Those who are near the top, at the middle and at the bottom have to conform to the executive's vision and decisions."
However, despite these businesses hiring African-Americans, Wade said they failed to treat migrants equally, often assigning them the most dangerous and low-paying jobs. Discrimination and negative stereotypes also followed them from the south.
"The tragedy of the Great Migration is that African-American migrants and their descendants failed to find prosperity and peace in the north that they were searching for," Wade said. "The black migrants dreamed of almost a utopian existence in the north, and that dream imploded.
"But also tragic is the fact that in spite of the migrant's attempt to attain economic stability and parity with white Americans, racial wealth and income gaps are as wide as ever today."
Wade said the lesson of the Great Migration for lawyers today is that they must realize that hiring African-Americans may increase diversity at their firm or organization, but it does not address the discrimination they could face after being hired.
The Law Center's Ronald Turner, A.A. White Professor of Law, and Assistant Professor James Nelson served as commentators.
"People fled the south for places like Chicago, New York, Boston and Los Angeles, and ran into different forms of Jim Crow," Turner said. They faced school segregation, job discrimination, police brutality, racial violence and many other issues. This part of history needs to be addressed more and needs to be incorporated into the narrative as people typically talk about the south."
"I want to thank Professor Wade to encourage us to think more broadly about the subject of corporate governance," Nelson added. "American corporate law professors like myself have typically used the term 'corporate governance' to mean the relationship exclusively between shareholders and senior managers of companies.
"Professor Wade has a much broader idea of what the term should include and I think this is a welcome and important intervention she's making."