A few years ago, I discovered that Frances Pinkard Johnson (c.1874-1924), one of my great-grandfather’s older sisters, was among the first of my ancestors to leave the South for a better opportunity. I did some more digging and began to piece together more details of her story. Her path to Chicago wasn’t a direct one– in fact, she made a stop in Birmingham.
Frances Pinkard, the daughter of Ike and Narcis Pinkard, married her husband, Ben Johnson, at age 15. By age 23, she was a mother. The year was 1900 and Frances, her husband and their six-year-old daughter Corine were living in Chattahoochee County, Georgia. From there, the family moved to Birmingham, Ala., and in 1910, Ben was working as a railroad laborer and Frances was a laundress. The family lived in Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood– this is important to note because of Ensley’s background. (Interestingly enough, I used to live in Birmingham, and I know exactly where this is).
Now a part of the city of Birmimgham, Ensley was one of the Birmingham-area towns owned by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a major steel producer. The company built communities of homes for its employees, and while I don’t know if the Johnsons lived in one of these homes, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Ben Johnson also likely worked on the Birmingham Southern railroad, which was owned by Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. (According to the railroad’s Wikipedia page, it underwent an expansion in 1910, the year the Johnsons appear in the Census).
By 1920, the Johnsons, like many other black families from the South, are living in Chicago. They’ve made it to Bronzeville, a section on the city’s South Side often called the Black Metropolis. (This piece does a good job of explaining its vibrancy). Their home on 36th Street is a far cry from Birmingham, and a world away from their rural Georgia beginnings.
The Johnsons were part of the Great Migration, the shift of millions of black Americans out of the Deep South to points north, east and west that happened between 1916 and 1970. A scan of their neighbors in Chicago shows they were surrounded by others who had made similar trips from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. They’ve found work as laborers in stock yards and foundries, and as porters and cooks, too.
Frances Pinkard Johnson died in 1924. I’m not sure what became of Ben, but Corrine remained in Chicago and after completing a year of high school, she eventually found work as a laundress. She married Samuel Greene, a stock yard laborer from Mississippi, and they had two children, Samuel Jr. and Birdie.