The title of this post is inspired by one of my favorite books, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It tells the story of the Great Migration, the period between 1916 and 1970 when black Americans left the South in droves in search of better opportunities in cities north and west. It’s a beautifully written book, and each of the lives she chronicled were courageous and extraordinary.
Like most black Americans with Southern roots, my relatives were among those who left their rural homes to forge new lives in the big city. On my mom’s side of the family, one of my great-grandfather’s sisters, Francis, left southwest Georgia as a teenage newlywed and by 1920 ended up in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, but not before living in Birmingham, Ala. for a few years.
On my dad’s side, several of my grandfather’s first cousins left Alabama for the Midwest– specifically Michigan and Ohio. In fact, five of Henrietta Nance Clark’s nine children left Alabama, and one of them, Namon Clarke (1919-2000) was a trailblazer in Detroit. (Henrietta Nance Clark was one of my great-grandfather’s older sisters; her children were my grandfather’s first cousins.)
Namon Clarke left Ozark as a teenager and spent time in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City before settling down in Detroit after serving in World War II. He was working in hospitality services at an athletic club frequented by a Mr. Weber, who was on the board of directors of Hudson’s Department Store, Detroit’s largest department store. At the time, the store’s only black employees were the black women who operated the elevators. Namon Clarke was made supervisor of the department in 1949, becoming the store’s first black supervisor. By the 1960s, he had helped to integrate the women into the sales department. Here’s a video of him talking about his experiences:
Here’s what happened to Namon’s other siblings
- Mary Lou Clark Taylor (b. 1919)– Namon’s twin, Mary Lou moved to Detroit at age 19, right after graduating from high school in Alabama. She owned and operated a barbershop for 30 years and still lives in Detroit.
- Arvel Clark McKinnon (1907-2005)– Arvel lived in Dayton, Ohio, owned a beauty shop and did women’s hair. She moved back to Ozark when she was in her 70s.
- Paul Clarke (1912-before 2003 ) Paul spent time in Miami, and was working at the Sea Isle Hotel when he registered for the World War II draft in 1942.
- Johnnie Clark Merritt (1910–2000)– Johnnie lived in Ozark and worked for many years in the cafeteria at D.A. Smith High School. Some of the men who helped build Fort Rucker were boarders in her home.
- Henry N. Clark (1915-1963)– lived in Ozark
- Catherine Clark Larkins (1914-2003)–lived in Cincinnati and eventually moved back to Alabama. She was known for her homemade rolls and pound cake
- Noah V. Clark (1922-2000)– lived in Dothan, but also New Orleans and California.
- Abraham B. Clark (1924-2010)– lived in Union Springs, but also pastored churches in Indiana and Kentucky. Rev. Clark was responsible for bringing Head Start to Bullock County, Ala. and also served on the Bullock County Board of Education in the 1970s.