Personalizing the Great Migration: The story of Inel JeffersonPosted: Mon, May 2, 2011
Ninety six years—that’s how long Germantown resident James Inel Jefferson has been on this earth. In that span, she has watched as our country fought the Great War and its inevitable sequel, dwelled in the dregs of an economic depression and nearly tore itself apart during the fight for Civil Rights.
But Jefferson does not have much to say about these events; she never wielded a gun in the name of America, never manned a fruit cart in support of her poverty-stricken family and never marched to Washington D.C. in protest. Instead, she was part of a revolution much more subtle, yet exponentially more impactful on our nation’s history.
Jefferson was one of six million Southern citizens that traveled to the Northern states during The Great Migration. However, her story is unique: her heritage is Cherokee and French, not African American.
Despite this racial difference, the reasoning behind the Jefferson family’s relocation is one shared by many of their African American peers. In Jefferson’s birthplace, Ahoskie, N.C., her father owned two farms, one for tobacco, the other for peanuts. During the early 20th Century, an increase in mechanization had severely hurt the sharecropping system, which the elder Jefferson relied on to operate his farms.
Growing tired of the difficulties of working his land, and determined to provide his children with a quality education, Jefferson’s father uprooted his family, traversing more than 300 miles to Philadelphia, the Northern city his brother had been living in, and singing the praises of, for years.
Urban life was exotic and exciting for Jefferson and her family. The hustle and bustle of Philadelphia was a stark contrast from her rural roots, and she soon found new ways to occupy her time, including going to the movies and perusing the local shops. The idyllic stories of Northern life seemed to be true, but, as many of her contemporaries would discover, Jefferson’s new home wasn’t always perfect.
Jefferson’s dark complexion often caused her to be mistaken for an African American, which subsequently lead to discriminatory bullying, particularly by her classmates. However, as she got older, Jefferson experienced such abuse less frequently, something she says she owes to the rest of her family’s light skin tone; many of her relatives were Caucasian.
In the short documentary below, Jefferson elaborates on these incidents, as well as her overall experiences with the Great Migration.
(Written by Emily Apisa, Edited by Kyla Jones, Narrated by the author)
Throughout her life, Jefferson never let segregation or racism slow her, or her ambitions, down. After her first marriage ended in a divorce, Jefferson began working for Famous Made, a series of clothing stores located throughout Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey. Starting out as a simple secretary, Jefferson rose through the ranks, eventually helping manage some of the company’s later franchises.
She attributes this success to her energy and drive, two qualities that permeate every facet of her life, even her recreation. During her second marriage, Jefferson became an avid bowler, and won “a collection” of trophies both by herself and as part of bowling teams. And although her advancing age has forced her to hang up her shoes, there is still one pastime that Jefferson maintains: driving.
The 96-year-old’s stark white, 1988 Chrysler New Yorker can often be seen tooling around the narrow cobblestone streets of Germantown, or parked outside Center In the Park, one of the neighborhood’s most active senior community centers. CIP has become a second home for Jefferson, who began volunteering there shortly after it opened in 1968 and later became one of its most energetic members.
For more information on Jefferson’s role at CIP, see the slideshow below.
There are many ways to describe James Inel Jefferson, but perhaps the most suitable is “indomitable.” For nearly a century, life threw her obstacles that others would have surely buckled under: She forged her own path in an unfamiliar city, overcame racism and succeeded as a businesswoman. And now, in the twilight of her life, she has rededicated herself to helping her peers in Germantown.
The Great Migration may not be well-recorded in history books, but its proponents, the men and women it shaped, have left an undeniable mark on this country.