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A Black Migrant Crosses the Mason-Dixon Line

In this memoir first published in 1952, Charles Denby, an African-American migrant from Alabama, recalls his train ride North and first night in Detroit, Michigan. In 1930, out of work because of the Great Depression, Denby moved back to the South. He returned to Detroit in 1943, where he became an member of the United Auto Workers union and was active in radical causes for more than three decades.

THE FIRST TIME I went North was in 1924. My pal then was Hines, a young man about eighteen. He was from a farm in Texas. We were hoping we’d get to see the Mason-Dixon line. I thought in my mind that it would look like a row of trees with some kind of white mark like the mark in the middle of the highway....The train stopped in Covington, Kentucky just as the sun was rising. Someone said the bridge ahead was the Mason-Dixon line. We were North. We didn’t have to worry about sitting in the back, we felt good.... 

When we reached Detroit each of us had an address of the people where we would live. Mine was the Gordon house on 30th Street. I looked at that number so many times before leaving home I had it perfect....We got off the train and at that moment our memories snapped. Both Hines and I could remember the streets but not the numbers....We decided to take a cab and ride to the streets and look at the numbers. We thought the addresses might come to us this way. We thought if we asked someone on the street they would surely know our friends just like we knew everybody in the country. 

We rode a cab to 30th and McGraw. The cabdriver said colored people lived north of McGraw. We walked slowly and spoke to people. They didn’t stop or look around at us. We were amazed. People speak back in the country. We started again at one end of 30th. We would knock on two or three doors on each block. The train arrived at five and we were still walking at nine. We began to get real worried. Would we sleep in the street? Were there any parks? One side of 30th was completely white. But hearing so much about equal rights and complete freedom, and that North was heaven, we didn’t realize any difference. One white woman said that our friends couldn’t possibly live on her block because no colored lived at that end of 30th. We walked off her porch wondering why. We didn’t want to believe in discrimination up North but it kept going around in our heads. 

Someone advised us to call the police and spend the night at the station. We said to each other, “Hell, no, we aren't going to write home and say we spent our first night in the city in jail.” I had never been to jail at that time and I sure wasn't going to start then.

Source | Charles Denby, Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal (Wayne State University Press, 1989), 27-28.
Creator | Charles Denby
Rights | Reprinted from Indignant Heart: A Black Workers Journal by Charles Denby. Copyright © 1978 Wayne State University Press, with the permission of Wayne State University Press. 
Item Type | Biography/Autobiography
Cite This document | Charles Denby, “A Black Migrant Crosses the Mason-Dixon Line,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 5, 2023,

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