With Donald Trump vowing to keep undocumented Mexicans out of the U.S. with a wall and Hillary Clinton promising the same immigrants a path to citizenship, immigration was a big issue in the 2016 presidential election. But what about the flip side – emigration?
In this episode of BackStory, we ask who’s chosen to leave the U.S. and what parts of their American identities they took with them – from the Loyalists who fled to Canada in the wake of the American Revolution, and the free blacks who sailed to Liberia in search of true freedom, to the Depression-era refugees who moved to the Soviet Union.
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This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode – there may be slight differences in language.
PETER ONUF: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Immigration reform is again the talk of Washington DC. And everyone knows the stakes are high. America is after all a nation of immigrants.
But against the flow of people entering the country, there have always been some going the other way. Today on the show, we’re asking why. We’ll hear the story of one man in the 1920s who saw a better society taking shape on the other side of the world.
YELENA KHANGA: My grandfather thought why only white have such an opportunity to build the New World. Why won’t black try to do the same thing? So he made a group of African-American families, and they all decided to go to Russia.
PETER ONUF: We’ll also hear why tens of thousands of Americans were in such a rush to leave after the Revolutionary War.
MAYA JASANOFF: Everybody is wildly selling off their stuff, getting themselves berths on ships, and getting ready to set off for the unknown.
PETER ONUF: A History of Emigration, today on BackStory.
PETER ONUF: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
ED AYERS: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. We’re the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy. I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED AYERS: 19th century guy.
BRIAN BALOGH: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER ONUF: 18th century guy, which is where we’re going to start this show today, right around 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution. It’s there that we’ll meet Jacob Bailey, a missionary for the Anglican Church. And he’s living in New England.
MAYA JASANOFF: On what at the time was a really wild Northern frontier. This is in the border lands between Massachusetts and Maine. So think of Maine as a wild frontier.
BRIAN BALOGH: Which is not that hard. This is Maya Jasanoff, an historian at Harvard.
MAYA JASANOFF: And while Jacob Bailey is acting as a missionary, meanwhile further down south in the Boston area, of course the different revolutionary tumults are erupting.
ED AYERS: Now this poses a problem for Jacob Bailey who again is living in Maine.
MAYA JASANOFF: Because he is a guy who has, as a member of the Church of England, has sworn his allegiance to the King as the head of his Church. So for him to break his trust with the King, his oath with the King, is both treasonous and sacrilegious.
PETER ONUF: And so Jacob Bailey refuses to join the Revolution. He remains loyal to the King. And the patriots don’t take kindly to that.
MAYA JASANOFF: He goes out into the field one day. And he finds that seven of his sheep have been slaughtered and one of his cows has been shot in the fields. He is attacked by a mob. The patriots in the region he’s in, Pownalborough, threatened to put a liberty pole up in front of his church And whip him in front of it if he doesn’t bless it. And by 1779, Bailey, who remains totally reluctant to renounce the King, finds that he has no real choice but to lead his family with him into exile.
Before dawn one day in June of 1779, they all pack up. They grab the clothes that they can carry with them. They grab their bedding. They grab what he describes as the “shattered remains of our fortune.” And they make their way up to Nova Scotia.
And as they’re doing it, they feel very directly and painfully and personally the sense of loss and departure from a world that they had known as their home. And Bailey is very upset and feels great grief at leaving, which he describes. And yet it’s when he sails into the harbor of Halifax, and he sees what he describes as the Britannic colors flying that he realizes that he has arrived. And he gives thanks to God quote “for safely conducting me and my family to this retreat of freedom and security, from the rage of tyranny, and the cruelty of opposition.”
PETER ONUF: We often think of America as a land of opportunity, a place to which people flocked to start over, to begin new lives, and for the most part, that’s a true story.
BRIAN BALOGH: But what about the Jacob Baileys of history? The people who have left? Today on the show, with immigration reform again in the headlines, we’re looking at the flip side of the Ellis Island story. Emigration– that’s emigration with an E at the beginning. Scattered throughout our history, our stories of people who’ve walked away from this land of opportunity for places like Canada, the Soviet Union, or an experimental colony in West Africa. Today their journey is ours.
When Jacob Bailey left America, he previewed what was to come when the Revolutionary War wrapped up for good. Hundreds of thousands of colonists remained loyal to the British. And for many of them, the end of war was terrifying– a new government, a fear of backlash from the patriots.
75,000 Loyalists from all walks of life joined in the diaspora. Some were educated white men like Jacob Bailey. Others were African-Americans and Indians. Large parts of New York City were clearing out entirely. Maya Jasanoff says it looked a lot like a big moving sale.
MAYA JASANOFF: The British have to get rid of all of the extra supplies that they have that they don’t need. And so the British are selling off all their surplus stock. They’re selling off tens of thousands of pairs of shoes and stockings and buckles and needles and all kinds of supplies. They auction off the wagons and livestock and everything.
And then individuals also have to do this. They have to kind of liquidate their property as best they can. And so you see all of these advertisements for people selling their stuff. And then by contrast, you see all of these advertisements for ships that are trying to fill up and get the refugees to go with them.
And ads kind of attracting them to different parts of the British world. So there are these advertisements saying things like come to the Bahamas! It’s really great here. Or come to Port Roseway, Nova Scotia. It’s really wonderful. It’s just full of all of this land and game and fish and everything. And you can have a wonderful life here.
And so there’s this just huge transfer of property as everybody is wildly selling off their stuff, getting themselves berths on ships, and getting ready to set off for the unknown.
PETER ONUF: And where were they sailing to, Maya?
MAYA JASANOFF: So the British held out to the Loyalists the possibility of relocating in any one of a variety of British domains. Of course, there was Britain itself. But Britain itself was by and large a foreign country to most Loyalists who of course were Americans, just like the rest of us. And it was pretty far away. It was expensive. It was a place that most of these Americans had no real connection to.
So much more appealing for them were destinations that were rather closer at hand. Those included, particularly for people in the South, places in the Caribbean, such as the Bahamas and Jamaica in the Caribbean. And for people in the North, particularly coming from New York, the provinces of Canada. So Nova Scotia and the future province of New Brunswick were particularly significant destinations for the Loyalists.
BRIAN BALOGH: Now, among these Loyalists, sometimes as enslaved property and sometimes as free neighbors, would have been African-Americans. Can you describe what their emotions and options were in this situation?
MAYA JASANOFF: So during the war, the British held out a really attractive offer to the enslaved African Americans, particularly of course on the plantations in the South. And the British said to them why don’t you run away from your masters and come join us. And if you join us and fight for us, then we’ll give you freedom.
And inspired by those promises, some 20,000 slaves ran away from their American masters to join the British forces. And at the end of the war, a lot of those now freed slaves who are known as black Loyalists, had found their way up to New York City. And for these guys who had run away to the British, there was no question which kind of freedom meant most to them.
They had their patriots– the patriot leaders were talking about liberty and freedom from British tyranny. But the patriots were the people who kept these men and women enslaved. Instead for them, what the British were promising was freedom they could believe in, which was freedom from enslavement.
And so as this transfer of power is taking place at the end of the war from the British to the Americans, for the black Loyalists, in particular, this is a transfer that completely inverts our understanding, I think, of the way that America became independent. Because for them, to half the patriots coming into power and coming into New York City, basically means the prospect of being re-enslaved. And a lot of them, including for example, there’s a black Loyalist called Boston King, who writes a memoir about his experiences.
And he remembers this sense of being in the streets of New York with his black freed slave peers and being really worried about seeing their former masters coming to New York City and looking for them to take them back. And so for them, There’s really an obvious, better path, which is to jump on those British ships and sail off wherever they’re going to take them, because at least they’re going to be free.
ED AYERS: What tied people together from such disparate backgrounds? What made them Loyalist?
MAYA JASANOFF: Well, that’s a great question. When you consider the extent of loyalism in the colonies, which ranges across something like a fifth to a third of the population, you realize quickly that loyalism was actually something that spread really far and wide among the American colonial population. So you have people, all kinds of different social profiles, involved.
I think that it’s very difficult to find sort of one overarching thing under which you can classify the Loyalists. But if there had to be one, I think it’s certainly that they felt that their loyalty to the King was more important to them than surrendering that over to a very– to their mind– untested, unformed, often pretty untrustworthy kind of government of the sort that the patriots were holding out.
I should also say, by the way, that many of the Loyalists were actually themselves quite opposed to some of the manifestations of British government that they had run up against. So, for example, at the time of the Stamp Act in 1765, you find lots of people resisting the Stamp Act, who a decade later will end up remaining loyal. But they nevertheless wanted to see reform of the representative system and the taxation system.
And this will turn out to be a big headache for the British after the war. Because when these Loyalist refugees go off to Canada and the Bahamas and elsewhere, they bring with them this, as it were, colonial American perspective on British government. And they often want lower taxes and more representation from British authorities than the British turn out to be willing to give them.
BRIAN BALOGH: The American contagion of aversion to taxes– it’s a virus, right?
MAYA JASANOFF: Exactly.
BRIAN BALOGH: So our standard image, then, of these people as conservative and backward-looking does not seem to be the case.
MAYA JASANOFF: No. I really don’t think it is. Because many times they were actually advocating imperial reform. And I think the case of Canada is really interesting here. We need to remember that the American Revolution gave rise not only to the United States, but also turned out to be quite transformative for Canada.
As a result of all of these Loyalist refugees going up over the border, they basically doubled the population of Nova Scotia overnight. They create the province of New Brunswick. And it’s in Canada that the British can basically try out a new form of government for colonial settlements in the wake of the American Revolution.
And it’s there that they decide you know what? We’re going to modify things a little bit. We’re going to lower the taxes, but we’re also going to change the representative system so that we no longer have this idea that the people in the colonies are exactly the same as the people in Britain in political terms. We’re going to acknowledge the fact that they’re colonial subjects, and they’re living at a distance. And they’re going to have a different type of colonial government.
And so Canada becomes, as it were, the sort of poster child for the post-revolutionary British empire. And in Canada, you’ll find Loyalists getting less representation maybe, but lower taxes and a pretty decent deal that a lot of them are pretty happy with going forward.
ED AYERS: Maya Jasanoff is an historian at Harvard. Her book is “Liberty’s Exiles– America Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.”
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re going to take a short break. When we get back, 19th century slave holders dream up a little America on the West Coast of Africa.
PETER ONUF: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED AYERS: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN BALOGH: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER ONUF: Hey there.
BRIAN BALOGH: And we’re talking today about the path from citizenship in America.
ED AYERS: Before the break, we were hearing about one group of people who chose not to become citizens. And that’s the Loyalists, those 75,000 people who decided they’d prefer life under the British crown to life in this new American republic. So Peter, you’re our 18th century guy. Perhaps you could take a couple minutes and explain what this story about the Loyalists tells us about the larger story of the American Revolution. Who won and who lost that thing after all?
PETER ONUF: Well, this is deeply threatening to us as Americans, because we need to think that Loyalists are losers.
ED AYERS: Right.
PETER ONUF: But as they say in the retail toy business, Loyalists are us. In many ways, the Loyalists are Americans. And their idea of sustaining the freedom and liberty they had under the protection of George III and within the British empire, they say you patriots have got a really misbegotten narrow view of our collective future, because it’s within the empire.
I think the key takeaway for our show today is that before the Revolution, you did not have to emigrate to enjoy the great opportunities of a British world. You could send your son, if you were a merchant in Marblehead, to Jamaica to forge commercial connections. And they don’t leave the country. That’s not emigration. But what happens when boundaries shrink? Think of the United States is a great shrunken fragment of empire in which Americans– these independent Americans– no longer enjoy the opportunities they had enjoyed under the British empire.
BRIAN BALOGH: Peter, it also seems to me that in many ways, the American Revolution was about the British empire not delivering on its promises. Yet it did deliver on the promises for the people who lost, for these Loyalists.
PETER ONUF: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the big promise, Brian, is protection. And the King’s still delivering on that. And what the Canadians get now is law and order, cheap land, low taxes, and that whole rest of the empire to move through. The Americans, meanwhile, are paying sky-high taxes, higher than they’d ever paid before, which is funny because this is a tax revolt, in order to support their new governments and to pay off this enormous national debt.
BRIAN BALOGH: OK, the Loyalists themselves are clearly winners. They do pretty well. But what about the empire itself? How does the British empire do having just lost this war to the colonists in America?
PETER ONUF: Yeah, well, my fellow American, Brian, the bad news for us is the American Revolution was the best thing that ever happened for the British empire.
BRIAN BALOGH: No, that’s good news. Maybe our enemies will lose to us more often.
PETER ONUF: You know what they got rid of was the overhead costs of administering the new United States. Now they continue to exploit American trade, and British capital has an outlet in the new United States. And well, it works, as what is later called a kind of free trade empire that the British establish in the Western hemisphere.
And what the British learn from the American Revolution is that one size does not fit all. And what this new British empire needs is a whole range of forms of governance from no government– in the old United States– to a much more centralized and authoritative colonial administration, particularly when dealing with non-British peoples. And American Loyalists, is Maya suggests, take the lead in the fashioning and re-creation of the British empire. And it enjoys an unparalleled century of expansion and world domination.
ED AYERS: Well, it’s good of us to help out.
PETER ONUF: Yeah, yeah, so we showed the way. You’re welcome.
BRIAN BALOGH: In December 1816, is a group of prominent white Americans got together in a swanky DC hotel to tackle a problem. A growing number of free blacks in the country. Virginia planter John Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, explained the threat.
“The existence of this population of free Negroes is viewed by every slave holder as one of the greatest sources of insecurity. They excite in their fellow beings a feeling of discontent and act as channels of communication between slaves of different districts.”
PETER ONUF: The solution, he suggested, was simple. Get rid of them. Send the free blacks off somewhere where they couldn’t agitate against slavery or inspire slave rebellions. How about Africa?
BRIAN BALOGH: Thus was born the American Colonization Society or ACS. Its goal was to return free African-Americans to Africa, where they could, the argument went, lead a better life.
PETER ONUF: The ACS attracted support from political heavyweights like James Madison, James Monroe, and Henry Clay. But colonization also made sense to a broad swath of American society. Some people thought that an outpost of anti-slavery sympathizers in West Africa could help shut down the slave trade. And some free blacks saw immigration as a chance to build a freer society, away from the prejudices of white America. Here’s how one man from Illinois put it.
MALE VOICE: We love this country and its liberties, if we could share in equal right in them. But our freedom is partial, and we have no hope then it will ever be otherwise here. Therefore, we rather be gone, though we suffer hunger and nakedness for years.
PETER ONUF: For the majority of free blacks, though, the ACS smacked of a deportation scheme. The backlash was immediate.
MAYA JASANOFF: Resolved, that we never will separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country. They are our brethren by the tides of suffering and of wrongs.
BRIAN BALOGH: This is a resolution passed as a meeting of Philadelphia’s black community in January 1817. 3,000 people showed up to discuss the ACS’s plan. But when colonization came up for a vote, every single person voted nay.
PETER ONUF: Nevertheless, with the help of funding from state legislatures, the ACS was raising money, enough to outfit a ship. In February of 1820, that ship set sail with the first contingent of immigrants. Here’s a newspaper account.
MALE VOICE: The ship Elizabeth, having on board about 90 people of color, sailed from New York on Sunday last. This expedition was fitted out by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of founding a colony in which the surplus black and yellow population of this country may find liberty and happiness.
BRIAN BALOGH: Liberty, maybe, but not a lot of happiness at first. About a third of the settlers died of yellow fever within three weeks of landing in their new homes. The survivors retreated up the coast to the British colony of Sierra Leone.
PETER ONUF: The next year, the ACS sent another ship to pick up the survivors. Again, they sailed south in search of a place to settle. And the end, they made a treaty with some local chiefs. The settlers offered up some tobacco, three barrels of rum, five umbrellas, 10 pairs of shoes, and other choice items. In return, they got a 36-mile stretch of coast.
BRIAN BALOGH: Like if the new colony was hard. The native tribes weren’t wild about the newcomers. Sporadic minor battles were a fact of life. But as the years passed, many of the settlers adjusted to their new world. Settlers like Rosebell Burke who wrote this cheerful letter to her former owner.
FEMALE VOICE: I am in most excellent health. My children are as fat as pigs. Little Martha can say her ABCs. She’s got entirely over her sickness, and is now growing very fast. Remember me kindly to our Eleanor. Tell her I love Africa and would not exchange for America.
BRIAN BALOGH: Not everybody who left the US ended up happy, though. Payton Skipworth, a former slave from Virginia, found it rough going.
MALE VOICE: There is no chance for farming in Monrovia, for it is a solid body of stones.
PETER ONUF: Skipworth had been freed on the condition that he emigrate to Liberia. But he found life in the new colony so unbearable that he wrote back to his old master asking if well, just maybe, he could come back.
MALE VOICE: Myself and my wife are dissatisfied in this place. Those that are well off have the natives as slaves. And poor people have no chance to make a living, for the natives do all the work.
BRIAN BALOGH: It’s hard to know what to make a claim that settlers enslaved native people. Skipworth was clearly trying to make a point. It might have been exaggerated. But we do know that most American settlers looked down on native people and sometimes exploited them. Because of racial mixing in the US, many of the settlers were light-skinned. They saw this as a marker of their superiority, along with their Christianity and “civilized” background.
When the colony declared independence in 1847, citizenship was reserved for the settlers and their descendants. That group became known as Americo-Liberians, just 5% of the total population.
PETER ONUF: Fast forward 80-some years, indigenous Liberians– that is the other 95%– still didn’t have the right to vote. In 1930, a League of Nations investigation found that the Americo-Liberian elite had been selling indigenous people to nearby European colonies as forced labor.
BRIAN BALOGH: This was obviously a huge embarrassment to a country that had pitched itself as a haven for the oppressed. The resulting scandal forced the president to resign.
PETER ONUF: At the beginning of today’s show, we heard about how Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution took their values with them to new lives in new lands. And the same thing happened here. The settlers who emigrated to Liberia were motivated by very American beliefs in freedom and opportunity. But their world view also had a darker side– an obsession with racial hierarchy. In a painful irony, the very people who suffered most from American racism ended up building it into a new country they founded.
If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about Americans who have chosen to leave the country, in search of a better life abroad. We’ve reached the point in our show where we listen to you listeners. First up today, we have Francis, joining us on the line from Los Angeles.
ED AYERS: Francis, what’s happening?
FRANCIS: Well, I heard you were doing the topic of immigration. And I’m a seventh-generation Syndey-sider but living here in LA now. But back in our gold rush in Australia, which happened to happen two years after yours– it was 1851– one of my ancestors– he was from Georgia. And he came out to the gold rush in California. I guess he didn’t have much luck. And so kind of figuring that there was another horizon that he could get past, he sort of came out to Australia for the gold rush we had.
PETER ONUF: It’s like the Yukon gold rush.
FRANCIS: And what’s funny is you go across these country towns in Australians or mining towns and stuff, and there’s always– this is today– there’s always a quirky American guy in every one of these little mining towns. At least one or two of them.
BRIAN BALOGH: That’s funny.
ED AYERS: It’s our contribution to your culture.
BRIAN BALOGH: That’s funny, because there’s the same one guy in the little American empty mining towns, Francis.
FRANCIS: Right, right.
ED AYERS: Well, you know, Australia is the perfect place to go. It’s got all of the bounty of a apparently unexploited continent and the same Ideals of freedom and opportunity and boundlessness. I mean Australia is like Canada, but with better weather.
PETER ONUF: Yeah, you don’t find a lot of Americans up there in the Yukon. They didn’t say for the surfing.
FRANCIS: Or at least staying there.
PETER ONUF: Or the skating. I would just add to that, I think there is a comfortable– this is the point Ed was making. There’s a cultural dimension to this that these are places where people feel at home. And we can romanticize it retrospectively as the frontier or as settlement or as engaging with native peoples, as of course the Australian whites did with Aboriginals. These are common themes in Anglo world history, not all world history.
ED AYERS: And, Peter, thank you for agreeing with me, which means I of course will stab you in the back immediately, for doing so.
PETER ONUF: Yeah, that’s because we’re all convicts. That’s the reason.
FRANCIS: [INAUDIBLE] I wasn’t going to bring up the C-word, if you didn’t.
ED AYERS: But let’s think about South Africa. Why has there not been parallel movement of migration of Americans and sort of emotional investment in South Africa. Is it because South Africa is too literally like the hardest parts of American history.
FRANCIS: Yes. Because it’s interesting. I mean there’s still, there’s a lot of British people today moving to South Africa. I don’t think it bothers them. But I think it would be– an American looking at the situation is going to go, that’s a hot button I don’t need to press anymore.
ED AYERS: And then you, speaking as a white Southerner, to know that apartheid is basically an adaptation of American segregation, basically doing what many advocates of segregation wish they could have done. I think you really have to be sort of over the top in your obliviousness to the ironies of history to do that.
PETER ONUF: I think emigration shows us something about how we can provide a broader context for the so-called American dream. That is what motivates people to move. And that has a special place for us in our national narrative. But it happens to be very much like the national narratives of lots of people who have similar histories. And I think that’s the connection you’re helping us make. Because Australia is very much an American place or America is very much an Australian place.
BRIAN BALOGH: Thank you, Francis.
PETER ONUF: Thanks for your call.
FRANCIS: Thank you, guys.
ED AYERS: Bye bye.
FRANCIS: Bye bye.
PETER ONUF: While we were putting the show together, a listener named Robert left a comment at backstoryradio.org with some interesting examples of emigration that we haven’t touched on yet. Here’s what he had to say.
Two examples came to mind, both connected. One is the secession crisis and Civil War. The South chose to leave the United States without physically leaving the geographic land mass. With the loss of the Civil War, the second example is the Confederados, those former Confederates who chose to move to South American states rather than live within a reconstructed union. The Confederados made such a deep cultural impact that there are still festivals in Brazil that celebrate Southern heritage.
ED AYERS: That’s very interesting. Two kinds of emigration that are occasioned by Southern secession. So what do you guys think? Was secession a kind of de facto emigration?
PETER ONUF: Oh yeah, they didn’t move, but they redrew the boundary, didn’t they? And they might say ours is the more righteous real American part of the ruptured union. But they’re changing boundaries. And that, in a way, is another version of the history of– well– expansion and contraction that defines American history.
ED AYERS: So it’s like they take what they would see as a purified version of the founding vision.
PETER ONUF: Yeah.
ED AYERS: Because they say, look, we’re not changing a darned word in the Constitution. We just want to leave. And we’re also honoring the Bible. We’re also honoring the founding vision of the 3/5 clause and all that. You guys are the ones who have changed. You’re emigrating from us.
PETER ONUF: That’s exactly right.
BRIAN BALOGH: And that’s why I don’t think it’s emigration. I think it’s exclusion. Let’s get rid of all of these artifacts that have been created since the original founding. We’re not going anywhere. We are simply taking what we were endowed with and getting rid of all those external influences.
ED AYERS: Yeah, a way to think about it is the Yankees have emigrated from us.
BRIAN BALOGH: That’s right.
ED AYERS: And it’s no accident that the patron saint of the Confederacy is George Washington.
BRIAN BALOGH: We don’t need to go anywhere to have the founding fathers.
ED AYERS: So once they lose– and I think that’s right. This is the way the Confederates would have seen things. Once they lose, then they say now–
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re out of here.
ED AYERS: –it’s time to get out of Dodge. Some of them tried to escape to the West of the United States and start new lives. They thought about escaping to Cuba, to Mexico, places where some variety of this racialized society that they knew and loved have been in place. And the most colorful example, in many ways, are those that Robert refers to, the Confederados, who flee to Brazil. And maybe 10,000 move to Brazil and set up a colony that basically tries to reconstruct, so to speak, Southern society in another country.
PETER ONUF: So, Ed, is this something like the diaspora of the Loyalists after the Revolution? Many Loyalists stayed in place, and many came back to the US. But then others went out across the world. And it seems this is an echo of that.
ED AYERS: Yeah, you’re exactly right, Peter. The difference is that the Confederates are representing a failed, rather than a successful, state. There are these remnants of a failed revolution.
PETER ONUF: There’s no empire to plug into.
BRIAN BALOGH: One that had not been around all that long.
ED AYERS: Exactly. And a major destination for them is the North, is the New York City. And there’s actually the New York Southern Society that flourishes in the late 19th century. And it’s Southern emigres who then, in a great act of reconciliation with the North, where they’re making their livings, inviting people to come in and talk about Northern and Southern reconciliation.
So, Peter, what you find is that the Southern diaspora, the white Southern diaspora, which precedes the black Southern diaspora, because black Southerners are not allowed to leave, is in many ways sort of a scattering of these dreams of the nation that might have been wherever they can take it in the world.
PETER ONUF: Well, we want to know what you listeners think about this. You can leave a comment for us at backstoryradio.org. While you’re there, have a look at the topics we’re working on, and give us a call. Our number is 434-260-1053.
BRIAN BALOGH: It’s time for that another short break. When we come back, African-Americans flee the Great Depression in search of a better life. Growing cotton in Uzbekistan. You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
PETER ONUF: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED AYERS: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN BALOGH: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, American Exodus. We’re telling the stories of all those folks who decided that their future lay outside the United States. We’re asking why they left, and what they took with them.
Black Southerners in the early 20th century were one group eager for new frontiers. Failing crops and the oppression of Jim Crow fed the South to North exodus, known as the Great Migration. Starting around 1910, more than 1 1/2 million black people packed up, then moved to cities such as New York, Chicago and Cleveland in search of better jobs and better lives.
PETER ONUF: But a few black Americans, instead of going North, went East to Europe. One of them was a Georgia teenager named Eugene Bullard. Fed up with the racism of the South, in 1912, Bullard ran away from home and stowed away on a ship headed for Scotland. BackStory producer Chioke I’Anson tells us what Bullard found when he got there.
CHIOKE I’ANSON: Eugene Bullard was surprised when he first set foot on land. He recalled in his memoir that he encountered something largely unfamiliar up to that point in his life.
MALE VOICE: Everyone I saw smiled and looked at me pleasantly and spoke politely. Some even called me darkie, but in such a way that I realized they did not mean to hurt my feelings. And people would shake hands with me and invite me to tea. Just imagine, how a colored kid from Georgia felt in a country where everyone– and they were white too– were treated just like one of their own.
CHIOKE I’ANSON: But young Bullard was not the only black Americans to learn just how different things were in Europe. In London, he stumbled upon the Negro Quarter– a community of expats, mostly entertainers. They had come to Europe to perform, but they stayed because of the warm reception. Bullard joined this community. He took up prizefighting alongside boxing legends like the Dixie Kid and Jack Johnson. Just months after making landfall, the stowaway from Georgia was already making a name for himself.
In the summer of 1914, the Germans began their march on France. Bullard was in Paris at the time, and he wanted to fight. So he enlisted with the French Foreign Legion. He got into the French Air Force as a machine gunner. Soon after, he was given his wings, becoming the first black American fighter pilot in history.
MALE VOICE: It seemed to me that about midnight that same day, every American in Paris knew that an American Negro by the name of Eugene Bullard, born in Georgia, had obtained a military pilot’s license.
CHIOKE I’ANSON: When the Americans entered the war in 1917, Bullard applied to fly with the United States Air Service. He passed the physical, but he never received orders to transfer.
MALE VOICE: I was more and more puzzled, until suddenly it came to me that all my fellow countrymen who transferred were white. Later, I learned that in World War I, Negroes were not accepted as fliers by the United States Army. This hurt me deeply.
CHIOKE I’ANSON: Bullard was able to fly alongside whites in France. But the country was a far cry from racial utopia. French Africans in the ’20s condemned France for racist colonial policies like forced labor. But the French didn’t see black Americans the way they saw their own colonial subjects.
Most French people decried American segregation and prided themselves on their tolerance toward African Americans. Some even defended blacks against attacks from visiting white Southerners. This era of acceptance persisted after the war, when Bullard became a jazz drummer and opened a nightclub in the Montmartre district. While southern migrants to Chicago dealt with the fallout from race riots, black expats were enjoying the nightlife in Bullard’s club, alongside Louis Armstrong, Ernest Hemingway, and Josephine Baker.
By the late ’30s, Paris nightlife was dying down. A new threat of war loomed. In 1940, the Germans invaded once again. Once again, Bullard enlisted and fought for France. He was wounded in combat and retreated to Spain, where he got on the first ship he could board. It was headed to America. After being gone for decades, he was going back to his home country.
Back in the States, Bullard couldn’t recover any of what he owned in Paris. Poor and largely unknown, he took up work as a perfume salesman and an elevator operator. Eugene Jacques Bullard spent his remaining years in Harlem. He died of stomach cancer in 1961. He was buried in his uniform by members of the Legion.
A news report spoke of the death of the French war hero. To this day, his grave site in Queens is maintained by the Federation of French War Veterans. At the end of his life, he reflected on what inspired him to stow away so many years before.
MALE VOICE: It was to find equal treatment, to find freedom, that I struggled so long and hard to get across the ocean to France. It was to defend the freedom of our allies that I fought in two bloody wars. Never have I gone against my principles about freedom for each decent person and freedom for democratic nations. Any contempt shown to a fellow human being just because of his race, creed, or color, I consider a sickness.
CHIOKE I’ANSON: Bullard also wrote that despite all the barriers he had faced, he continued to love America, his home country. But it was France that loved him back.
BRIAN BALOGH: That was BackStory producer Chioke I’Anson. Special thanks for help with that story to Craig Lloyd, professor emeritus at Columbus State University.
About the same time that black Americans were discovering opportunities in Europe, other Americans were discovering a very different kind of community that was taking shape further to the east. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union began inviting foreigners to come help build the new communist state from the ground up. They were looking for experts in different sectors of society– scientists, mechanics, agronomists, that sort of thing.
ED AYERS: For many who take up the invitation, the Soviet Union was a great experiment, a chance to see if communism might work on a grand scale. But by the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, lots of people were simply looking for a job, and the Russians paid well. By 1932, as many as 11,000 Americans were working in the Soviet Union.
BRIAN BALOGH: Yelena Khanga is a journalist in Moscow today. Her grandparents were among those 11,000. Yelena’s grandfather, Oliver, was black, the son of a slave and an early student at Tuskegee. He was also a committed Communist. Her grandmother, Bertha, was white, a Jewish immigrant, and the daughter of a New York City rabbi. After Bertha and Oliver met in New York, they heard about the grand experiment happening in Russia. And they were intrigued.
YELENA KHANGA: And my grandfather thought why only whites had such an opportunity to build the new world. Why won’t black try to do the same thing. So he made a group of, I believe, African-American families, and they all decided to go to Russia. And my grandmother was the only white woman that joined this group.
ED AYERS: Most of these men had lived or worked in the rural South at some point. And so they were asked to help establish a cotton industry in Uzbekistan of all places. Yelena says her grandfather’s motivations were not just about finding a job.
YELENA KHANGA: He was a true believer that there should be a world where everybody was equal, where the color of your skin was not a problem to the rest of the community. And being an expert in agriculture just helped him to earn his living. But basically that was a political decision.
BRIAN BALOGH: And is it fair to say he felt there was no place in America and not even New York, not in the North, where he would be treated as fairly and equally as the Soviet Union.
YELENA KHANGA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And to tell you the truth, Soviet Union was really– there was no place for racism at the time. Because we were the country where everybody was equal and everybody loves to chat and blah, blah, blah. But as foreigners, they were always under the eye of the Big Brother.
BRIAN BALOGH: That Big Brother, of course, was Joseph Stalin, who came to power in the middle of this project.
YELENA KHANGA: Stalin was very xenophobic. We was very afraid of foreigners.
BRIAN BALOGH: Yes.
YELENA KHANGA: And he said that all the foreigners should change their citizenship if they wanted to stay in Russia. Or they had to get out of the country. At the time, my mother was born, and if you understand, she was black. And my grandparents thought that being black female, she wouldn’t have a chance to get a good education in the United States. So their choice was either to change their citizenship and stay in Russia and giving my mother the best education they could afford. And that’s why they did that.
BRIAN BALOGH: They did change their citizenship?
YELENA KHANGA: Exactly. The rest of the group went back to the United States.
BRIAN BALOGH: What do you think the difference between the rest of the group and your grandparents was?
YELENA KHANGA: Well, we can’t talk about the rest of the group, because each of them has their own agenda. But from what I understand most of the group were just interested in finding a good job. They were not necessarily political oriented. So when the situation got very intense, they just turned away and went back home.
BRIAN BALOGH: Now your grandfather died in 1940. He must’ve observed a lot of political turmoil during the ’30s in the Soviet Union.
YELENA KHANGA: Yes.
BRIAN BALOGH: Did his feelings about the Soviet Union ever change before his death?
MAYA JASANOFF: Definitely. In fact, we think that he died not because of his kidney disease, but basically because he was very, very disappointed about what he saw lately. There were lots of Americans that disappeared in jail. There were lots of Russian friends that he had– in fact, Communists like he was– that were murdered.
And once the police came to arrest him, but he just happened not to be home when they came to arrest him. And then he was so shocked to hear that from the neighbors. He went right to the police station to say here I am. You can arrest me, if you think I did something wrong.
And they said oh don’t worry. We have already fulfilled the plan for arrests for this month. So he realized that there was a biggest mistake. So he died, we think, because that was his choice to die, because he didn’t want to fight anymore. And he didn’t see the reason and the purpose to live anymore.
BRIAN BALOGH: What do you think in retrospect about those thousands of Americans that did come over to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and the 1930s, some for purely economic reasons, some for a combination of economic and ideological reasons, some for purely ideological reasons?
YELENA KHANGA: What do I think about them? See, I think that they were not really Communists. They were utopists. You know this word, utopia?
BRIAN BALOGH: Utopia.
YELENA KHANGA: People that believed in utopia.
BRIAN BALOGH: They were Utopians.
YELENA KHANGA: Yeah. They were young. They wanted to make the world better. And they put their lives on that. Unfortunately, most of them saw that that was a mistake. But they wouldn’t admit that this was a mistake. And I think we all have to respect them, because if people won’t try to change the world to the better, well, who will?
My grandmother that had a very difficult life, because it was very hard for her to get a job being American. I remember the day when she was dying, she said still, I made the right decision to come here. And I’m glad that my daughter was born and raised in Russia. She never experienced racism the way she would experience it in America.
ED AYERS: Yelena Khanga is a journalist living in Moscow. Her book, co-authored with Susan Jacoby is called “Soul to Soul. A Black Russian American family, 1865 to 1992.” Special thanks to Ms. Jacoby for helping us get in touch with Yelena.
BRIAN BALOGH: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the path from citizenship in American history. I’m Brian Balogh, representative of the 20th century. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED AYERS: From the 19th century.
BRIAN BALOGH: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER ONUF: Speaking for the 18th century.
BRIAN BALOGH: Now, of course, Americans have always emigrated for economic reasons. And they continue to do so. But listening to that story about those who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the ’20s and ’30s, it occurs to me that in the 20th century, there’s a new kind of emigration– an emigration that has something to do with attitudes towards the state, at least for certain populations.
So I think about draft resistors in the late ’60s and 1970s who left the United States, emigrated to Canada– 30,000 of them, rather than being drafted, and often in a statement of protest. And I’m just curious to know whether there were Americans who left for similar ideologically-driven reasons back in your centuries. Were there Americans who left because they were embarrassed or upset about being American?
ED AYERS: Well, I wouldn’t speak for Peter’s long-ago century, but I will talk about the 19th century. And the answer, Brian, is not really, because that was a time when you would have had the greatest emigration from this country. And it was often by people who had not been here that long. They came here for those very pragmatic reasons that you were talking about.
They came here to be able to raise enough money to buy land back at home. They came here to raise enough money to get married, to be able to walk back into the village at home and hold their heads up. Now I’m talking about people coming from Europe to the steel mills of the Midwest, but I’m also talking about men from China coming here to the gold mines and railroads of the West. And in both those instances, they were led by the transportation companies and their employers when they got here. It wasn’t the Bill of Rights–
BRIAN BALOGH: It wasn’t the state. It was these private companies.
ED AYERS: Exactly. And they’re saying come here. Make your money. And then maybe you will go back home. So it’s interesting how different the 19th century is from the 20th century. I don’t know, Peter, if– which pattern prevailed in the 18th century?
PETER ONUF: Well, it’s an interesting combination, or it speaks to both. I think the important thing to know about immigrants from early America– that is, after 1776 when there is an America– is that they can leave the United States without feeling they’re abandoning or betraying American values. Far from being hostile to a state which hardly exists, instead they believe that they are putting into operation that very pursuit of happiness that Jefferson writes about in the Declaration.
Keep this in mind that the people Americans used to be were subjects of a King. It is the mark of a citizen to make free choices. Citizenship itself is voluntary.
ED AYERS: So where do they go with all this?
PETER ONUF: Well, they go all over the Western world, as they frequently call it. Many Americans are going into what is still then the Spanish empire or what would later be Mexico or into the Caribbean. But what they think they’re doing is fulfilling what you might call the American dream. It’s sort of a paradox, because that American dream in its fulfillment is pretty concrete, [? sordid ?], and material. They’re stripping resources from land and expropriating Indians and doing all that horrible stuff.
BRIAN BALOGH: They are subjecting the rest of the continent to the American idea.
PETER ONUF: So here’s the paradox– Brian, thinking toward the 21st or the 20th century– and that is you can be a good American, a patriotic American, while you’re leaving America. Emigration is not necessarily a commentary on the state. It may be a testimony to American values.
BRIAN BALOGH: Well, guys, on that note, it’s time for us to emigrate out of this studio. But listeners, the conversation continues online. Drop in at backstoryradio.org and tell us about people in your family who set out to find the American dream on foreign shores.
PETER ONUF: That’s backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.
BRIAN BALOGH: Today’s show was produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Chioke I’Anson, and Tony Field. Jamal Millner is our engineer and Allen Chen is our intern.
PETER ONUF: Special thanks to our team of voiceover actors. Matthew Gibson, Kevin McFadden, Sharon Millner, Daniel [? Perleman ?], Gail Shirley-Warren, and Clinton Johnston. Thanks also to Brian Parkinson and Marc Naimark listeners who first suggested this show. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN BALOGH: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
FEMALE VOICE: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.