Chapter X – Arlene -A Woman of the Great Migration -HELLO CHICAGO – CHICAGO!!

Chapter X – Arlene -A Woman of the Great Migration -HELLO CHICAGO – CHICAGO!!

Katy Mae, tall, attractive with thick dark eyebrows and very slender and her husband, Freddy, jolly, ambitious and full of fun lived in a nice apartment building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  It was a three story brick building and they had a two bedroom apartment on the third floor. They welcomed Otis and I into their home and gave us our own private bedroom that was very comfortable.  Freddy  had his own business selling medicine and herbs which allowed Katy Mae the priviledge of not working outside the home.  Freddy knew many herbal remedies that had been passed down through the generations of his family that could heal most ailments.  People believed in him and his remedies and paid for his medicines, tonics and consultations.  They flocked to him from all around Chicago.  He was a good provider and they lived a good life.  We enjoyed living with them, but we needed to find a place that would accept our children, so we never lost sight of our goal.

Soon after moving to Chicago “pop” we both got jobs.  We had never been in a big city in our lives.  Katy Mae got the newspaper and told us all the details on how to find an ad for a job in the “Want Ads” and how to get the streetcar to the businesses, but she sent us out alone.  I got a job in a hat factory, and Otis got a job making tanks for the government.

Otis worked in the painting division.  He was so accustomed to hard work that he could spray paint a tank without any effort, and so quickly that the other guys hated him.  They called him that “country boy” who is up here working like a slave.  He was a source of irritation for many of  the other workers.  He continued to work hard because that was all he knew and it did help him receive many pay raises and bonuses.  The other workers were held to a standard set by the amount of work he did.  Spray painting tanks was so easy in comparison to what he knew .  The work was like a vacation after digging coal out of the hard ground and then loading it manually on a train car.  They brought him a car load of tanks and he would have them all spray painted before lunch time.  The other men thought he was working them to death.  He sprayed tanks and I made hats.

At the hat factory a worker brought me a large box filled with hats that had no form, and my job was to place each hat on the form in front of me and then put the hat in a box for the next person.  We made ladies hats.  The girls that worked on the steam irons had to stand all day and were hot and uncomfortable because they steamed the hats before they came to me.  After the hats were steamed they would take the shape of the form on which they were placed.  The steam iron girls grumbled because ” new” girls usually started on the steaming job and then worked up to the comfortable job of sitting in a chair placing the hat on the form.  “How did she get that job” and “she just walked in the building”, they complained.  I believe God was looking out for me and I was blessed.  They were angry at me and wanted me to work on the steam table.  My employer was happy with my work.

It was uncomfortable working at the hat factory with so much animosity that I searched and found a better paying job as a bus girl at the International Restaurant.  Black women were not allowed to wait tables in those days.  Fortunely, we would not live in Chicago for very long. We had to find a place where our children would be welcome.

Work was plentiful in Chicago and we saved our money to purchase a home so our children could join us.  Katy Mae was correct that it was virtually impossible to find an apartment that would accept children.  We were still living with Katy Mae and Freddie becuase we could not find a place big enough for our family that would accept children as residents, and we would not accept less.

We found a place for our family when  Gary (a friend of Otis’ sister)  was on his way to Vancouver, Washington to work.  He told Otis that there were good paying jobs in Vancouver and that he would be building ships for the government for great wages.  Otis asked him to find out if there would be housing for families in Vancouver because he wanted  to bring our family with him if he was hired.  Gary promised he would write and it was not long before a letter came to Bernice from Gary that said “Tell Otis he will have everything he wanted”.  There were houses and plenty of jobs, and not only could Otis get a job but that I could get one.  He wrote that there are good schools for the children and that Vancouver is a beautiful place to live.  Once again we were planning a move, but this time it would be Vancouver, Washington.  What would our parents say now?

We had not lived in Chicago for six months, when our dream seem to take us to Washington state.  Our goal was to find a place to raise our children.  We needed a place where we could work and have a decent home and schools for our family.  We talked very late that night and Otis decided that he would go to Vancouver and then send for me and the kids, but I thought about it later and decided that I was going with him.  I told Katy and Freddy about Otis’ plan to go to Vancouver without me and that I wanted to go with him.  Freddy told me “Little Bit”, if you want to go with Otis you should tell him”.  I told Otis that I wanted to go with him and he told me “you can always go where I go.  I thought you wanted to go get the kids”.  I asked Otis if it would be ok to give the money to Mama and have her bring the kids.   He agreed that was a good plan, and told me to get ready; we would be leaving soon.  I looked into his handsome face and felt loved, secure and safe with the wonderful husband God had sent to me.

I told my boss at the Restaurant that I was leaving and she asked me why I had to go?  I told her my husband was moving on to look for better living conditions where we could raise our children.  She asked if I would let him go alone.  “You are such a smart girl”, she said and “I have great plans for you”.  I could not believe she cried and asked me to stay.  She told me “Arlene, if you ever come back to Chicago you have a job”.  I could not understand why she thought I would separate from my husband because she liked my work.

In 1942 we could deposit money in the post office for safekeeping.  When we arrived in Chicago we sold our car and saved that money and we were saving money every week at the Post Office from our pay checks.  We had more than enough money to get the train tickets to Vancouver for us, Mama and our three children.  I went to the Post Office and drew out all our money and bought train tickets to Vancouver, so we could leave the next day.  The migration continues.


J.Keel, Author









Work was slow in the coal mines in early 1943. Coal companies did not lay-off workers like they did in the auto plants in the North.  The work slowed down until there was no coal, and then they closed the mine.  Otis was down to one or two days a week, when the mine began to dry up.  He was an industrious man and did not want to go down with the ship; he wanted to move on.  It is impossible to live on a paycheck for working one day a week.  Otis started to look for other coal mines to find work.  Everyone knew that eventually there would be no coal in the mine.

Otis and I talked about our future when I suggested that since he was not working full time it was a good time to visit Isaac in Rolfe and see if he knew of any work there.  Otis agreed and the next weekend we drove to Rolfe and stayed a week with Isaac and Marguerite while Otis looked for work.  Isaac thought Otis could get a job at Rolfe with him, and told him about several other mines in the vicinity.  Otis applied but wasn’t hired a Rolfe.  He applied at several other locations and eventually he was hired in Pasteton, West Virginia not far from Rolfe.  Isaac decided to apply for Pasteton and he was hired.  Our families secured houses across the road from each other.  This was a very happy time in our lives.  We had a backyard and Otis planted a garden as always.  Isaac and Marguerite didn’t have a large back yard but there was a stream running  across the back of their house which was very beautiful.  It was so much fun being young and living near our best friends.  Otis and Isaac enjoyed working together, and I enjoyed visiting with Marguerite and their children.  They had a son, Melvin who was the same age as Otis, Jr. and  a daughter, Seretha, who was two months older than Janice.

In a few months Otis took a flu like illness in his lungs and had to go to the hospital. The doctors did not know then, but later in life we found out that he had black lung disease.   While he was there in the hospital bed recuperating he had time to think about our life and our sons and what kind of life he wanted for us.  He told me he was unhappy and never planned on working in the mines forever and that he wanted to get away soon.  He said he was thankful that he had a job and could take care of his family, but that it was hard back breaking work although he had never complained.  This was a promise he made to me that our sons would never become coal miners and that he did not plan to die in a coal mine.

Otis told me how he felt the system made it almost impossible for a coal miner to get ahead.  He reminded me of the fact that the company owned everything.  Our home was rented from the company.  The grocer, liquor store, cleaners, theater, clothing and  furniture stores were owned by the company.  When workers were paid the company knew every penny they spent, where they spent it and could calculate if they saved any money.  We tried to save money anyway for our future.

Otis always felt that the workers who the company suspected were saving money were moved to areas of the mine where it was most difficult to dig and slowed down their progress because the workers were paid by the pound of coal they produced.  There were workers who spent all of their money with the company who were rewarded with easier digging areas.  Especially those who supported the liquor store.  Otis was pulled from a huge productive vein of coal and put deeper into the mine where he must crawl on his knees to get to the coal.  It was back breaking work to meet the bare minimum of his quota.  Even with these limitations we saved money for our future.

Otis bought a dry cleaning machine out of our savings and wanted to set up business in our home.  He ordered the device from a magazine, so he was dismayed when it arrived and was so heavy that it took eight men to carry it up the hill to  To our surprise the foundation of the house gave way when the machine was installed in our home.  I wasn’t very happy having a dry cleaning business take over my children’s bedroom    Otis and his Assistant, Thaddeus worked every minute they were not in the mines cleaning, pressing and delivering clothes.  Eventually, Otis had all of the customers and the company cleaners was shut down.  The company contacted him and told him to move the business out of the house.  He was directed to rent space form the company retail area or he would be evicted from his home.  The cost of retail space was too high for the family income, so the eight men had to drag the machine back down the hill so Otis could return it and get a refund on some of his costs.

After we lost our business, Katy Mae, Otis’ niece moved to the capitol city, Charleston, West Virginia.  She and I corresponded often because we were the same age and had much in common.  Katy wrote that she met a nice young man, Freddie McCullough, who worked in Charleston, and that he had moved there from Chicago.  A couple of months later, she wrote that she and Freddie had fallen in love and she could not imagine life without him.  She shared her plans to marry soon.  In the next letter Katy wrote that they were married, and they may move to Chicago and live there.  I wrote back that if she moved to Chicago to please let me know.  I told here that Otis and I wanted to move away from the coal mines.  She promised me that if Freddie takes her to Chicago, she will let me know.  A month later I received another letter ” Arlene, we are moving to Chicago” Katy wrote.  I was so excited.  Although we had lived in Pasteton for only six months we wanted to get away from the coal mines.  When I received a letter from Katy confirming that she was doing well in Chicago and they had an apartment, I wondered if we moved there could we get jobs soon after?  She wrote that jobs were plentiful and we were welcome to stay with them until we found work, but we could not bring the children because her apartment management did not allow children.  I told Otis that Katy invited us to stay with them in Chicago and said we could come at any time.  I told him that she said that we did not need to worry about a job, because jobs were plentiful.  She shared that there may be a problem getting a place to live that will accept kids.  I wrote her that my kids are so nice, that I wasn’t worried about finding a place to live.  I asked Otis if he was serious about moving and if he wanted to go to Chicago and he agreed that we were moving.  We decided to go now and find a place that would accept children after we had jobs. I wrote back to Katy that we planned to come to Chicago very soon.

We had the task of telling Marguarite and Isaac that we were moving.  We were all sad.  “Don’t leave us” they said, and we told them that if things worked out we would let them know so they could come join us in Chicago.  Our parents got involved.  They were furious with us, and told us ,”You left Glen Alum, moved to Pasteton and now you want to go to Chicago.  When are you going to settle down and be satisfied?”  They were the voices of doom. They told us that we would change, and lose our Christian values.  They thought we would separate.  We would not respect our marriage vows and would have affairs, because that was how people in the big cities behaved.  They believed that we would be corrupted and they thought we were crazy.  We respected them and listened to every word they said, but we were going anyway.  “What are you going to do with your children?” and the final question they asked, “Are you going to run off and leave your children?  Otis told them that he was going for his children, “I do not want my boys going into the coal mines”, and that ended the conversation.

Women always make the plans, so I thought of a plan that would make sure our children were safe until we could send for them to live with us.  I told Otis that we could leave the boys with Aunt Jean and Uncle Buddy and that we could leave our baby girl who was only ten months old with Mama.  Mama and Bob loved our baby and would be kind and loving to her.  Aunt Jean and Uncle Buddy agreed to take the boys.

It was a sad day when we had to leave our children.  We cried together as we drove away, but we went anyway.  We were hurt deeply and had heavy hearts when we had to leave our three children behind. We truly believed we would give them a better life.  Crying, driving and promising each other that we would send for our children, Otis said to me, “It is enough that we have lived like this, but we want a better future for our children”.  We felt this was the only way to get them away from the coal mines of West Virginia.  We headed north for Chicago and a new life.