Ingrid Holloway still remembers fondly arriving in D.C. in the 1960s after days of traveling on the Greyhound Bus from Shelby, Miss., the home of her grandparents. Barely fifteen, Holloway left behind an infant son – the product of a sexual assault – and many of the bad memories associated with poverty, Jim Crow, and sexism. And while the migration to the District and into the home shared by her older sisters, Arnell and Bertha, dripped of uncertainty, Holloway was certain both she and her son’s care rested in capable, loving hands. A factor Holloway, now helping to rear other family members, said is the legacy of grandfamilies and non-traditional caring within the Black community.

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Millions of African-American families function in non-traditional, communal spaces to better secure the finances and social access of its members. (Courtesy picture)

Like millions of Black families that migrated from the South to urban cities in both the West and North, the Holloways often took in relatives – distant and close – to ensure that no one was forced to rely on church charities, social programs, or federal assistance. “A helping hand is usually all a person needs to get through life’s difficulties. When they have the compassion of other family members, strangers and the government need never get involved,” Holloway told the AFRO. “Sometimes that meant that we all shared a little so that no one went without, but we never, ever thought as individuals. We have always been an extension of each other.”

Between 1910 and 1940, roughly 1.5 million Blacks left the South for Northern cities; however, during the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929, this migration slowed to a trickle. But with America’s entry into World War II looming on the horizon, the exodus of Blacks from their Southern homeland resumed. Between 1940 and 1950, another 1.5 million Blacks left the South. The migration continued at roughly the same pace over the next 20 years. By 1970, about 5 million African Americans had made the journey, and the geographic map of Black America had fundamentally changed. Roughly one of every seven Black Southerners pulled up stakes and headed north or west. Both their places of origin and destination shifted from earlier patterns.

According to Beulah Bell, a retired associate professor of history at Jackson State University in Miss., the collective economics of Black families from Emancipation to the present has often worked against the larger American ideals of individualism and materialism, reinforcing, in some cases, generational success. “There were no Pell Grants or student loans to be had, once upon a time, so when Black families decided they had children with the aptitude to achieve in schools, they immediately pooled the meager earnings they made into one pot,” Bell told the AFRO. “That young person had an obligation to pay it back and forward – literally helping to care for the generation before and after them with whatever marginal stability they attained. As a result, each generation did a bit better than the last.”

Bell said that the bottom of the paradigm began to shift as more Blacks bought into the idea of self-achievement and government programs overwhelmingly took the place of family and extended relations. “Neighbors served as extensions of your own household – whether blood related or not. This kept the vulnerable out of the hands of exploiters . . . clothing was passed from one household to another, one pot of food fed many, and no one’s pride was injured,” Bell said. “We have to get back to that level of respect and integrity for each other.”

The Holloway household, situated in the Hillcrest-area of Southeast and owned by Ingrid’s son, Grady, now consists of four generations of family members, ranging in age from 6 months to 84 years. It is a blessing for Grady, who said he remembers with fondness, being cared for by grandparents, uncles, aunts, and various cousins on sharecropper earnings.

“No one handled me like a burden or like ‘another mouth to feed,’ because we were all that we had. My aunt Agnes, bless her heart, sent me to Uttica Community College off of the money she saved in a rundown shack of a house,” Grady told the AFRO. “Two of her grandchildren live with me and I see her face in every little thing they do . . . This is how Black families survive and prosper, and notice, I didn’t mention not one White person.”