In his book The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), Nicholas Lemann describes a Southern rural landscape pockmarked by abandoned shacks. The mechanisation of cotton picking made some sharecroppers redundant, and many were unceremoniously forced from their homes. Elsewhere African Americans fled the South’s racial tyranny seeking better wages and more dignity in the North, often at night, taking only what they could carry and leaving the rest where it stood.
‘The Delta today is dotted with nearly spectral sharecropper cabins,’ writes Nicholas Lemann. ‘Their doors and windows gone, their interior walls lined with newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s that once served as insulation.’
Cian Oba-Smith’s photographs of Syracuse’s 15th Ward convey an analogous racial landscape almost a century later. Haunting scenes of dereliction and desertion: charred shells of houses, boarded up places of business and worship, long grass and empty lots underpinned by almost total segregation. Only this time it wasn’t people who left but capital, taking its jobs, infrastructure and opportunities with it and leaving those who remain to insist on their humanity and salvage what they can of their community. Herein lies the resilience that stands in contrast to and defiance of the desolation: babies are born, flags are flown, ball is played. Life goes on.
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