Jessica Tillman

By Dan Gordon

When most people traveled North during the Great Migration, it was by car or by bus. Jessica Tillman traveled a different route—she went south, and traveled by womb.

Her pregnant mother carried her from Roxbury, Massachusetts all the way to Virginia to be born. Tillman’s older sister was born there as well.

“My mother’s grandmother was a midwife, and there were less hospitals and so forth so she felt safer,” Tillman said, touching upon a tradition that has all but disappeared from today’s society.

“I didn’t come back until I was around six, to start school here in Roxbury,” Tillman said, noting that she attended both grammar school and high school in Roxbury.

While many people in the North faced racism and discrimination, Tillman remembers Roxbury as a different place.

“It was streets, the Greek neighborhood, the Irish neighborhood, the black neighborhood,” Tillman said. “That’s the way it was, neighborhoods. The community was divided.”

This type of sectionalizing was very common in Massachusetts, a state that has long seen immigration throughout every major historical event, ranging from Reconstruction to the potato famine.

Tillman believes that one key factor in the reduced animosity towards blacks is the fact that there were so few around Roxbury in the first place.

“When I was growing up I don’t believe there was that much prejudice and so forth because it was before the [forced bussing in south Boston],” Tillman said.

As a young girl worked she worked for the Cable Raincoat Company, which was in South Boston.

“I took the street car, and I went by myself and no one bothered me,” Tillman said.

Still, Tillman does remember feeling like something was missing. With so few black classmates, it was sometimes hard to feel comfortable in her own skin.

“I feel better or more comfortable when I’m around people who look like me, talk like me and act like me,” Tillman said. “These are comfort measures.”

Though Tillman’s days down South were numbered, she does have good memories of them.

“It was very different, and it was very nice,” Tillman said. “My grandmother had a small piece of land, 22 acres, and my grandfather had 95 acres. There were big open spaces, and we would go to the black churches.”

A strong family and instinctive parenting may have been the reason Tillman was spared from so many of the horrible experiences black men and women went through during the Great Migration.

“My family knew you didn’t stop here, you didn’t stop there,” Tillman said. “I was a child and I was protected from anything that could go wrong.”

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