Skip to main content

Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Migration North after World War II

According to Louis McDowell — preacher, distributor of free food to those in need, and owner of McDowell's Barber Shop, on River Street — Paterson was "itself" between the 1930s and the 1950s. Then, it was "a beautiful little city," one that welcomed his family fresh from their farm in Mississippi. With his older sister leading the charge, they came every year, two at a time for four years, until all seven brothers and sisters were settled and working. In those halcyon days, McDowell remembers everything being "nice" — the streets, the factories, and "even the police."

Although some African Americans in Paterson are second- or third-generation residents, many migrated north during the post-World War II period of great economic growth. In sharp contrast to the current climate, jobs were plentiful. At that time, African-American settlement was concentrated in the center of the city, east and west, and to the north, with many blacks living harmoniously in mixed neighborhoods with Italian, Polish, Dutch, and Jewish residents.

Easter Benson, owner of E & A Soul Food Restaurant, on Straight Street, grew up in South Carolina. There, when she was young, she worked alongside her mother picking cotton, stripping corn, cooking, cleaning, and quilting. She wanted a job outside the home, but none were to be had nearby. In 1954 she moved to Paterson, a place she had heard about through friends who had already made the journey north. Once she arrived in Paterson, she soon found work and a good place to live.

Living off the land was a formative experience for Southern migrants, many of whom were contributing workers in household economies based around family farms. Youthful responsibilities prepared them for a life of hard work. For example, Easter Benson parlayed her early experience with cooking in quantity for her large farm family and neighbors into a successful soul-food business in Paterson.

On Labor Day, 1942, George and Martha Jiggetts came to the city together and immediately got jobs. Martha had a cousin in Paterson and George, who had been coming north to work in Baltimore and Newark factories, wanted to escape the racial tyranny back home in Virginia.

One of George Jiggetts's experiences in Virginia provides an example. Upon hearing that his father's tobacco harvest received a lower price at the auction than white farmers' harvests, merely because he was black, young George removed the leaves from the buying floor and took them to a town where bidders did not know the origin of his tobacco. This lesson and others he learned in Virginia shaped his work style in Paterson. He quit menial jobs with no future for blacks (and insisted that his wife follow suit), and eventually established his own business, one built on a foundation of hard work and respect for others.

The Jiggettses, now serving a third generation of taxi riders, recall older customers, unaware that the cab company's name had changed from Jiggetts to Nationwide, refusing to get into a cab that did not bear their name. Their daughter, Bobby Wash, who has worked in the business all her life, once had to drive to the house of a customer to convince her to get into a cab without the family name on it.

From Folklife Center News 17, No. 3 (Summer 1995)
ISSN 0149-6840 Catalog Card No. 77-649628

By Susan Levitas

 Back to top