What is the Up South? Where is Up South? The phrase has its origins in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. During those decades, Black migrants were moving from southern states into midwestern cities, seeking jobs, education, and an exit from the Jim Crow south.
What they found was that the Jim Crow laws in midwestern cities like St. Louis were in effect. The housing and schools were segregated. Maybe there were fewer restrictions than in the deep south, but there were still restrictions on them.
The dark humor of the phrase Up South
When studying the Black origins of Rock’n’Roll music in the 1940s and 1950s for her book Black Diamond Queens, NYU Anthropology professor Maureen Mahon came across the phrase “Up South.” She described the phenomenon as Black migrants moving to industrial cities in search of better living conditions. And what they found was that there were still restrictions on them.
They described the conditions in these midwestern and western cities as “up south,” a bitterly humorous play on the common phrases “down south” and “up north.”
An example of this was the Ville neighborhood in St. Louis, near Homer Phillips Hospital. It was a 5×9 block area where the population was 95% Black. You were safe, as long as you stayed in that area. But over time, even that was dismantled. Vincent Schoemehl ran for mayor on a platform of reopening the hospital, but once elected, didn’t follow through.
Much of this happened off the books. When I was searching for an apartment in the 1990s, I asked a lifelong St. Louisan why I couldn’t find much within 30 minutes of where I was working at the time. He said they don’t advertise, that you have to drive into neighborhoods and look for signs. He said it was a way to keep segregation in effect without breaking any laws. The Delmar Divide is an extreme example, but St. Louis wasn’t the only city that had such a thing.
Discriminating against applicants based on race was illegal, but if the people you want to keep out don’t know and don’t apply, then everyone was following the letter of the law, even if they were violating the spirit of the law in every possible way. People go to school near where they live, and they usually work where they live.
Mahon ran across the phrase when researching the lives and influences of Black musicians in midwestern and western cities. But the phrase turned up in Philadelphia as well. Philadelphia was the first city to ban discrimination in employment, services and contracts, but by the 1960s, it wasn’t working. Philadelphia was still segregated too. Matthew Countryman titled his book on the struggle for racial equality in Philadelphia Up South.