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The Great Migration (106061 hits)

The Great Migration

Background and Summary

The Great Migration was the movement of approximately seven million Black people out of the Southern United States to the North, Midwest and Western states from 1916 to 1970. Blacks migrated to escape widespread racism in the South, to seek employment opportunities in industrial cities of the North, to get better education for their children, and to pursue what was widely perceived to be a more prosperous life.

Some historians differentiate between the Great Migration from 1910 to 1940, numbering roughly two million migrants, and the Second Great Migration, from 1940 to 1970. Not only was the Second Migration larger, with five million or more people relocating, but the demographic differed, and migrants moved to different destination. During the Second Great Migration many moved from Texas and Louisiana to California, where there was a new range of jobs in the defense industry.

Everyone Gets the Same Idea

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, less than eight percent of the Black population lived in the northeast or Midwest. By 1900, approximately 90 percent of all Black people still resided in former slave-holding states. Most Blacks who participated in the migration moved to large, northern, industrial cities, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis, as well as to many smaller industrial cities. People tended to take the cheapest rail ticket possible, which determined where they would resettle. This resulted in, for example, people from Mississippi moving to Chicago and people from Texas moving to Los Angeles.

Between 1910 and 1930, the Black population in the North rose by about 20 percent. Cities such as Detroit, New York and Cleveland had some of the most significant increases in the early part of the century. Because growth was concentrated in the cities, urban tensions rose as Blacks and new European immigrants competed for jobs and housing with White, working-class Americans.

Black people moved as individuals or in small family groups. There was no available government assistance, but sometimes northern industries recruited people because of the need for labor. Blacks migrated for a variety of factors. The primary factor was the hostile racial climate in the South and increasing terrorism from White-supremacy and pro-slavery groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In the North, there were better schools for Black children and adult men could vote, joined by women after 1920. Burgeoning industries of all sorts meant that there were numerous job opportunities.

Top causes for the Great Migrations: One, many Blacks believed they could escape the racial segregation of Jim Crow laws in the South by seeking refuge in the North. Two, the boll weevil infestation of Southern cotton fields in the late 1910s forced many sharecroppers to search for alternative employment opportunities. Three, he enormous expansion of war industries created new job openings for Blacks, not in the factories but in the service jobs that new factory workers vacated. Four, World War I and the Immigration Act of 1924 effectively put a halt to the flow of European immigrants to the emerging industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, causing shortages of workers in the factories. And lastly, five, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and its aftermath displaced hundreds of thousands of Black farmers and farm workers.

Effects of the Move

The 20th century cultures of many modern cities were forged in this period. For instance, in 1910, the Black population of Detroit was 6,000, by the start of the Great Depression in 1929; this figure had risen to 120,000. Other cities, such as Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, also experienced surges in their Black populations. At the same time, these cities were receiving hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Major industrial cities were places of numerous languages, an influx of peoples from mostly rural social and economic cultures, and staggeringly rapid change in the early decades of the 20th century.

The rapid scale of change could be seen, for example, in Chicago. In 1900, the city had a total population of 1,698,575. By 1920, Chicago had increased by more than one million residents. Its population of 2,701,705 included more than one million Catholics, 800,000 foreign-born immigrants, 125,000 Jews and 110,000 Blacks. There were in existence, 15 breweries and 20,000 speakeasies to keep things lively during Prohibition.

In the South, the departure of hundreds of thousands of Blacks caused the Black percentage of the population in most Southern states to decrease. In Mississippi and South Carolina, for example, Black numbers decreased from about 60 percent of the population in 1930 to about 35 percent by 1970.

Northern Opposition

While the Great Migration enabled educated Blacks to obtain jobs, establishing a measure of class mobility, the migrants encountered significant forms of discrimination in the North. Because so many people had migrated in so short a period of time, the Black migrants were often resented by the White working class in the North, who feared that their ability to negotiate rates of pay, or even to secure employment at all, was threatened by the influx of new labor competition. In many cities, working classes tried to defend what they saw as "their" own territories.

The migrants also discovered that the open discrimination characteristic of the South was manifested, only more subtly, in the North. Mortgage discrimination and redlining in inner city areas limited the migrants' ability to determine their own housing, or even to get a fair price on that housing. Populations increased so rapidly among both Black migrants and new European immigrants that there were housing shortages and the newer migrant groups competed for even the oldest, most neglected housing. Ethnic groups created territories that they defended against change. Established urban populations tended to move to newer housing being developed on the outskirts. In the long term, the National Housing Act of 1934 contributed to limiting the availability of loans to urban areas, particularly those areas inhabited by Blacks.

As Blacks migrated, they became increasingly integrated into society. As they lived and worked more closely with Whites, the divide that existed between them became increasingly stark. This period marked the transition for many Blacks from lifestyles as rural farmers to urban industrial workers. During the migration, migrants would commonly move as a community rather than as individuals or families. Similarly, immigrants from rural European communities tended to settle in the U.S. with people from their home villages. These tendencies among the newer ethnic groups contributed to maintaining the "racial divide" in the North, perhaps even accentuating it.

Since Black migrants sustained many Southern cultural and linguistic traits, these cultural differences created a sense of "otherness" in terms of their reception by those who were living in the cities before the migration. Stereotypes ascribed to Black people during this period were often derived from the migrants' rural cultural traditions, which were maintained in stark contrast to the urban environments in which the people resided. 

Sources:;; Arnesen, Eric. Black Protest and the Great Migration: A Brief History with Documents, 2002; Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, 1991; Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, 1991; Scott, Emmett J., Negro Migration during the War, 1920; Sernett, Milton. Bound for the Promised Land: African Americans' Religion and the Great Migration, 1997.

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Thursday, March 13th 2008 at 2:48PM
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Wednesday, June 4th 2008 at 3:21PM
Now there are big numbers of African Americans migrating from the North back to the South.... trying to escape from the high rents, crime, etc. Most I think looking for a piece of suburbia, such as myself.
Wednesday, April 15th 2009 at 11:38AM
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