Great Migration

Citation metadata

Author: Luther J. Adams
Editor: Robert D. Johnston
Date: 2010
From: Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History(Vol. 4: From the Gilded Age through the Age of Reform, 1878 to 1920. )
Publisher: CQ Press, A Division of Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,180 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 160

Great Migration


The "Great Migration" was the name given by contemporary observers to the mass movement of more than 1.5 million African Americans from the South to cities in the North between 1915 and 1921. One of the largest internal migrations in U.S. history at the time, it led to profound changes in the social, economic, racial, and political climate in the nation. The Great Migration opened new opportunities for political participation; for the first time since Reconstruction (1865–1877), large numbers of African Americans voted, elected black officials, and received significant attention from the Democratic and Republican parties.


For many African Americans, the North was a beacon of hope throughout the Jim Crow era. The "Land of Hope" and "Jim Canaan" were but two of the names they gave the region during the early part of the twentieth century. While African Americans embarked on the Great Migration because of hopes and dreams of creating a better life for themselves and their families, the specific impetus behind the move can be divided into economic and noneconomic factors. In the South, natural disasters, an infestation of cotton crops with boll weevils, and a temporary surplus of labor "pushed" African Americans off the land and toward Northern cities. Concurrently, African Americans were "pulled" out of the South by labor shortages occurring within Northern industries—the result of the greater production required by World War I, declining rates of European immigration (the primary source of industrial labor in the North), and the active recruitment of African Americans by Northern industrialists.

Northern employers, struggling to meet their workforce needs, sent labor agents to the South looking for black workers and provided many African Americans with one-way railroad passes to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in return for signing labor contracts that deducted the cost of such passes from future wages. White Southerners unsuccessfully attempted to halt migration to the North by pulling African Americans off of trains, outlawing Northern labor agents from operating in the South, and simply refusing to honor rail passes in Southern depots.

As much as African Americans moved with the hopes of securing better employment, they also moved North with the hope of escape from the shadow of slavery and racism. At a time when sharecrop-ping began to bind blacks as tightly to the land as slavery, when a series of Supreme Court decisions permitted widespread disfranchisement, and when racialized violence spread throughout the South in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and increasingly more frequent and brutal lynchings, migration to the North appeared to many African Americans a move toward freedom and equality. The North offered social, educational, and political opportunities not available in the South. For many blacks, the improved race relations in the North, the prospect of greater freedom, and the right to vote were equal in importance to better opportunities in education and for employment.

The Great Migration was facilitated by the African American press and by migrants' own networks of kinship and community. Black newspapers like the Amsterdam News, the Urban League Bulletin, and the Chicago Defender contrasted the relative freedom of the North to the racial discrimination pervasive throughout the Jim Crow South; they published information about jobs and housing, all the while emphasizing the political power of Northern black communities. Even after many Southern towns made the sale, distribution, or reading of the Chicago Defender illegal, the newspaper was still widely read Page 161  |  Top of Article
African American men, women, and children who have just arrived in Chicago with their suitcases, 1918. Between the years of 1910 and 1920 the black population exploded in Northern cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit and led to an African American men, women, and children who have just arrived in Chicago with their suitcases, 1918. Between the years of 1910 and 1920 the black population exploded in Northern cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit and led to an immense expansion of black political power. (Chicago History Museum/Getty Images) throughout the region and was central to many African Americans' decision to migrate. Thousands of blacks wrote directly to the Chicago Defender requesting information about the North.

Although newspapers like the Defender had great influence, African Americans' networks of kin were even more crucial. Kinship networks provided migrants with detailed information about housing and employment. Through letters and visits home, African Americans living in the North imparted firsthand knowledge about the better economic conditions in the North. These familial networks also served to regulate the process of migration. In many cases one family member would migrate to the North, establish a foothold, and send for other family members once a job and housing were secured. Families directed young men and women to the North with significant forethought and precision.

Between 1910 and 1920, the black population in many Northern cities grew exponentially: Philadelphia by 58 percent, Chicago by 148 percent, and Detroit by an astounding 611 percent. In New York, the black population grew by 66 percent as Southern blacks joined an influx of immigrants of African descent from Page 162  |  Top of ArticleCuba and the West Indies at the dawn of political and cultural revolutions that transformed Harlem into the black capital of the world.

Conditions in the Urban North

The influx of migrants into Northern cities led to an unprecedented expansion of black political power. African Americans' ability to vote transformed the political landscape in the North. In cities like New York and Chicago, black neighborhoods like Harlem and Bronzeville became the basis of a political power denied blacks in much of the South. African Americans were elected to office in many cities; in the era of machine politics, they received patronage from the established political parties, and they fashioned new forms of protest politics. In Chicago, the growing black population made possible the election of black officials like Oscar De Priest, who served on the Chicago city council from 1915 to 1917; in 1929, De Priest became the first black U.S. representative to serve in Congress in the twentieth century. Moreover, in a city where Democrats and Republicans were almost evenly divided, African Americans often held the power to swing elections by voting en bloc. For instance, in 1915 and 1921, African Americans voted for the Republican Bill Thompson in such numbers that he was elected mayor despite eroding support throughout Chicago as a whole. In return, African Americans were rewarded with patronage. Even in cities where they were unable to elect black officials, African Americans became active in politics. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, they convened "Race Conventions" between 1916 and 1920 to advocate greater political empowerment and to demand representative and prominent positions in the city's patronage system.

Not only did the Great Migration result in direct gains in political power, it also birthed political movements throughout the North. In his seminal 1925 essay, "The New Negro," the intellectual Alain Locke stressed that a new assertiveness and sense of self-reliance had developed in black America through the process of migration. While such self-reliance surely existed in the South—otherwise few blacks would ever have undertaken the arduous journey North—the Great Migration fueled the outpouring of artistic and political self-expression in the New Negro Movement. Although the New Negro Movement peaked with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the militant demand for political equality and the artistic efforts to create positive images of black culture to combat racist stereotypes prevalent in America were widely embraced by African Americans across the nation in the opening decades of the twentieth century. In the North, African Americans launched campaigns against Pres. Woodrow Wilson's decision to resegregate the federal government in Washington, D.C., and to screen Birth of a Nation at the White House; they also initiated and participated in the Silent Protest Parade in 1917 against lynching.

African American political activists such as James Weldon Johnson, A. Philip Randolph, and Chandler Owen were also migrants, as was poet Claude McKay, who penned the incendiary poem "If We Must Die" in response to the Chicago race riot of 1919. Indeed, New York City drew Masschusetts-born W. E. B. Du Bois, who arrived in the city after spending much time in the South; others, including Marcus Garvey, arrived in the city from the West Indies. Whether through creating political newspapers like Owen and Randolph's socialist Messenger or activism in organizations such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the African Blood Brotherhood (founded between 1917–1918 by Cyril Briggs, an immigrant from St. Kitts), the NAACP, or the Urban League, migrants and Caribbean immigrants were central to the development of black protest politics.

Discrimination and Violence

The greater political power blacks could wield in the North was not enough to overcome rampant discrimination. Though African Americans fared better economically in the North, they still lagged behind whites. Although the number of African Americans working in manufacturing rose nearly 40 percent between 1910 and 1920, they remained almost universally relegated to unskilled labor. This was particularly true of African American women, who remained concentrated in domestic labor in both the North and South. Similarly, high demand for housing created by the influx of Page 163  |  Top of ArticleAfrican Americans to Northern cities combined with the limited supply of housing created by the artificial constraints of residential segregation to create ghettos in many Northern cities. African Americans attempting to buy housing outside the ghetto faced widespread violence. Between 1917 and 1921, Chicago experienced 58 racially inspired home bombings.

The violence many blacks faced in the North was not limited to preventing access to decent housing. The Great Migration combined with conflict over housing and employment created a "Red Summer," a term coined by the African American intellectual and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson. "Red Summer" referred to the widespread violence many African Americans faced in at least twenty-five towns in the North and South between April and early October of 1919. The term was, however, somewhat of a misnomer given the more than four dozen race riots that broke out between 1916 and 1923 in cities like East St. Louis, Illinois; Philadelphia; New York; Syracuse, New York; Baltimore; Chicago; and Washington, D.C. Unlike many earlier race riots, whites were often met with organized armed resistance from blacks. Although many African Americans defended themselves during the Red Summer, the race riots were typically violent attacks by whites (including recent European immigrants) on black communities. Such attacks were sparked by fierce competition for housing and employment, and growing African American political power brought about by the Great Migration. In East St. Louis, the violence began when African Americans were employed as strikebreakers at an aluminum plant. Ultimately, the entire black community was attacked, leading to the destruction of 300 buildings, more than 100 injuries, and 48 deaths. In the Chicago riot of 1919, violence erupted after an African American youth drifted onto a "white" beach. Whites used the incident as the pretext to attack black neighborhoods and eventually racial violence spread throughout the South Side, leading to 38 deaths, 537 injured, and more than 1,000 homes destroyed.

Not only did black migrants face violence, limited housing, and economic opportunities, but also within many communities tensions arose between the prior black populations, termed "Old Settlers," and the newcomers from the South. Many Old Settlers labored under the powerful, albeit mistaken, belief that less discrimination occurred before the Great Migration and that the behavior of Southern blacks in the North exacerbated race relations. Ironically, the Chicago Defender became one of the first to criticize migrants by publishing an exhaustive list of "Do's and Don'ts." The Defender told Southern blacks: "Don't use vile language in public places. Don't allow yourself to be drawn into street brawls. Don't use liberty as a license to do as you please. Don't make yourself a public nuisance. Don't leave your job when you have a few dollars in your pocket." The treatment of new arrivals by some Old Settlers, cramped housing, limited job prospects, and a series of race riots led many African Americans to question whether the North was, in fact, a promised land.

Despite these conditions, the North offered greater opportunity. Both culturally and politically, the Great Migration transformed black life in the urban North. Without the Great Migration, the political, cultural, and intellectual movements of the period would have been greatly impoverished. The New Negro Movement of the 1920s, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance who expressed greater militancy in the North, and black political leaders organizing to achieve black equality all drew fuel from the influx of African American migrants. Through migration, African Americans not only expressed a profound dissatisfaction with the conditions of their lives in the South but also made visible a powerful belief in their own agency and hope for the future. The Great Migration led to profound changes in the political and cultural life of black people in America; at the same time, migration revealed that allegiance to the concept of white supremacy was a national issue, not merely a Southern problem. Although not all of the hopes and dreams that led African Americans to leave the South were realized, the North still offered greater opportunity.

Page 164  |  Top of Article

Bibliography and Further Reading

Baldwin, Davarian L. Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Lewis, Earl. In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Moore, Shirley Ann Wilson. To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Phillips, Kimberley L. Alabama North: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915–1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Trotter, Joe William. Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–45. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

———. The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Tuttle, William. Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Luther J. Adams


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1364300050