Nine out of ten African Americans lived in the American South in 1900. By 1930, nearly three in ten lived outside the South. By 1970, about five in ten African Americans lived in the South, four in ten in the North, and one in ten in the West. This shift in African American population became known as the Great Migration. When people move from one geographic location to another, it is called migration.
Historians have debated the reasons African Americans failed to leave the South in greater numbers after they earned their freedom through the American Civil War (1861–65). It is commonly believed that former slaves remained in the South because that was the only lifestyle they had ever known. The North had become industrialized, with an economy dependent upon factories and business. Slaves had lived an agrarian lifestyle, one dependent on the land and agriculture. Although the prospect of finding work that paid a wage in the North attracted some former slaves, the migration was not as great as it might have been.
Later in the nineteenth century, millions of European immigrants sailed to America's shores to find work and build a life in the North. Without these immigrants to fill the many factory and industrial positions, African American southerners might have had a greater likelihood of finding work. World War I (1914–18) reduced immigration to the United States, and immigration laws passed in the 1920s further restricted immigration. As a result, southern African Americans migrated in greater numbers during this period.
The 1930s was a decade known as the Great Depression , when unemployment rates across the country were at a record high. Migration decreased during this time because jobs were scarce no matter where in the country one lived.
The decade between 1940 and 1950 saw the greatest migration of southern African Americans in history. World War II (1939–45) had a tremendous impact on American business, and as thousands of American men went overseas to fight, there was a major need for workers—both men and women, black and white—to maintain the wartime industries. In contrast to the Great Depression, this decade brought definite employment for anyone willing to trade an agricultural existence for an urban life.