The Great Migration was the largest internal mass movement of a racial or ethnic group in U.S. history. Migration has been a central dimension of the black experience in the United States. In the wake of the Civil War, thousands of former slaves tested the meaning of their freedom by leaving rural plantations for southern cities. By the 20th century, black migration had become national in scope. The most significant waves of African American migration in the 20th century have occurred in times of war. The years encompassing and immediately following World War I marked the beginnings of the Great Migration. The social, political, and economic dynamics of war both induced and facilitated relocating in search of better jobs, to escape segregation in the South, or to join relatives. Between 1910 and 1970 the demographics of African Americans shifted from being overwhelmingly southern and rural to largely northern and urban. During this period, more than six million African Americans abandoned the South in search of greater opportunity in the North, Midwest, and the West Coast.
Black migration during World War I was not solely from North to South—large numbers of rural African Americans relocated to nearby and steadily expanding southern cities. Nevertheless, major cities in the Northeast and Midwest offered the best potential for increased social, economic, and political opportunity and thus experienced the most significant increases in their black populations. Upwards of one million black Southerners left in search of a better life in the North during the war and throughout the 1920s. The most prominent migration streams flowed from rural areas of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. The African American population of Chicago, one of the most popular migratory centers, increased by 50,000 to 75,000; Detroit's black community exploded from 6,000 in 1920 to 120,000 by 1930.
Twentieth-century migration and its causes are traditionally analyzed in terms of "push-pull" factors; during the World War I era, economic and social conditions in the rural South pushed African Americans to actively seek out opportunities in northern urban areas. A depressed cotton market, compounded by the effects of successive boll weevil infestations further marginalized black sharecroppers. The social and political manifestations of white supremacy functioned as an even more potent force in the decision of African Americans to abandon the rural South. Black migrants actively searched for alternatives to the daily humiliations of Jim Crow and the ever-looming threat of violence that undergirded the southern power structure.
In addition, wartime employment opportunities pulled African Americans from their southern roots to major northern cities. African Americans eagerly filled industrial jobs left vacant because of the interruption of European immigration. Increased production demands brought about by the war made black people a vital source of labor for jobs normally considered off-limits. White agents often recruited southern African Americans for industrial employment and facilitated their arrival to a city.
Although shaped by the political economy of war, the Great Migration was fundamentally a grassroots movement propelled by the intrinsic desire for individual and familial safety, social dignity, political agency, and economic viability. African Americans did not need white labor agents to enlighten them about the benefits of leaving the South. Families carefully planned and strategized their departures. Migration often occurred in stages, with an individual family member leaving to scout housing and employment opportunities in advance ofPage 329 | Top of Article his or her remaining kin. They were further aided by social networks, including previous migrants, family members, railroad workers, and communal organizations that informed potential "exodusters" of the prospects for a better life in the city and provided both tangible and intangible assistance to them in their transition. The Chicago Defender, for example, played an extremely important role. As the nation's largest-circulation black newspaper, the Defender encouraged the steady flow of African American Southerners by extolling the social and economic benefits of migration to Chicago, within the context of a stinging critique of southern white supremacy.
Resistance to mass southern migration existed among both whites and African Americans of various ideological persuasions. Predictably, white southern landowners decried the departure of significant segments of their black labor force and the potential fiscal ramifications. Booker T. Washington and other like-minded African American social leaders also attempted to dissuade potential migrants on the grounds that the South constituted the natural home of African Americans and urban life led to an inevitable decay of personal and moral values. Finally, the government became concerned that individual decisions by black farmers to seek other kinds of employment undermined its campaign to encourage maximum production and conservation of food at home to feed troops and civilians overseas.
Moving to the North was not a panacea. Employment opportunities became increasingly scarce and competitive following the war and the return of soldiers to their homes. De facto segregation characterized social and living conditions of most northern cities, resulting in the confinement of African Americans to congested neighborhoods. The growing black populations pushed racial boundaries, resulting in heightened tensions between whites and African Americans. A series of race riots swept the nation during this era, the most deadly occurring in East St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, cities with large numbers of recent migrants.
The influx of southern migrants reshaped the character of African American communal life in the North. For example, the Great Migration exacerbated the significant role class played in the lives of black people. Longtime African American residents often viewed their newly arrived southern brethren as socially and culturally backward and feared that these newcomers would jeopardize the black community's tenuous social and political status in the eyes of whites. Nevertheless, migrants contributed significant social, political, and spiritual resources, profoundly transforming black culture, manifested in part in the advent of blues music and the arts of the Harlem Renaissance.
As was the case during the early years of the first Great Migration, further convulsions in the southern agricultural economy contributed to pushing rural African Americans out of the region during the 1930s and 1940s. The economic ravages wrought by the Great Depression, however, distinguished the migratory waves of this period from its World War I predecessor. Southern African Americans whose jobs involved working the land increasingly became refugees, as white landowners sought to maximize profits by mechanizing. The advent of the cotton harvester rendered the labor of thousands of African American farmers obsolete and further contributed to the disconnection of sharecroppers from the land that had been set in motion during the New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Many of the thousands of African Americans arriving in northern cities could not secure employment in the constricted labor market.
World War II brought welcome relief. The war facilitated a second dramatic surge in African American migration, as more than five million African Americans left the South after 1940. Displaced workers flocked en masse to urban areas in search of wartime jobs and increased social freedom. Migration to popular northern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh continued. However, the westward direction of the World War II–era Great Migration set it apart from that of the World War I era. Defense industries and the construction of naval shipyards attracted new residents by the millions. During the war years, approximately 350,000 African Americans migrated to California, with over 100,000 taking up residence in the San Francisco bay area.
While African American migrants faced many of the same challenges as previous arrivals, important differences existed. By World War II, African Americans had firmly established themselves in many northern cities and developed increased political influence in local affairs. This fact,Page 330 | Top of Article combined with a heightened political consciousness engendered by the war, inspired black migrants to demand greater social and economic rights. Despite the growing political significance of urban black constituencies, city governments struggled with varying degrees of success to peacefully incorporate new migrants into social, political, and economic municipal life and to mitigate interracial tensions. The nearly universal solution entailed residentially segregating African Americans within increasingly poor, overcrowded neighborhoods that steadily devolved into ghettos. In several cities, de facto segregation did not completely reduce the possibility of violent conflict. On June 20, 1943, Detroit erupted in a race riot that resulted in the death of 34 people, 25 of whom were African American.
African American migration from the South continued at a steady pace throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When the exodus began to slow by 1970, nearly half the nation's black population resided outside of the South, the vast majority living in cities. The Great Migration stands as a testament to the determination of African Americans to secure personal and familial freedom as they responded to larger social, political, and economic forces. It also illustrates how wars in the 20th century offered African Americans an opportunity to reshape their lives, which, in turn, reshaped the entire nation.
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—Chad L. Williams