The Great Migration was the twentieth-century mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the cities primarily of the North and West. In the view of some historians, the migration began around the turn of the twentieth century and continued through the 1950s. Others set narrower parameters, arguing that the Great Migration began with World War I and ended with World War II. All agree, however, that the shift fundamentally altered the history of African Americans and of American society as a whole.
The number of persons on the move was substantial. In 1910, roughly 90 percent of America's 10 million African Americans lived in the South, a figure roughly unchanged since the formal ending of slavery in 1865. Of these 9 million, roughly eight in ten lived in rural areas. Between 1915 and 1920, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million African Americans left the rural South for the urban North and West. A similar number made the move in the 1920s. Like many migrants, a number of these individuals returned to the South. Still, enough stayed that of the roughly 12 million African Americans in 1930, 20 percent were living in the urban North and West.
Cities in the Northeast and Midwest received the bulk of the migrants. New York's black population rose from about 92,000 in 1910 (1.9 percent of the total population) to just over 150,000 in 1920 and to nearly 330,000 by 1930 (4.8 percent). Chicago's rose from about 44,000 (2.0 percent) to nearly 110,000 to more than 230,000 in the same period (6.8 percent). Detroit's black population rose from under 6,000 (1.3 percent) to almost 41,000 to more than 120,000 (7.6 percent). Los Angeles saw its black population rise from about 8,000 in 1910 (2.5 percent) to almost 40,000 in 1930 (3.2 percent).
Southern cities also saw significant growth. Atlanta's black population went from just under 52,000 in 1910 (33.8 percent) to nearly 63,000 in 1920 and more than 90,000 (33.3 percent) in 1930; that of Memphis climbed from around 50,000 (38.2 percent) to about 60,000 to roughly 100,000 (39.5 percent). The population of heavily African American states in the South, particularly those without large urban areas, declined in relative terms, as black majorities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina turned into minorities.
Like most other mass migrations in modern world history, the Great Migration was caused by a host of factors, which scholars divide into two general categories: push and pull. Push factors included environmental, economic, and social conditions. During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, African Americans in the South had made significant economic and political gains. Later, however, their right to vote was largely taken away from them by the poll tax and other restrictive laws. Their economic gains were whittled away by declines in the prices for the commodities they raised as well as high rents and interest rates charged by landholders and merchants. Also damaging was an infestation by the boll weevil, an insect pest that destroyed much of the cotton crop in the mid-1910s. And the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding segregation greatly restricted African Americans’ place in society.
The pull factors were largely economic but included some political and social elements as well. First and foremost was the lure of relatively high-paying jobs, particularly in heavy industry, made possible by a booming manufacturing economy in both the urban North and a few Southern cities such as Richmond and Birmingham. World War I, with its huge demand for labor, opened new opportunities for blacks in defense plants, as did passage of the Naturalization Acts of 1921 and 1924, which severely restricted the number of unskilled immigrant workers from Southern and Eastern Europe. While blacks were often restricted to the lowest-paying maintenance jobs in many factories, such employment still represented an economic improvement for former sharecroppers who, as late as the early twentieth century, were still barely connected to the cash economy.
Northern cities, though largely segregated, also offered greater social inclusiveness for blacks, who formed impoverished but culturally dynamic neighborhoods in virtually every major city north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Page 463 | Top of ArticleJazz Age was the decade of the “New Negro”—urbanized, literate, and assertive—and the Harlem Renaissance, a black cultural efflorescence centered in the Harlem section of New York City. Also, by moving North, blacks were able to reenter the political process, as most Northern states had no restrictions on black voting. The result was that blacks became part of the calculation of urban political machines, their needs addressed by their representatives who, though limited in number, served in city and state governments and, after 1928, in the U.S. Congress as well.
Yet African Americans who moved North did not escape racism entirely. While in their own neighborhoods they were largely free of the daily indignities and humiliations of the Jim Crow South, many Northern urban whites resented their growing numbers, seeing in African Americans a threat to their own precarious economic and social position. Many white workers saw blacks as economic competitors, a situation exacerbated by employers who used African Americans as strikebreakers. In addition, many immigrants feared that their tentative rise up the social ladder was jeopardized by intermingling with a caste of people—African Americans—uniformly looked down upon by the native born. Not surprisingly, the major antiblack riots of the late 1910s—in East St. Louis and Chicago—were triggered in part by white perceptions that blacks were trying to move into their neighborhoods.
Despite this backlash, the Great Migration continued, slowed only by the depressed manufacturing economy of the 1930s. With the defense-industry demands of World War II and the great postwar economic boom of the 1950s, the Great Migration—whether called by that name or not—continued. By 1960, roughly 40 percent of all African Americans lived in the North and West, and nearly 75 percent were urban.
James Ciment and Sam Hitchmough
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Grossman, James. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Reprint ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Hahn, Steven. A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
Harrison, Alferdteen. Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. New York: Random House, 2010.