Great Migration

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Author: Walter F. Bell
Editor: Steven L. Danver
Date: 2011
Document Type: Event overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Great Migration

The phrase Great Migration refers to the movement of African Americans from the rural areas of the southern United States to the industrial cities of the North, Midwest, and West from 1910 to 1960. Some scholars divide the Great Migration into two phases—the First Great Migration (1910–1930) and the Second Great Migration (1940–1970)—but both followed similar patterns. The sources of the movement were the desire among blacks for more freedom from the oppressive conditions they faced in the Jim Crow South as well as economic opportunities in northern cities. In addition, they found themselves being pushed out of their homes in the South by economic and environmental changes.

African Americans had been moving to cities—both southern industrial centers such as Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia; and northern industrial centers—since the Civil War. The migration north accelerated in the 1880s and 1890s as southern states enacted laws that virtually stripped blacks of the rights they had gained during Reconstruction and unleashed a wave of violence and intimidation against blacks aimed at enforcing white supremacy. Nevertheless, in 1910, over 60 percent of the black population in the United States was employed in southern agriculture, mostly as sharecroppers on large cotton farms, and 18 percent worked as domestic servants (Marks 1985, 150).

The steady movement of African Americans to the North accelerated with the outbreak of war in Europe. The onset of World War I shut off the flow of immigration, thus denying northern industries a pool of cheap immigrant labor they could draw on to maintain a labor market surplus. At the same time, war orders from the European belligerents and President Woodrow Wilson's 1916 preparedness campaign stimulated higher demand for labor. In this context, northern industry turned to black labor. To an extent unknown before the war, industrial employers began to experiment with hiring blacks into positions that had previously been closed to them.

At the same time, conditions in the South served to push many blacks into leaving the South. A series of severe floods in 1916 forced thousands of sharecroppers from their farms. Disenfranchisement, segregation, and the continuing threat of violence—particularly an increase in the frequency of lynchings—also worked as inducements for blacks to leave. The biggest consideration, however, was wages. Migrants moving north could easily make more money, even as unskilled laborers, than they could in any occupation in the South. On average, hourly pay in the South was only three-quarters of those in the North (Marks 1985, 152).

Whatever their reasons for leaving, between 1915 and 1920, an estimated 400,000 African Americans left the South for northern cities (Barnes 2008, 65). They concentrated in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio, Page 774  |  Top of Articlein the Midwest and New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh in the East. The influx of black migrants into northern cities put a strain on housing and city services.

Typesetters work at their keyboards at the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper founded in Chicago in 1905. The Defender was the most influential African American newspaper in the United States during the early and Typesetters work at their keyboards at the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper founded in Chicago in 1905. The Defender was the most influential African American newspaper in the United States during the early and mid-20th century and played a major role in the migration of African Americans from the South to the North. (Library of Congress)

The greatest strain, however, was on race relations between the burgeoning black communities and working-class ethnic whites with whom they competed for jobs. White fears of black competition exploded into violence that became more common in 1919 as large numbers of returning black and white servicemen put even more pressure on the depressed. These tensions culminated in the Chicago riot of July 1919.

The Great Migration continued in the 1920s driven by increased mechanization of southern agriculture and continuing violence and oppression in the Jim Crow South. Although it slowed during the Depression decade of the 1930s, the Migration surged again during and after World War II, permanently altering the political, social, and demographic landscape in the United States.

Walter F. Bell

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Further Reading

Barnes, Harper. Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Walker & Company, 2008.

Marks, Carole. “Black Workers and the Great Migration North.” Phylon 46, no. 2 (2nd Quarter 1985): 148–161.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr., ed. The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1766600290