Great Migration, 1910–70
The Great Migration was a massive population shift that occurred in the United States between 1910 and 1970, when nearly 8 million African Americans left rural communities of the South seeking greater economic opportunity and racial tolerance in cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and eventually the West Coast. In 1914, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the states of the former Confederacy. By 1970 more than 50 percent of blacks lived outside the South. Scholars continue to study the so-called “push” and “pull” factors that caused this migration, as well as the dramatic economic, social, and cultural changes that resulted from it.
After the Civil War (1861–65) and through the end of the nineteenth century, most blacks remained in the South, where their ancestors had worked the land as slaves. Maintaining the communities in which they had been raised, they lived primarily in rural areas and worked in agricultural jobs. Even as free citizens, however, Southern blacks had little or no opportunity to own land or build financial independence. Generally limited to sharecropping, they remained dependent for their livelihoods on the landowners (previously slave-holders), who loaned the seed and capital (such as livestock and plows) needed to grow the crops, controlled the sale of the harvest, and kept the financial records. Moreover, whereas cotton growing had been lucrative on the large-scale model of a 500- to 1,000-acre plantation, it was extremely difficult to turn a profit on a sharecropper's tract of 40 to 50 acres. Under these circumstances, the average sharecropper struggled continually to pay his debt to the landowner and was rarely able to save enough money to buy his own tools or advance in other ways.
The severe limitation of the Southern agricultural livelihood is described as a “push” factor for migration—that is, one that eventually drove blacks out of the South. The prospect of earning higher factory wages in the industrialized cities of the North is described as a “pull” factor—one so attractive that African Americans would risk moving to an unknown region of the country to start a new life.
Another significant “push” factor began in the late 1870s with the enactment in the South of the discriminatory statutes that later became known as Jim Crow laws. These laws mandated the physical separation of blacks and whites in all public places, including buses and railway cars, restaurants and theaters, and hospitals and schools. Validated by a series of Supreme Court rulings during the 1890s, Jim Crow policy was ultimately cemented by the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896, which enshrined the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the United States. Far from providing equality, Jim Crow laws effectively consigned African Americans to the status of second-class citizens, denying their right to vote and other civil rights and curtailing their social, educational, and economic opportunities.
Despite these combined factors, African Americans did not begin leaving the South in large numbers until the second decade of the twentieth century, when World War I (1914–18) provided a critical new “pull” factor that greatly accelerated the migration of African Americans to Northern cities. Until then factory jobs in Northern cities had been largely filled by European immigrants, who had begun flooding into the United States in the 1880s, seeking prosperity in the New World. During the war years the needs of the defense industry increased demand for industrial labor,
while European immigration saw a marked decline, drastically reducing the competition for jobs. Meanwhile, African American newspapers, perhaps most notably the Chicago Defender, played a significant role in promoting the social and economic promise of the North to Southern blacks just as the South was experiencing devastating floods, an infestation of boll weevils that decimated the cotton crop, and other agricultural disasters. During the decade between 1910 and 1920, the African American population of the North and West grew by 450,000, principally in Chicago, New York City, Detroit, and Cleveland.
Black migration remained strong during the 1920s, when new anti-immigration legislation continued to limit competition for urban jobs, but it dwindled considerably during the 1930s, as the Northern industrial economy was hobbled by the Great Depression. Migration resurged again during World War II (1939–45), when many of the same push-pull factors (including wartime job opportunities, restricted foreign immigration, and continued racial hostilities in the South) launched a second wave of African Americans from the South, many of them relocating as far as Los Angeles, Oakland, and other West Coast cities. The black exodus from the South peaked during 1940s and 1950s, when nearly 3 million people abandoned the region.
Although segregation was not legally enforced outside the South, African Americans settling in industrial cities faced unmistakable racism nonetheless, including the threat of violence or intimidation if they sought to move into the same neighborhoods as whites. Relegated to living in densely populated all-black enclaves (commonly referred to as “ghettos”), African American migrants were initially confined to stereotypically “negro” jobs, such as cooks and porters, or worked in low-skilled industrial positions. Eventually black workers moved up the occupational ladder to hold an increasing number of skilled manufacturing jobs and clerical positions. At the same time, new African American communities formed, generating a new urban black culture and a growing inclination toward political activism. As African Americans in industrial cities began to agitate for fair wages, equal protection under the law, and the chance to vote and hold political office, the seeds of the civil rights movement (1950s and 1960s) were born.
By 1970 migratory flows between the North and South had more or less equalized. Not only had Jim Crow laws been overturned in the South but new manufacturing jobs and the spread of air conditioning were contributing to the emergence of the so-called Sunbelt (a coast-to-coast swath of 15 Southern states) as an attractive place to live and work. The Great Migration remains an important topic for economic historians because it effectively redefined the social, economic, and cultural fabric of the nation.
Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005. Print.
Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.
Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2003. Print.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. New York: Random, 2010. Print.