Between 1916 and 1970, the Great Migration displaced about 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the metropolis of the North, Midwest, and West. Many Black Americans were driven north by insufficient economic possibilities and severe segregationist legislation, and many took advantage of the demand for industrial workers that grew during the First World War. During the Great Migration, African Americans began to carve out a new position for themselves in society, aggressively facing racial discrimination as well as economic, political, and social barriers to forge a Black urban culture that would have far-reaching ramifications in the decades ahead.
What Was the Origin of the Great Migration?
During the 1870s, racial inequality remained across the South following the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, and segregationist laws known as “Jim Crow” quickly established the law of the land.
Due to Black codes and the sharecropping system, which gave little in the way of economic opportunities, Southern Black people were forced to work the land to make a livelihood, especially following crop loss caused by a regional boll weevil infestation in the 1890s and early 1900s.
While the Ku Klux Klan was officially disbanded in 1869, the organization continued to operate covertly, and intimidation, violence, and even lynching of Black southerners were commonplace in the Jim Crow South.
What if I told you that When the Great Migration began in 1916, factory wages in the urban North were typically three times higher than farm wages in the rural South.
The Beginning of the Great Migration
When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914, industrialized cities in the North, Midwest, and West faced a labor crisis, as the war halted the continuous flow of European immigrants to the United States.
Recruiters urged African Americans to travel north as war production ramped up, much to the chagrin of white Southerners. Advertisements promoting the prospects available in the cities of the North and West, as well as first-hand experiences of success, were featured in black publications, particularly the widely read Chicago Defender.
The Great Migration: Migrant Life in the City
Some researchers believe that 1 million African-Americans had left the South by the end of 1919, mostly by train, boat, or bus; a lesser number possessed automobiles or even horse-drawn carts.
Between 1910 and 1920, the Black population of major Northern cities such as New York (66 percent), Chicago (148 percent), Philadelphia (500 percent), and Detroit rose by huge percentages (611 percent).
Many newcomers found work in factories, slaughterhouses, and foundries, where working conditions were sometimes difficult and dangerous. Female migrants found it more difficult to find work, resulting in fierce rivalry for domestic labor roles.
There was competition for living space in increasingly crowded cities, in addition to competition for jobs. Despite the fact that segregation was not legal in the North (as it was in the South), racism and prejudice were common.
Some residential districts created covenants requiring white property owners to promise not to sell to Black persons after the United States Supreme Court deemed racially-based housing regulations unlawful in 1917. These would be legal until 1948 when the Supreme Court overturned them.
After 1915, rising rents in segregated regions, along with a return of KKK activity, exacerbated racial tensions across the country. The biggest period of interracial strife in US history began in the summer of 1919, with a worrying wave of race riots.
The most catastrophic was the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which lasted 13 days and resulted in the deaths of 38 people, 537 injuries, and the eviction of 1,000 Black families.
The Great Migration’s Effects
Many Black citizens created their own cities within big cities as a result of housing pressures, supporting the formation of a new urban, African American culture. The most famous example was Harlem, a historically all-white neighborhood in New York City that by the 1920s had 200,000 African Americans.
The African-American experience during the Great Migration became a major issue in the artistic movement known as the New Negro Movement, later known as the Harlem Renaissance, which had a huge impact on the culture of the time.
The Great Migration also marked the start of a new period of political activism with African Americans, who, after being disenfranchised in the South, found a new home in the cities of the North and West. This activism directly aided the civil rights struggle.
When the country fell into the Great Depression in the 1930s, black migration slowed significantly but resumed with the advent of World War II and the need for wartime manufacturing. Returning Black soldiers, on the other hand, discovered that the GI Bill didn’t always guarantee the same postwar benefits to everyone.
When the Great Migration ended in 1970, the demographic impact was unmistakable: although nine out of ten Black Americans resided in the South in 1900, and three out of four lived on farms, the South only housed half of the country’s African Americans in 1970, with just 20% living in rural areas. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a well-known account of the Great Migration.
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