From about 1916 to 1970, nearly 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to cities in the North, Midwest and West as part of the Great Migration.
African Americans were pushed from their communities by a lack of economic opportunities and harsh segregationist legislation, and they migrated north to take advantage of the need for factory workers during World War I.
During the Great Migration, African Americans began to carve out a new position for themselves in public life, actively facing racial discrimination as well as economic, political and social barriers in order to construct a Black urban culture that would hold great power in the decades ahead.
Why Did Many African Americans Participate In The Great Migration?
Many African Americans in the South were imprisoned in sharecropping jobs and other forms of debt peonage, with no possibility of improving their situation. Jim Crow laws put Blacks in a lower class than white people, and they were denied political rights.
There were more opportunities available in the North and despite widespread racism, racial segregation was not enforced. They set out on the Great Migration in search of economic and social opportunities.
Causes of the Great Migration
African American workers happily abandoned low-wage employment as agricultural workers and domestic workers in the rural South and migrated north in large numbers. They found comparatively high-paying positions in meatpacking plants, shipyards and steel mills in the major cities of the Midwest and Northeast.
The desire of Black Southerners to escape Jim Crow segregation was the second significant cause of the Great Migration. Rural African American Southerners believed that segregation, as well as racism and prejudice towards Blacks, were far less severe in the North.
Between 1914 and 1920, nearly half a million African American Southerners abandoned plantations and farms for higher-paying positions in the war industries, in an attempt to escape violent racism. From 1910 to 1920, for example, the Black population of New York expanded by more than 66 percent to more than 150,000, while the number of African American residents in Cleveland increased by 307 percent to roughly 35,000.
During the same time span, Detroit’s Black population increased by 611 percent, to over 40,000 people. Community and kinship networks within Black communities in the North and South supported and enabled the Great Migration. Such networks conveyed information about job openings, suitable housing and other connections in Northern cities.
Many groups and families raised funds for their vacations through Black churches and a variety of volunteer organizations.
Did you know? When the Great Migration began in 1916, a factory salary in the urban North was often three times what Black people could expect to make laboring on the field in the rural South.
The Great Migration Began
When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, manufacturing 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.
With war production ramping up, recruiters urged African Americans to travel north, much to the dismay of white Southerners. Advertisements in Black newspapers, particularly the widely read Chicago Defender, touted the opportunities available in the cities of the North and West, along with first-person testimonials of achievement.
The First Great Migration (1910–1940)
The Northeastern and Midwestern United States accounted for fewer than 8% of the African-American population when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. This began to alter over the next decade, and by 1880, migration to Kansas was well underway. The United States Senate launched an investigation into it. In 1900, over 90% of Black Americans still lived in Southern states.
Between 1910 and 1930, the African-American population in the Northern states increased by nearly 40% as a result of migration, particularly to large cities. Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City had some of the greatest increases in the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of Black people were recruited for industrial tasks, such as those related with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s growth.
Because the changes were concentrated in cities, which had attracted millions of new or current European immigrants, tensions rose as people battled for limited jobs and housing. Tensions were often fiercest between Black people and ethnic Irish who were defending newly obtained roles and areas.
- Disputes and Violence
Tensions, mostly fueled by white workers, were developing as a result of the movement of African Americans northward and the mingling of white and Black workers in factories. The American Federation of Labor, or AFL, fought for the separation of white and African American workers in the workplace. There were nonviolent protests, such as walkouts, in opposition to African Americans and white people working together.
As tensions rose as a result of pushing for employment segregation, violence ensued. In 1917, the East St. Louis Illinois Riot, remembered as one of the worst workplace riots, killed between 40 and 200 people and displaced approximately 6000 African Americans.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, reacted to the brutality with the Silent March. In Harlem, New York, almost 10,000 African American men and women protested. Conflicts persisted after World War I, as African Americans faced new conflicts and tensions, while African American labor activity flourished.
The late summer and autumn of 1919 saw the rise of racial hostilities, which became known as the Red Summer. Violence and lengthy rebellion between Black Americans and whites in key US cities characterized this period. The causes of this violence differ. Washington, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Knoxville, Tennessee and Elaine, Arkansas, a small rural community 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Memphis, were all touched by the violence.
Chicago was the hub of the race riots, with the most violence and deaths occurring there during the riots. The writers of The Negro in Chicago, in an official report from 1922 on race relations in Chicago, concluded that there were numerous reasons that contributed to Chicago’s violent outbursts. Many Black workers had primarily taken over the jobs of white males who had left to fight in World War I.
When the war ended in 1918, many men returned home to find that their employment had been taken over by Black men ready to work for far less. By the time the riots and bloodshed in Chicago had faded, 38 people had been killed and 500 more had been injured. In addition, $250,000 in property was damaged, and over a thousand people were displaced.
Many more people had been killed in various cities across the country as a result of the Red Summer’s violence. Many people became aware of America’s growing racial tensions as a result of the Red Summer. The violence in these major cities foreshadowed the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American cultural movement that occurred in the 1920s.
As racial tensions over housing and employment discrimination rose, racial violence reappeared in Chicago, Detroit and other cities in the Northeast in the 1940s.
The Second Great Migration (1940s–1970s)
Because of fewer opportunities, migration was decreased during the 1930s Great Depression. Migration was resumed with the defense buildup for World War II and the postwar economic success, with higher numbers of Black Americans departing the South in the 1960s.
Because of exclusionary housing regulations designed to keep African American families out of emerging suburbs, this wave of migration frequently resulted in overpopulation in urban regions.
1. Patterns of Migration
Throughout the two waves of the Great Migration, southerners’ primary destinations were large cities. In the first phase, two-thirds of the migrants were drawn to eight large cities: New York and Chicago, followed by Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kansas City, Denver, Louis and Indianapolis.
The Second Great Black Migration increased the population of these cities while also introducing new locations, such as the Western states. African Americans were drawn in huge numbers to Western cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland.
There were various migratory patterns that connected specific southern states and cities to comparable regions in the north and west. During the first Great Migration, about half of those who went from Mississippi ended up in Chicago, while those from Virginia tended to settle in Philadelphia. The majority of these patterns were geographical in nature, with the nearest cities drawing the most migrants (such as Los Angeles and San Francisco receiving a disproportionate number of migrants from Texas and Louisiana).
Migration patterns were influenced by network linkages. Black Americans tended to relocate to northern places where other Black Americans had previously migrated. According to a 2021 study, “when one randomly selected African American migrated from a Southern birth town to a destination county, on average, 1.9 other Black migrants made the same move.”
Migrant Life in the City
Some researchers believe that by the end of 1919, 1 million Black individuals had left the South, generally by train, boat or bus; a smaller number owned automobiles or even horse-drawn carts.
Between 1910 and 1920, the Black population of major Northern cities increased by enormous percentages, including New York (66%), Chicago (148%), Philadelphia (500%) and Detroit (611%).
Many immigrants found work in factories, slaughterhouses and foundries, where working conditions were demanding and occasionally dangerous. Female migrants had a more difficult time finding work, resulting in fierce rivalry for domestic labor roles.
In addition to job competition, there was competition for residential space in increasingly populated areas. Despite the fact that segregation was not legalized in the North (as it was in the South), racism and prejudice were common.
After the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that racial housing regulations were unconstitutional, several residential neighborhoods adopted covenants requiring white property owners to pledge not to sell to Black people; these remained legal until the Court knocked them down in 1948.
Rising segregated-area rents, combined with a return of KKK activities after 1915, worsened Black-white relations across the country. The summer of 1919 marked the beginning of the largest period of interracial strife in United States history, including a worrying wave of race riots.
The most severe was the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which lasted 13 days and resulted in the deaths of 38 people, injuries to 537 and an eviction of 1,000 Black families.
The Great Migration’s Impact
As a result of housing pressures, many Black inhabitants ended up establishing their own cities within large cities, supporting the development of a new urban, African American culture. The most visible example was Harlem in New York City, a historically all-white neighborhood that contained over 200,000 African Americans by the 1920s.
The Black experience during the Great Migration became a major issue in the artistic movement known initially as the New Negro Movement and subsequently as the Harlem Renaissance, which had a huge impact on the culture of the time.
The Great Migration also marked the beginning of a new age of increased political activism among African Americans, who, after being rejected in the South, found a new position in public life in the cities of the North and West. This activism assisted the civil rights movement directly.
When the country was in the grip of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Black migration slowed significantly, but managed to pick up again with the advent of World War II and the need for wartime manufacturing. However, returning Black soldiers discovered that the GI Bill did not always guarantee the same postwar benefits to all.
When the Great Migration ended in 1970, its demographic impact was undeniable: in 1900, 9 out of every 10 Black Americans lived in the South, and 3 out of every 4 lived on farms. By 1970, the South was home to only half of the country’s African Americans, with only 20% living in the region’s rural areas. The epic tale of America’s Great Migration was famously captured in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.