The Great Migration

The Migration Years

During and after the Civil War emancipated men and women moved to secure their freedom. At the same time many northern free blacks went south as soldiers, and other black men and women traveled south to teach and help lead communal institutions. The Exoduster movement (1877 to 1881) during which forty thousand to seventy thousand African-Americans left the former slave states for Kansas was the first grass-roots movement out of the South. Blacks, in protest against the loss of political rights, sought equality and opportunity in the West. Then and later, the “Talented Tenth”–educated African-American leaders–fled the rise of Jim Crow and moved northward. Others considered emigration, but only a few ever returned to Africa.

The onset of the Great Migration–the mass movement of black people from the rural areas of the South to the cities of the North–came in the 1890s, as black men and women left to settle in eastern coastal cities such as Philadelphia and New York. The single largest movement of African-Americans occurred during World War I when approximately 500,000 people moved from the rural and small-town South into the cities of the North and the Midwest. The steady migration out of the South lasted until the 1970s; from 1916 through the 1960s, more than 6 million black people made the move. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, more black people moved to the South than left, part of a general population shift to the Sunbelt. When migration out of the South ebbed in the 1960s, the urban North and West became the focal point of black life. And even in the South, a majority of African-Americans lived in cities.

The Great Migration was a grass-roots, leaderless movement. All the migrants–male laborers, women domestics, families–made individual decisions to move. Nonetheless, the deterioration of the quality of life of southern blacks in the two decades prior to World War I, coupled with a labor shortage in the industrial North, stimulated the migration. In the South, the rise of Jim Crow, the disfranchisement of black voters, and the spread of lynchings and other mob violence against blacks provided strong impetus for individuals and families to move. Widespread flooding and the infestation of cotton by the boll weevil created additional economic woes in the rural South.

For the first time, the North needed southern blacks. Before World War I most northern factories had barred blacks, and few other well-paying positions were open to them. But the war in Europe stretched American industrial capacity to its limits at the very time that European immigration, which had exceeded 1.2 million in 1914, dropped sharply to 100,000 in 1918. Many businesses now hired anyone they could get, and black men and white women found new jobs and industries open to them. Although most blacks obtained only semiskilled and service jobs and their wages were usually lower than those received by white men and women for the same work, they nevertheless earned far more than they could in the South.

The Great Migration differed from previous migrations in that it was a movement directly from the rural South to the urban North. Railroads and black sleeping car porters were an important link between rural black communities and northern cities. Pullman porters on the Illinois Central Railroad distributed the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, on their trips south and facilitated the migration of fellow blacks to Chicago. In the cities of the North, vast black ghettos appeared. Chicago’s black population grew from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 in 1920.

Not all northerners welcomed the migrants, and white violence against blacks became common. Major race riots occurred, as in East St. Louis in 1917, when white rioters killed thirty-nine African-Americans. There were more than twenty major race riots in 1919. In Chicago a riot turned into a race war, as black workers and returned veterans fought back. After five days, federal troops were called in; twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites were dead.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries African-American leaders frequently debated the wisdom of migration. Two decades apart, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington advised black people to stay in the South. During World War I, on the other hand, Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender and others among the new, business-oriented, black middle class urged black southerners to come northward.

Southern counties and cities attempted to prevent the outmigration. But those who moved were exercising their mobility as free people and demonstrating their optimism about the future. Wrenching themselves from church and community in the South, they ventured into the unknown to escape oppression and create opportunities for themselves. Black migration has been inseparable from protest. Often powerless and with no other means of redress, blacks found mobility the only way to improve their lives. This was true of runaways during slavery, of free people of color before the Civil War, of newly emancipated slaves during the Civil War, and of the Exodusters to Kansas. And it was the thrust behind the Great Migration. The more recent “reverse” migration from North to South has been inspired, in part, by a desire to escape the social disintegration–high unemployment, inferior schools, crime, drugs–in many northern ghettos.

In reshaping their own lives, then, blacks have also reshaped the United States, and urban black culture has come to be recognized as an important component of modern America.

James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989); Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991); Nell I. Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1988); William M. Tuttle, Jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (1970).

David M. Katzman

NOTE: Research the census of 1870 and 1880 for Montgomery County, Cheltenham Township for the change in the number of blacks. (Philadelphia Library)

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