Great Migration (African American)

The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West that occurred between 1910 and 1970. Some historians differentiate being the first Great Migration (1910â€"1930), numbering about 1.6 million migrants who left mostly rural areas to migrate to northern industrial cities and, after a lull during the Great Depression, a Second Great Migration (1940 to 1970), in which 5 million or more people moved from the South, including many to California and other western states. Between 1910 and 1970, blacks moved from 14 states of the South, especially Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, to the other three cultural (and census-designated) regions of the United States. According to US census figures, Georgia suffered net losses in its African-American population for three consecutive decades from 1920â€"1950. More townspeople with urban skills moved during the second migration.

By the end of the Second Great Migration, African Americans had become an urbanized population. More than 80 percent of blacks lived in cities. A majority of 53 percent remained in the South, while 40 percent lived in the North, and 7 percent in the West. According to Nicholas Lemann, the Great Migration:

was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in historyâ€"perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation. In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic groupâ€"Italians or Irish or Jews or Polesâ€"to [the U.S.]. For blacks, the migration meant leaving what had always been their economic and social base in America, and finding a new one.

A reverse migration has gathered strength since 1965, dubbed the New Great Migration, the term for demographic changes in which many blacks have returned to the South, generally to states and cities where economic opportunities are the best. Since the 1960s, economic difficulties of cities in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, growth of jobs in the "New South" with lower costs of living, family and kinship ties, and improving racial relations have all acted to attract African Americans to the South in substantial numbers. As early as 1975 to 1980, seven southern states were net black migration gainers. African-American populations continue to drop throughout much of the Northeast, particularly with black emigration out of the state of New York, as well as out of Northern New Jersey, as they rise in the Southern United States.

Numbers and destinations

James Gregory calculates decade-by-decade migration volumes in his book, The Southern Diaspora. Black migration picked up from the start of the new century, with 204,000 leaving in the first decade. The pace accelerated with the outbreak of World War I and continued through the 1920s. By 1930, there were 1.3 million former southerners living in other regions.

The Great Depression wiped out job opportunities in the northern industrial belt, especially for African Americans, and caused a sharp reduction in migration. A second and larger Great Migration began around 1940 as defense industries geared up for World War II. 1.4 million black southerners moved north or west in the 1940s followed by 1.1 million in the 1950s and another 2.4 million people in the 1960s and early 1970s. By the late 1970s, as deindustrialization and the rust belt crisis took hold, the Great Migration came to an end. In the 1980s and early 1990s, more black Americans were heading South than leaving that region.

Big cities were the principal destinations of southerners throughout the two phases of the Great Migration. In the first phase, eight major cities attracted two-thirds of the migrants: New York and Chicago followed in order by Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. The Second great black migration increased the populations of these cities while adding others. West Coast cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland) attracted African Americans in large numbers.

Demographics, tensions and employment sectors

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, less than eight percent of the African-American population lived in the Northeastern or Midwestern United States. This began to change over the next decade, and by 1880, a migration was underway to Kansas. The U. S. Senate ordered an investigation into it. In 1900, about 90 percent of blacks still lived in Southern states.

Between 1910 and 1930, the African-American population increased by about forty percent in Northern states as a result of the migration, mostly in the major cities. Cities including Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City had some of the biggest increases in the early part of the twentieth century. Blacks were recruited for industrial jobs, such as positions with the expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Because changes were concentrated in cities, which had also attracted millions of new or recent European immigrants, tensions rose as the people competed for jobs and housing. Tensions were often most severe between ethnic Irish, defending their recently gained positions and territory, and recent immigrants and blacks.

African-Americans moved as individuals or small family groups. There was no government assistance, but often northern industries, such as the railroads, meatpacking, and stockyards recruited people and sometimes paid for transportation and relocation.


The primary push factors for migration were segregation, increase in racism, the widespread violence of lynching (nearly 3,500 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968), and lack of opportunities in the South. In the North, they could find better schools and adult men could vote (joined by women after 1920). Burgeoning industries created job opportunities.

Cultural changes

After moving from the racist pressures of the south to the northern states, more African Americans were able to find to time to tap into creativity. The Great Migration resulted in the Harlem Renaissance, which was also fired by immigrants from the Caribbean. In her Pulitzer Prizeâ€"winning book The Warmth of Other Suns, journalist Isabel Wilkerson described the migration as "six million black Southerners [moving] out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest."

This significant event and the subsequent struggle of African-American migrants to adapt to Northern cities was the subject of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series of paintings, created when he was a young man in New York. Exhibited in 1941 at the Museum of Modern Art, Lawrence's Series attracted wide attention; he was quickly perceived as one of the most important African-American artists of the time.


Demographic changes

The Great Migration drained off most of the rural black population of the South, and for a time froze or reduced African-American population growth in parts of the region. A number of states witnessed decades of black population decline, especially across the Deep South "black belt" where cotton had been king. The migration changed the demographics of the South. In 1910, African Americans constituted more than half the population of South Carolina and Mississippi, and more than 40 percent in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana; by 1970, only in Mississippi did African-American representation remain above 30 percent. "The disappearance of the 'black belt' was one of the striking effects" of the Great Migration, James Gregory wrote.

The growing black presence outside the South was still more significant. In 1900, only 740,000 African Americans lived outside the South, just 8 percent of the nation's total black population. By 1970, more than 10.6 million African Americans lived outside the South, 47 percent of the nation's total.)

Because the migrants concentrated in the big cities of the north and west, their impact was magnified. Cities that had been virtually all white at the start of the century became centers of black culture and politics by mid-century. Informal residential segregation and the tendency of people to settle with others of their communities led to concentrations of blacks in certain areas. The northern "Black metropolises" developed an important infrastructure of newspapers, businesses, jazz clubs, churches, and political organizations that provided the staging ground for new forms of racial politics and new forms of black culture.

The Great Migration created the first large urban black communities in the North. It is conservatively estimated that 400,000 African Americans left the South in 1916 through 1918 to take advantage of a labor shortage in the wake of the First World War.

In 1910, the African-American population of Detroit was 6,000. The Great Migration, and immigration from eastern and southern Europe, rapidly turned the city into the country's fourth-largest. By the start of the Great Depression in 1929, the city's African-American population had increased to 120,000.

In 1900â€"01, Chicago had a total population of 1,754,473. By 1920, the city had added more than 1 million residents. During the second wave of the Great Migration (1940â€"60), the African-American population in the city grew from 278,000 to 813,000.

The flow of African Americans to Ohio, particularly to Cleveland, changed the demographics of the state and the primary industrial city. Before the Great Migration, an estimated 1.1% to 1.6% of Cleveland’s population was African American. By 1920, 4.3% of Cleveland's population was African American. The number of African Americans in Cleveland continued to rise over the next 20 years of the Great Migration.

Other northern and midwestern industrial cities, such as St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Omaha, and New York City, also saw dramatic increases in their African-American populations. By the 1920s, New York's Harlem became a center of black cultural life, influenced by the American migrants as well as new immigrants from the Caribbean area.

Other industrial cities that were destinations for numerous black migrants were Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids and Indianapolis, and smaller industrial cities such as Gary, Dayton, Erie, Toledo, Youngstown, Peoria, Muskegon, Newark, Flint, Saginaw, and Albany. People tended to take the cheapest rail ticket possible and go to areas where they had relatives and friends. For example, many people from Mississippi moved directly north by train to Chicago, from Alabama to Cleveland and Detroit, and in the second migration, from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to California.

Throughout the South, the departure of hundreds of thousands of African Americans caused the black percentage of the population in most Southern states to decrease dramatically. For example, in Mississippi, blacks decreased from about 56% of the population in 1910 to about 37% by 1970 and in South Carolina, blacks decreased from about 55% of the population in 1910 to about 30% by 1970.

Discrimination and working conditions

While the Great Migration helped educated African Americans obtain jobs, eventually enabling a measure of class mobility, the migrants encountered significant forms of discrimination. Because so many people migrated in a short period of time, the African-American migrants were often resented by the urban European-American working class (often recent immigrants themselves); fearing their ability to negotiate rates of pay or secure employment, they felt threatened by the influx of new labor competition. Sometimes those who were most fearful or resentful were the last immigrants of the 19th and new immigrants of the 20th century. In many cities, working classes tried to defend what they saw as "their" territories.

African Americans made substantial gains in industrial employment, particularly in the steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and meatpacking industries. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of blacks employed in industry nearly doubled from 500,000 to 901,000. After the Great Depression, more advances took place after workers in the steel and meatpacking industries were organized in labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s, under the interracial Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The unions ended the segregation of many jobs, and African Americans began to advance into more skilled jobs and supervisory positions.

Populations increased so rapidly among both African-American migrants and new European immigrants that there were housing shortages in many major cities, and the newer groups competed for the oldest, most rundown housing. Ethnic groups created territories which they defended against change. Discrimination often restricted African Americans to crowded neighborhoods. The more established populations of cities tended to move to newer housing as it was developing in the outskirts. Mortgage discrimination and redlining in inner city areas limited the newer African-American migrants' ability to determine their own housing, or obtain a fair price. In the long term, the National Housing Act of 1934 contributed to limiting the availability of loans to urban areas, particularly those areas inhabited by African Americans.

Integration and segregation

In cities like Newark, New York and Chicago, African-Americans became increasingly integrated into society. As they lived and worked more closely with European Americans, the divide existing between them became increasingly indefinite. This period marked the transition for many African Americans from lifestyles as rural farmers to urban industrial workers.

This migration gave birth to a cultural boom in cities such as Chicago and New York. In Chicago for instance, the neighborhood of Bronzeville became known as the "Black Metropolis." The foundation of the first African American YMCA took place in Bronzeville, and worked to help incoming migrants find jobs in the city of Chicago.

Migrants often encountered residential discrimination, in which white home owners and realtors prevented migrants from purchasing homes or renting apartments in white neighborhoods. In addition, when blacks moved into white neighborhoods, whites would immediately relocate out of fear of a potential rise in property crime, rape, drugs and violence that was attributed to neighborhoods with large black populations. These tendencies contributed to maintaining the "racial divide" in the North, perhaps accentuating it. By the late 1950s and 1960s, African Americans were hyper-urban, more densely concentrated in inner cities than other groups.

Since African-American migrants retained many Southern cultural and linguistic traits, such cultural differences created a sense of "otherness" in terms of their reception by others who were living in the cities before them. Stereotypes ascribed to black people during this period and ensuing generations often derived from African-American migrants' rural cultural traditions, which were maintained in stark contrast to the urban environments in which the people resided.

Second and New Great Migration

The Great Depression of the 1930s lessened the mobility seen in the earlier migration, which rebounded during World War II in even larger numbers through the 1960s. After the political and civil gains of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955â€"1968), in the 1970s, mobility began to increase again.



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