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. Until 1910, more than 90 percent of the African-American population lived in the American South. In 1900, only one-fifth of African-Americans living in the South were living in urban areas. By the end of the Great Migration, 53 percent of the African-American population remained in the South, while 40 percent lived in the North, and 7 percent in the West, and the African-American population had become highly urbanized. By 1970, more than 80 percent of African-Americans lived in cities, and by 1960, of those African-Americans still living in the South, half now lived in urban areas. In 1991, Nicholas Lemann wrote that the Great Migration:
- Numbers and destinations
- Demographics tensions and employment sectors
- Cultural changes
- Demographic changes
- Discrimination and working conditions
- Integration and segregation
- Second and New Great Migration
- Southern reaction
- In popular culture
was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history—perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation. In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic group—Italians or Irish or Jews or Poles—to [the United States]. For blacks, the migration meant leaving what had always been their economic and social base in America, and finding a new one.
Some historians differentiate between a first Great Migration (1916–1930), which saw about 1.6 million people move from mostly rural areas to northern industrial cities, and a Second Great Migration (1940–1970), which began after the Great Depression and brought at least 5 million people—including many townspeople with urban skills—to the north and to California and other western states.
Since 1965, a reverse migration has gathered strength. Dubbed the New Great Migration, it has seen many African-Americans move to the South, generally to states and cities where economic opportunities are the best. The reasons include economic difficulties of cities in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, growth of jobs in the "New South" and its lower cost of living, family and kinship ties, and improved racial relations. As early as 1975 to 1980, seven southern states were net African-American migration gainers. African-American populations have continued to drop throughout much of the Northeast, especially the state of New York and northern New Jersey, as they rise in the South.
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. But, in a reflection of changing economics, as well as the end of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s and improving race relations in the South, in the 1980s and early 1990s, more black Americans were heading South than leaving that region.
African-Americans moved from the 14 states of the South, especially Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia. Census figures show that African Americans went from 52.2% of the population in 1920 to 45.3% of the population in 1950 in Mississippi, from 41.7% in 1920 to 30.9% of the population in 1950 in Georgia, from 38.9% in 1920 to 32.9% of the population in 1950 in Louisiana, from 38.4% in 1920 to 32.0% of the population in 1950 in Alabama, and 36.0% in 1920 to 31.0% of the population in Texas. Based on the total populations in each of the four states, only Georgia (-143,188) showed a net decrease in its African American population in 1950 compared to 1920. Louisiana,(+183,256) Texas, (+67,664) Alabama, (+78,206) and Mississippi (+52,346) showed net increases in their African American populations in 1950 compared to 1920. 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, and Indianapolis. The Second great black migration increased the populations of these cities while adding others as destinations, especially on the West Coast. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland attracted African Americans in large numbers.
There were clear migratory patterns that linked particular states and cities in the South to corresponding destinations in the North. Almost half of those who migrated from Mississippi during the first Great Migration, for example, ended up in Chicago, while those from Virginia tended to move to Philadelphia. For the most part, these patterns were related to geography, with the closest cities attracting the most migrants (such as Los Angeles and San Francisco receiving a disproportionate number of migrants from Texas). When multiple destinations were equidistant, chain migration played a larger role, with migrants following the path set by those before them.
Some people migrated to Canada, enticed by British Columbia Premier James Douglas or by the 1910 immigration campaign by Canada's Clifford Sifton. Sifton and Citizenship and Immigration Canada did not anticipate that black farmers would file for homesteads in the Canadian Prairies and tried to turn them back. Unable to do so under the law of the time, Sifton and the Canadian government instead sent immigration representatives to US Southern states to deter black farmers from applying and also went on to implement racist immigration policies that were not lifted for decades. In 1962, following the Canadian Bill of Rights, Canada changed its immigration policy to allow persons of colour to migrate to Canada again. Violet King Henry, the first black Canadian woman lawyer, was part of the senior team that changed Canadian policy and was descended from black pioneers to Amber Valley, Alberta, a landmark black community in Canada.
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; 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. The cities of Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City had some of the biggest increases in the early part of the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of blacks were recruited for industrial jobs, such as positions related to 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 scarce 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 workers and sometimes paid for transportation and relocation.
The primary factors for migration among southern African-Americans were segregation, an increase in the spread of racist ideology, widespread lynching (nearly 3,500 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968), and lack of social and economic opportunities in the South. There were also factors that pulled migrants to the north, such as labor shortages in northern factories brought about by World War I, resulting in thousands of jobs in steel mills, railroads, meatpacking plants, and the automobile industry. The pull of jobs in the north was strengthened by the efforts of labor agents sent by northern businessmen to recruit southern workers. Northern companies offered special incentives to encourage black workers to relocate, included free transportation and low-cost housing.
After moving from the racist pressures of the south to the northern states, African Americans were inspired to different kinds of creativity. The Great Migration resulted in the Harlem Renaissance, which was also fired by immigrants from the Caribbean. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Warmth of Other Suns, journalist Isabel Wilkerson discusses the migration of "six million black Southerners [moving] out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest."
The 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.
The Great Migration had effects on music as well as other cultural subjects. Many Blues singers migrated from Delta-Mississippi to Chicago to escape racial discrimination. Muddy Waters and Chester Burnett are two of the most well-known Blues singers who migrated to Chicago. Great Delta-born pianist Eddie Boyd told Living Blues Magazine, "I thought of coming to Chicago where I could get away from some of that racism and where I would have an opportunity to, well, do something with my talent.... It wasn't peaches and cream [in Chicago], man, but it was a hell of a lot better than down there where I was born."
The Great Migration drained off much 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 the majority of the population of South Carolina and Mississippi, and more than 40 percent in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas; by 1970, only in Mississippi did the African-American population constitute more than 30 percent of the state's total. "The disappearance of the 'black belt' was one of the striking effects" of the Great Migration, James Gregory wrote.
In Mississippi, blacks decreased from about 56% of the population in 1910 to about 37% by 1970, remaining the majority only in some Delta counties. In Georgia, blacks decreased from about 45% of the population in 1910 to about 26% by 1970. In South Carolina, blacks decreased from about 55% of the population in 1910 to about 30% by 1970.
The growing black presence outside the South changed the dynamics and demographics of numerous cities in the North, Midwest and West. 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 influence 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 home 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, plus the 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 1900–01, 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 (1940–60), 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 its 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 Philadelphia, New York City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Omaha, also had 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.
Second-tier industrial cities that were destinations for numerous black migrants were Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Columbus, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids and Indianapolis, and smaller industrial cities such as Gary, Dayton, Erie, Toledo, Youngstown, Peoria, Muskegon, Newark, Flint, Saginaw, New Haven, 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, from Georgia and South Carolina to New York City and Philadelphia, and in the second migration, from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to California.
Discrimination and working conditions
Educated African Americans were better able to obtain jobs after the Great Migration, eventually gaining a measure of class mobility, but 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, the ethnic whites 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.
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 organized into 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 previously informally reserved for whites.
Between 1940 and 1960, the number of blacks in managerial and administrative occupations doubled, along with the number of blacks in white-collar occupations, while the number of black agricultural workers in 1960 fell to one-fourth of what it was in 1940. Also, between 1936 and 1959, black income relative to white income more than doubled in various skilled trades. Despite discrimination, blacks had higher labor force participation rates than whites in every U.S. Census from 1890 to 1950. As a result of these advancements, the percentage of black families living below the poverty line declined from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960 and to 30 percent by 1970.
Populations increased so rapidly among both African-American migrants and new European immigrants that there were housing shortages in most major cities. With fewer resources, the newer groups were forced to compete 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 such as Newark, New York and Chicago, African Americans became increasingly integrated into society. As they lived and worked more closely with European Americans, the divide 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". From 1924 to 1929, the "Black Metropolis" was at the peak of its golden years. Many of the community's entrepreneurs were black during this period. "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." The "Black Belt" geographical and racial isolation of this community, bordered to the north and east by whites, and to the south and west by industrial sites and ethnic immigrant neighborhoods, made it a site for the study of the development of an urban black community. For urbanized people, eating proper foods in a sanitary, civilized setting such as the home or a restaurant was a social ritual that indicated one's level of respectability. The people native to Chicago had pride in the high level of integration in Chicago restaurants, which they attributed to their unassailable manners and refined tastes.
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 numerous blacks moved into white neighborhoods, whites would quickly 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 already living in the cities. 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 resulted in reduced migration because of decreased opportunities. With the defense buildup for World War II, migration was revived, with larger numbers of blacks leaving the South through the 1960s. After the political and civil gains of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968), in the 1970s migration began to increase again. It moved in a different direction, as blacks traveled to new regions of the South for economic opportunity.
The beginning of the Great Migration exposed a paradox in race relations in the American south at that time. Although blacks were treated with extreme hostility and subjected to legal discrimination, the southern economy was deeply dependent on them as an abundant supply of cheap labor, and black workers were seen as the most critical factor in the economic development of the south. One South Carolina politician summed up the dilemma: "Politically speaking, there are far too many negroes, but from an industrial standpoint there is room for many more."
When the Great Migration started in the 1910s, white Southern elites seemed to be unconcerned, and industrialists and cotton planters saw it as a positive, as it was siphoning off surplus industrial and agricultural labor. As the migration picked up, however, southern elites began to panic, fearing that a prolonged black exodus would bankrupt the south, and newspaper editorials warned of the danger. White employers eventually took notice and began expressing their fears. White southerners soon began trying to stem the flow in order to prevent the hemorrhaging of their labor supply, and some began attempting to address the poor living standards and racial oppression experienced by southern blacks in order to induce them to stay.
As a result, southern employers increased their wages to match those on offer in the North, and some individual employers opposed the worst excesses of Jim Crow laws. When the measures failed to stem the tide, white southerners, in concert with federal officials who feared the rise of black nationalism, co-operated in attempting to coerce blacks to stay in the south. The Southern Metal Trades Association urged decisive action to stop black migration, and some employers undertook serious efforts against it. The largest southern steel manufacturer refused to cash checks sent to finance black migration, efforts were made at limiting railroad access for blacks, agents were stationed in northern cities to report on wage levels, unionization, and the rise of black nationalism, and newspapers were pressured to divert more coverage to negative aspects of black life in the North.
An employment office was also set up in Chicago in an attempt to induce blacks to return to the South. A series of local and federal directives were put into place with the goal of restricting black mobility, including local vagrancy ordinances, and "work or fight" laws demanding all males either be employed or serve in the army as well as conscription orders.
During the wave of migration that took place in the 1940s, white southerners were less concerned, as mechanization of agriculture in the late 1930s had resulted in another labor surplus so southern planters put up less resistance.
In popular culture
The Great Migration is a backdrop of the 2013 film The Butler, as the Forest Whitaker character Cecil Gaines moves from a plantation in Georgia to become a butler at the White House.