Great Migration (African American)

The Great Migration was the movement of 2 million African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West from 1910 to 1930.[1] African Americans migrated to escape racism and to seek jobs in industrial cities.

Some historians differentiate between a First Great Migration (1910–40), numbering about 1.6 million migrants, and a Second Great Migration (1940 to 1970), in which 5 million or more people moved and to a wider variety of destinations. Many moved from Texas and Louisiana to California, where there were jobs in the defense industry. From 1965–70, 14 states of the South, especially Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, contributed to a large net migration of blacks to the other three Census-designated regions of the United States.[2] By the end of the Second Great Migration, African Americans had become an urbanized population. More than 80 percent lived in cities. Fifty-three percent remained in the Southern United States, while 40 percent lived in the Northeast and North Central states and 7 percent in the West.[3]

A reverse migration has gathered strength since 1965, dubbed the New Great Migration. In 1963-2000, data show the movement of African Americans back to the South following de-industrialization in Northeastern and Midwestern cities, the growth of high-quality jobs in the South, and improving racial relations. Many people moved back because of family and kinship ties. From 1995-2000, Georgia, Texas and Maryland were the states that attracted the most black college graduates. California, whose black population had grown for decades, saw it decline in the late 1990s.[2]



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. In 1900, about 90 percent of blacks still lived in Southern states.

Between 1910 and 1930, the African American population grew by about 40% in Northern states, mostly in the major cities. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland had some of the biggest increases in the early part of the century. Because changes were concentrated in cities, urban tensions rose as African Americans and new or recent European immigrants, both groups chiefly from rural societies, competed for jobs and housing with the white ethnic working class. 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. The primary factor for migration was the racial climate and widespread violence of lynching in the South. In the North, they could find better schools and adult men could vote (joined by women after 1920). Burgeoning industries meant there were job opportunities.

Several factors contributed to the African Americans' decisions to leave the South:

  1. They left to escape the discrimination, lynching violence and racial segregation of late 19th century constitutions and Jim Crow laws;
  2. The boll weevil infestation of Southern cotton fields in the late 1910s forced many sharecroppers and laborers to search for alternative employment opportunities;
  3. The enormous expansion of war industries in the North created job openings for blacks—not in the factories but in service jobs vacated by new factory workers;
  4. World War I and the Immigration Act of 1924 effectively put a halt to the flow of European immigrants to the emerging industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, causing shortages of workers in the factories; and
  5. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 displaced hundreds of thousands of African-American farmers and farm workers.

Demographic changes

The Great Migration of African-Americans created the first large, urban black communities in the North. It is conservatively estimated that 400,000 left the South during the two-year period of 1916-1918 to take advantage of a labor shortage created in the wake of the First World War.[4]

In 1910, the African American population of Detroit was 6,000. By the start of the Great Depression in 1929, this figure had risen to 120,000.

In 1900 Chicago had a total population of 1,698,575.[5] By 1920 the population had increased by more than 1 million residents. During the second wave of the Great Migration (from 1940–1960), the African American population in the city grew from 278,000 to 813,000. The South Side of Chicago was considered the black capital of America.[6]

The massive number of African Americans to Ohio, in particularly to Cleveland, greatly changed the demographics of the state and Cleveland. Prior to the Great Migration, an estimated range of 1.1- 1.6% of Cleveland’s population was African American.[7] In 1920, 4.3% of Cleveland’s population was African American.[7] The number of African Americans in Cleveland continued to rise over the next twenty years of the Great Migration.

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

Other cities that received numerous black migrants were Buffalo, New York; Boston, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Indianapolis, as well as to many smaller industrial cities such as Gary, Dayton, Toledo, Youngstown, Peoria, Muskegon, Newark, Flint, and Albany. People tended to take the cheapest rail ticket possible. This resulted in, for example, many people from Mississippi moving directly north by train to Chicago, from Alabama to Cleveland and Detroit, and in the second migration, from Texas and Louisiana to California.

In the South, the departure of hundreds of thousands of African Americans caused the black percentage of the population in most Southern states to decrease. For example, in Mississippi, blacks decreased from about 56% of the population in 1910 to about 37% by 1970[8] and in South Carolina, blacks decreased from about 99% of the population in 1910 to about 4,000,000 by 1970[8].

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 European-American working class; 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.[4] 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.

The migrants discovered racial discrimination in the North, although it was sometimes more subtle than the South. 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, as in Chicago. 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.[9]

Integration, and non-integration

As African Americans migrated, they became increasingly integrated into society. As they lived and worked more closely with European Americans, the divide existing between them became increasingly stark. This period marked the transition for many African Americans from lifestyles as rural farmers to urban industrial workers.

However, during the migration, migrants would often encounter residential discrimination in which white home owners and realtors would prevent migrants from purchasing homes or renting apartments in white neighborhoods. In addition, when blacks moved into white neighborhoods, whites would often react violently toward their new neighbors, including mass riots in front of their new neighbors' homes, bombings, and even murder. These tendencies contributed to maintaining the "racial divide" in the North, perhaps even accentuating it. In cities such as Chicago and Omaha, the postwar housing boom developed suburban housing restricted to white populations. By the late 1950s and 1960s, African Americans were hyper-urban, more densely concentrated in inner cities than other groups.

Since African-American migrants sustained 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.[10] 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.[10]

See also


  1. Hahn, Steven. A Nation Under Our Feet (2003), The Belknap Press of Harvard University, ISBN 0-674-01765-X.
  2. a b William H. Frey, "The New Great Migration: Black Americans' Return to the South, 1965–2000", The Brookings Institution, May 2004, pp. 1–3, accessed 19 Mar 2008
  3. AAME
  4. a b James Gilbertlove, "African Americans and the American Labor Movement", Prologue', Summer 1997, Vol.29,.
  5. Gibson, Campbell (June 1998). Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States: 1790 to 1990. U.S. Bureau of the Census - Population Division.
  6. "African Americans", Encyclopedia of Chicago, accessed 1 Mar 2008
  7. a b Gibson, Campbell, and Kay Jung. "Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for Large Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States." U.S. Census Bureau, Feb. 2005.
  8. a b Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung (September 2002). Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States. U.S. Bureau of the Census - Population Division.
  9. Kevin Fox Gotham,"Racialization and the State: The Housing Act of 1934 and the Creation of the Federal Housing Administration", Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 291-317
  10. a b ‘Ruralizing’ the City Theory, Culture, History, and Power in the Urban Environment