What is the Great Migration?

The Great Migration is the term historians apply to the northbound movement of nearly six million African Americans between 1915 and 1970.  Seeking a better quality of life, these men and women, children and adults, picked up everything and left behind the land of their ancestors, slaves whose bodies brought prosperity to and suffered degradation from white landowners.

Of course, the Civil War and its subsequent Emancipation ended the evils of slavery. However, as author Nicholas Lemann writes in his book The Promised Land, slavery had given way to social segregation, and blacks were denied the legal rights given to them by Lincoln’s legislation.  The sharecropping system—under which black workers could live and use the land belonging to the white landowners, splitting profits evenly—benefitted greatly from this society, according to Lemann. By forcing blacks to return to the cotton fields once more, sharecropping helped deteriorate any hope that opportunity could be found elsewhere.

Blacks were trapped in this way of life, not by their masters, but by economic dependency and fear. The legalization of the Jim Crow Laws in the 1890s helped solidify this fear. Finally, as World War I caused a labor crisis in the Northern United States, The Great Migration began. Nearly 555,000 black people left the south during the war, more than all of the emigrants who left in the previous five decades combined, according to Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Many Suns. From that point on, the numbers would only increase.

Major northeast metropolitan areas were the destination of these relocations. By 1960, Philadelphia was one of seven cities that housed two-thirds of non-Southern blacks. Northern industrialists helped pull the blacks up from the South, promising racial advancement and a better life. However, the reality of situation, Wilkerson writes, was that the eagerness of the industrialists betrayed their selfish desires for cheap labor and inflated the accepting ways of Yankee culture.

Many blacks found that their reputation had preceded them, and that the Northerners could be just as cruel as their Southern counterparts. Sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, in his 1899 study, claimed that black emigrants in Philadelphia were ignorant and had little hope to be “more than…menial servants.” To make matters worse, some blacks did not have the support system of their families to help them cope with the transition.

In The Making of African America, historian Ida Berlin relates the story of Richard Wright, a southern black man who moved to Chicago without his family. Upon arriving, Wright said his first look at the city “depressed and dismayed” him and “mocked all his fantasies.” All alone in a foreign city, Wright claimed that he struggled to find comfort and peace.

As difficult as the transition from South to North was, historians agree that the Great Migration has factored greatly into modern American society. Art forms such as jazz, blues and gospel music became ubiquitous, as did the artists who created them. Demographics changed drastically, especially in cities. “White flight” began after World War II ended and the de-industrialization of America began, making blacks a majority in most metropolitan areas.

Indeed, without the Great Migration, America today would be an entirely different nation.




Northern industrialists helped pull the blacks up from the South, promising racial advancement and a better life.

One Comment on “What is the Great Migration?”

  1. Huntly Collins says:

    Really nice work, Vinny. Excellent account with varied sources. Good photo and graphic. My only concern — the typeface, which I find so small that it’s hard to read.