Great Migration (African American)

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The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1910 to 1970. Some historians differentiate between the first Great Migration (1910–1930), numbering about 1.6 million migrants who left mostly rural areas to migrate to northern and midwestern 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, including many to California and various western cities.[1]

Between 1910 and 1970, blacks moved from 14 states of the South, especially Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, to the other three cultural (and census-designated) regions of the United States. More townspeople with urban skills moved during the second migration.[1] By the end of the Second Great Migration, African Americans had become an urbanized population. More than 80 percent 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.[2]

A reverse migration had gathered strength since 1965, dubbed the New Great Migration, the term for demographic changes from 1965 to the present in which many blacks have returned to the South, generally to states and cities where economic opportunities are the best. Since 1965, 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 Southern United States 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,[3] as well as out of Northern New Jersey,[4] 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 right 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.[5]

The Great Depression wiped out job opportunities in the northern industrial belt, especially for African Americans, and caused a sharp reduction in migration, but a second and larger Great Migration began 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 others in the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1970s, as deindustrialization and the rust belt crisis took hold, the Great Migration came to end. In the 1980s and 1990s more Black Americans were heading South than leaving that region.[6]

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 Migration increased the populations of these cities while adding others. West Coast cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland) now attracted African Americans in large numbers.[5]


Lynchings and racially motivated murders in each decade from 1865 to 1965.

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.[7] In 1900, about 90 percent of blacks still lived in Southern states. They also moved to Canada in order to maintain safe haven from anti-abolitionists.

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 20th 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. The primary push factors for migration were segregation, the widespread violence of lynching, 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

In her Pulitzer Prize–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,created when he was a young man in New York.[8]

Exhibited in 1941 at the Museum of Modern Art, Lawrence's Series featured the young artist and he was quickly perceived as one of the most important African-American artists of the time.[9]


During World War I there was a great migration north…, art by Jacob Lawrence.

Demographic changes

The Great Migration drained off most of the rural black population of the South, and indeed for a time froze African American population growth in parts of the region. A number of states experienced decades of black population decline, especially across the Deep South "black belt" where cotton had been king. In 1910, African Americans constituted more than half the population of South Carolina and Mississippi, and more than 40 percent in Georgia, Alabama, 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.[10]

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.[10])

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 after mid-century. Segregation imposed severe economic and social costs but also allowed the northern “Black metropolises” to develop 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.[11]

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 1900–1901, Chicago had a total population of 1,754,473.[12] By 1920, the city had added more than 1 million residents. During the second wave of the Great Migration (1940–1960), 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.[13] By 1920, 4.3% of Cleveland's population was African American.[13] 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, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids and Indianapolis, and smaller industrial cities such as Gary, Dayton, Toledo, Youngstown, Peoria, Muskegon, Newark, Flint, 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[14] and in South Carolina, blacks decreased from about 55% of the population in 1910 to about 30% by 1970.[14]

Discrimination and working conditions

The Hub is the retail heart of the South Bronx, New York City.[15]

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 themselves recent immigrants); 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.[citation needed]

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.[11] 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.[16]

Integration and segregation

As millions of former African American slaves traumatized by the rape, lynchings, and random assaults perpetrated upon them by the KKK and Jim Crow laws escaped from rural south into Northern cities they encountered a Northern population of recent white European immigrants in conflict with second and third generation native born white Americans. The African American migrants quickly realized that Northern whites feared the former slaves and were nothing like the whites of the South who lynched first and asked questions later. As soon as word of this reached the besieged black masses of the Southern States, the Great Migration began in earnest.

In cities like Camden, Newark, New York and Chicago, 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.[citation needed]

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.[17] 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.[17]

Second and New Great Migration

The Great Depression of the 1930s somewhat lessened the mobility seen in the earlier migration, which rebounded during World War II. After the political and civil gains of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968), in the 1960s, mobility began to increase again.A collection of personal narratives of former domestic servants who migrated to Iowa during the Jim Crow era. Their typical motives for telling their stories is so the younger generation will know what they endured and how far they have come (The Maid Narratives, van Wormer, Jackson, and Sudduth, 2012, LSU Press).


African-Americans as a % of the Population By U.S. Region (1900–2010)[18][19][20]
African-Americans as a % of the Population By Large U.S. Cities (Those With a Peak Population of 500,000 or More by 1990)[21][22]
City1900191019201930194019501960197019801990Change in % Ratio Between 1900 and 1990
Phoenix, Arizona2.7%2.9%3.7%4.9%6.5%4.9%4.8%4.8%4.8%5.2%+2.5%
Los Angeles, California2.1%2.4%2.7%3.1%4.2%8.7%13.5%17.9%17.0%14.0%+11.9%
San Diego, California1.8%1.5%1.3%1.8%2.0%4.5%6.0%7.6%8.9%9.4%+7.6%
San Francisco, California0.5%0.4%0.5%0.6%0.8%5.6%10.0%13.4%12.7%10.9%+10.4%
San Jose, California1.0%0.6%0.5%0.4%0.4%0.6%1.0%2.5%4.6%4.7%+3.7%
Denver, Colorado2.9%2.5%2.4%2.5%2.4%3.6%6.1%9.1%12.0%12.8%+9.9%
Washington, District of Columbia31.1%28.5%25.1%27.1%28.2%35.0%53.9%71.1%70.3%65.8%+34.7%
Jacksonville, Florida57.1%50.8%45.3%37.2%35.7%35.4%41.1%22.3%25.4%25.2%-31.9%
Chicago, Illinois1.8%2.0%4.1%6.9%8.2%13.6%22.9%32.7%39.8%39.1%+37.3%
Indianapolis, Indiana9.4%9.3%11.0%12.1%13.2%15.0%20.6%18.0%21.8%22.6%+13.2%
New Orleans, Louisiana27.1%26.3%26.1%28.3%30.1%31.9%37.2%45.0%55.3%61.9%+34.8%
Baltimore, Maryland15.6%15.2%14.8%17.7%19.3%23.7%34.7%46.4%54.8%59.2%+43.6%
Boston, Massachusetts2.1%2.0%2.2%2.6%3.1%5.0%9.1%16.3%22.4%25.6%+23.5%
Detroit, Michigan1.4%1.2%4.1%7.7%9.2%16.2%28.9%43.7%63.1%75.7%+74.3%
Minneapolis, Minnesota0.8%0.9%1.0%0.9%0.9%1.3%2.4%4.4%7.7%13.0%+12.2%
Kansas City, Missouri10.7%9.5%9.5%9.6%10.4%12.2%17.5%22.1%27.4%29.6%+18.9%
St. Louis, Missouri6.2%6.4%9.0%11.4%13.3%17.9%28.6%40.9%45.6%47.5%+41.3%
Buffalo, New York0.5%0.4%0.9%2.4%3.1%6.3%13.3%20.4%26.6%30.7%+30.2%
New York City, New York1.8%1.9%2.7%4.7%6.1%9.5%14.0%21.1%25.2%28.7%+26.9%
Cincinnati, Ohio4.4%5.4%7.5%10.6%12.2%15.5%21.6%27.6%33.8%37.9%+33.5%
Cleveland, Ohio1.6%1.5%4.3%8.0%9.6%16.2%28.6%38.3%43.8%46.6%+45.0%
Columbus, Ohio6.5%7.0%9.4%11.3%11.7%12.4%16.4%18.5%22.1%22.6%+16.1%
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania4.8%5.5%7.4%11.3%13.0%18.2%26.4%33.6%37.8%39.9%+35.1%
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania5.3%4.8%6.4%8.2%9.3%12.2%16.7%20.2%24.0%25.8%+20.5%
Memphis, Tennessee48.8%40.0%37.7%38.1%41.5%37.2%37.0%38.9%47.6%54.8%+6.0%

See also


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ AAME
  3. ^ Dan Bilefsky (2011-06-21). "For New Life, Blacks in City Head to South". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  4. ^ Dave Sheingold (2011-02-24). "North Jersey black families leaving for lure of new South". © 2012 North Jersey Media Group. Retrieved 2012-05-05. 
  5. ^ a b Gregory, James N. (2009) “The Second Great Migration: An Historical Overview,” African American Urban History: The Dynamics of Race, Class and Gender since World War II, eds. Joe W. Trotter Jr. and Kenneth L. Kusmer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.22.
  6. ^ Gregory, James N. (2005)The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp.12-17.
  7. ^ Exodus to Kansas: The 1880 Senate Investigation of the Beginnings of the African American Migration from the South
  8. ^ (adapted). "Module 1: Introduction and Definitions". Retrieved 2 April 2012. 
  9. ^ HOLLAND COTTER,"Jacob Lawrence Is Dead at 82; Vivid Painter Who Chronicled Odyssey of Black Americans", The New York Times, 10 June 2000
  10. ^ a b Gregory (2005)p.18.
  11. ^ a b James Gilbertlove, "African Americans and the American Labor Movement", Prologue', Summer 1997, Vol.29,
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ A Brief Look at The Bronx, Bronx Historical Society. Accessed September 23, 2007.[dead link]
  16. ^ Gotham, Kevin Fox (2000). "Racialization and the State: The Housing Act of 1934 and the Creation of the Federal Housing Administration". Sociological Perspectives 43 (2): 291–317. JSTOR 1389798. 
  17. ^ a b ‘Ruralizing’ the City Theory, Culture, History, and Power in the Urban Environment[dead link]
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ [2]
  21. ^ [3]
  22. ^ [4]

Further reading

External links