The Great Migration

In 1910, the majority of the African American population in North America lived in the rural South. However, by 1970, around 90% of the population lived in urban areas throughout the North. This extreme exodus of nearly 7 million African American between is commonly referred to as “The Great Migration.” The reallocation, which took place in and around the two world wars, drastically changed the social, cultural, political and economical condition of America.

The Great Migration is generally considered to have taken place in two waves. The first wave took place between 1910 and 1940. Approximately 1.5 million black Americans left the South for the northern cities, according to Townsand Price-Sparlen’s article “Urban Destination Selection Among African Americans during the 1950s Great Migration.” This wave of the migration began as a result of a drastic unemployment in the South. During this time thousands of African Americans living in the South were left unemployed due to the invasion of the boll weevil, a tiny insect that caused intense agricultural problems. Meanwhile in the North, the war caused a decrease in the immigration of European industrial workers. Thus, labor sectors such as meatpacking, coal, railroad, and war industries were tentatively open to African Americans and provided higher wages.

The second wave of the migration occurred from 1940 to 1970. During this thirty year span, over 5 million African Americans moved from the South to a wider variety of destinations, according to Price-Sparlen. Although the invention of the mechanical cotton picker played a hand in this migration, it was the many social and political changes that spurred most blacks to move North. In the 1950s there was heightened racial tensions within the South. For many Southern African Americans, the North offered greater hopes for securing both economic and political rights. As a result, many blacks began to view the North was as a land of opportunities.

However, in both waves of the migration, the decision to leave did not come easily. The journey itself was long, crowded, and expensive. Family’s were often forced to separate, leaving the South at different periods. Although life in the North was uncertain for many black migrants the hopes of obtaining freedom, opportunity, and independence were worth the gamble. “And your leaders will tell you the South is the best place for you. Turn a deaf ear to the scoundrel, and let him stay,” advised an editorial in Robert Abbott’s Chicago Defender.

Throughout both waves of the migration, the cities receiving these migrants faced a number of challenges in areas such as housing, transportation and employment. Philadelphia was a dominant destination for many black migrants. Many came to take advantage of Philadelphia’s post-war job opportunities in textile factories, ship yards and textile factories, according to Steven A. Reich’s introduction to the Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration. However, like other major cities, black migrants were placed in segregated communities and experienced crowded housing and living conditions. Although life in the North was not easy, it provided a new beginning for many black migrants.

Robert Abbott, Founder of the Chicago Defender. Photo source


One response to “The Great Migration

  • Huntly Collins

    Very interesting about the boll weevil, Claire. I had no idea that was a major causative agent. You might give us a little description of what this critter is, what crops it destroyed and why. Just interesting stuff.
    One typo — should be “families” not “family’s.”
    And a major gap here: You need to tell us about the role of Jim Crow in driving people North.

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