Regional Migration, World War I and World War II

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The most basic concept to understand when examining regional migration is the fact that industrialization has always developed unevenly. Because jobs were never on a geographic parity with workers, workers have been forced to pack up and move themselves to areas were jobs were plentiful. Wartime mobilization heightened this phenomenon.

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American industrialists had long exploited the unevenness of worldwide economic development by employing immigrants, many of whom they recruited directly to their factories. By 1915, however, World War I had stopped the flow of immigrant labor. As a result, new opportunities for industrial employment opened for Americans living in rural poverty and for blacks and other minorities in the South. As war orders from England and France rose, and especially after the United States entered the war in 1917 and mobilized, the need to find new sources of industrial labor became a national crisis that threatened the American war effort. The war, which depleted the traditional pool of labor, increased the need to recruit minorities already living in the United States from farms to factories.

"The Great Migration" of black Americans out of the South and into the North is one of the best-known results of wartime migration. Although industrialists welcomed (at least temporarily) black workers, one should not ignore the other factors that pushed workers northward, including the crop losses due to the boll weevil, falling cotton prices, natural disasters, and, especially, a long history of racial oppression. The war turned black northern migration from a trickle to a flood. Historian James Grossman in Land of Hope writes that the migration "drew upon black southerners who looked to urban life and the industrial economy for the social and economic foundation of full citizenship and its perquisites" (p. 19). But the Great Migration cannot be seen solely in economic terms. Historians have argued that black Americans moved not just for jobs but for good schools, equal rights, and equal access to public facilities.

The stories associated with such a migration are rich, filled with both anticipation and frustration, particularly as migrants believed northern cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, offered a racial paradise that could actually be seen when crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. One young man recalled that he expected to see the Mason-Dixon Line, perhaps marked by a row of trees. Although disappointed, he quickly moved into another car and took a seat next to a white man when someone reported that they were now in the North. Chicago and other northern cities were never quite the racial paradise, free from segregation and discrimination, that some envisioned, but kinship made the adjustment to northern culture easier. In Chicago, for example, friends and relatives and even churches helped newcomers find shelter on Chicago's South Side. The black community was also a source of comfort when conditions were tough, as they were during the summer race riot in Chicago in 1919.

Mexican Americans also moved from rural to urban areas to work in industry. Historian Dionicio Nodín Valdés in Barrios Norteños argues that Mexicans entered the northern United States "en masse as a reserve labor army" whose purpose was to work in the most "unstable, unpleasant, and seasonal" fields, factories, and railroads. Unlike African Americans, who often moved as family units, the Mexican experience was largely a "man's world"; families were seldom welcomed by American society during the early period of migration.

Southern whites were the third group to be affected by wartime opportunity. An entire generation of southerners came to see World War I as the benchmark for social change. As Kentuckian Zeke Jett explained after the war, "people went to going out of here for public works, and plants started up over the country. And they could make a better living, and so a greater part of them moved out. Now, when you hear tell of some elderly person like me be deceased, well, they'll give the names…. They'll have boys and girls in California, Michigan, New York, and all over the country. Whereas, I'd say, thirty years before that time, everybody was right in that same creek—never had gone out. But things changed after World War I in this country where there were more works and they could make a better living [in the North] … and they moved out" (Berry, p. 16). The war had uprooted millions of Americans and changed the composition of many Northern cities.

After World War I, regional migration networks grew, particularly through the 1920s, as new generations of workers left home to pursue new opportunities. The Great Depression created a dilemma for those who had recently migrated: stay and try to tough out conditions in northern and western cities, or return to their homes of origin. African Americans for the most part decided to stay in northern areas, having long given up on the South. Mexican Americans who were not American citizens often had no choice; their tenuous presence after World War I made them particularly vulnerable to nativist sentiment such as Herbert Hoover's "Hire American" campaign. The government embarked on a drive to deport those who entered the country illegally and even urged U.S. citizens of Mexican descent to leave the country. White Southern Americans also participated in a back-to-the-land movement. Denver Mattingly was one of thousands who left Detroit for his eastern Kentucky home because he was working less than twenty hours per week. Those who did leave northern industry waited until prosperity would again call them.

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Prosperity returned as the country mobilized for World War II. Eight months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Tolan Committee investigating the migration of destitute citizens changed its name to the Committee on National Defense Migration. It went from a committee preventing people from migrating to one worried that not enough people would migrate to fill the jobs required by defense mobilization. Preparation for war generated a new wave of migration.

The South, with a glut of surplus labor, provided workers to the industrialized Midwest and an industrializing West. Most defense industries were located in the North and West, thus wasting a rare opportunity to change the course of southern social and economic life. The Willow Run bomber plant, constructed by Henry Ford near Detroit, attracted a flood of new laborers from other regions despite the urging of Office of Production Management to build defense plants in areas with labor surpluses, such as the South.

California became a magnet for regional migration. Historian James N. Gregory explains in American Exodus, "the effects were particularly stunning in California, which received more federal defense dollars than any other state, some ten percent of total war-era expenditures." All of those defense dollars attracted a mammoth migration of 621,000 people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri that dwarfed the number of people who left these states during the 1930s Dust Bowl, an ecological disaster that ruined agriculture. And increasing numbers of African Americans from the South gave California its first significant black population.

cultural impact of migration

As migrant people always do, wartime newcomers brought their cultural traditions with them. They tended to settle in neighborhoods filled with people just like them. They brought their preferences for music and food with them. Southern whites, for example, could tune in to northern radio stations and hear "country" music from the Grand Ole Opry whose themes of migration, Mom and Dad, and the old home place tugged at the hearts of migrant listeners; no better example is Danny Dill's and Mel Tillis's show "Detroit City." Mexican, southern, and African-American foods could be found wherever critical masses of migrants ventured; tortillas, dumplings, and collards dispersed throughout the country. And finally, migrants transplanted their churches wherever they moved. Older ethnic Catholic parishes became Mexican in northern urban barrios, and southern whites spread their evangelical churches throughout the North and West. All the children of newcomers had to adjust in various ways to the differences in schools, while their parents and grandparents struggled to hold on to traditional culture in the face of rapid change.

Thus, World War I and World War II, in addition to the Great depression of the 1930s, helped to transform American society and culture. Because industrial capitalism did not develop in a systematic, uniform way, areas of labor shortages and labor surplus resulted in regional migration to address the imbalances, and the exigencies of wartime exacerbated migration adjustments for native populations and newcomers. Regional migration in the twentieth century altered the landscape and the people in numerous and long-lasting ways, scattering as it did regional peoples across an increasingly homogenized country.


Berry, Chad. Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Valdés, Dionicio Nodín. Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Chad Berry

See also:African Americans, World War I; African Americans, World War II; Economy, World War I; Economy, World War II.

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Regional Migration, World War I and World War II

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