Migration, African American

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MIGRATION, AFRICAN AMERICAN. The landing of Africans in America began nearly five hundred years ago. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, eight to twelve million Africans were transported to New World slave plantations via the transatlantic slave trade in one of the largest forced migrations in history. About 6 percent (600,000 to 1 million) of the Africans sold into slavery were brought to the territory of the present United States. Since the slave trade, black people in America have continued to migrate in larger numbers, some self-initiated and some coerced.

The first English-speaking Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Initially, British colonists and Africans coexisted, but developments in colonial America precipitated the enslavement of black people. Slavery spread, particularly in the South, and between the mid-1600s and 1865, most Africans in America were treated as chattel and denied the most basic of human rights.

After 1865, with slavery abolished, white supremacy continued to reign in the South. As Reconstruction collapsed, the treatment of black people in the region reached its nadir. Ninety-two percent of the black people in America lived in the South in 1865, and 95 percent of them were poor, unschooled, abused, and exploited rural farmers. They were denied social equality, land, education, and voting rights. Racist "social clubs" such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized any one who challenged this system. These vicious and unequal circumstances prompted black people to search for a better life and vote "with their feet" against their mistreatment.

The first major black migration with in the United States grew out of this quest. In May 1879, black leaders from fourteen states gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, and proclaimed that "colored people should emigrate to those states and territories where they can enjoy all the rights which are guaranteed by the laws and Constitution of the United States." Black leaders such as Benjamin "Pap" Singleton and Ida B. Wells-Barnett supported the declaration and called upon their supporters to do so as well. As a result, thousands of black people "quit the South" and headed north and west. Between 1865 and 1880, forty thousand black people moved to Kansas. The "Exodusters," as they became known, forged black towns like Nicodemus and Morton City.

African Americans also migrated to Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and Washington. By 1880, they had settled in this region as servants, farmers, fur trappers, entrepreneurs, and teachers, weaving themselves into the fabric of post–Civil War western communities. By 1900, some ten thousand black people had also migrated to the high plains, while others drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail or served on remote army outposts.

African Americans continued to migrate to the North and West in smaller numbers between 1900 and 1910. But World War I spurred the largest black migration in American history as wartime industrial needs increased the demand for labor. Between 1910 and 1940, some 1.75 million black people left the South and moved northward. Between 1910 and 1920 black populations expanded in Philadelphia (58 percent), New York (60 percent), Chicago (148 percent), and Detroit (611 percent). Most of the migrants were young people born during the 1880s and 1890s. Nevertheless, despite the magnitude of the "Great Migration," most African Americans remained in the South. Many simply migrated from the rural to the urban South.

During the 1910s, the southern economy buckled under the weight of several natural disasters. Between 1915 and 1916, floods ravished agriculture in Mississippi and Alabama, and the boll weevil devastated southern crops. These events, coupled with the poverty and hopelessness associated with sharecropping, prompted many African Americans to leave southern agricultural regions. Continued racial discrimination and white supremacy also prompted African Americans to leave. Although

black people encountered discrimination in the North and West, they found greater access to the ballot, better public schools, access to public accommodation, and justice in the courts.

Many migrants endeavored to help themselves and "uplift the race" in the North and West by joining organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Colored Women. African Americans often allied themselves with progressive whites in the National Urban League, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the Communist Party. One of the most effective activist tactics was the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign, which increased the number of blacks in white-collar jobs. Black migrants helped facilitate the flowering of African American art, literature, and music during the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances. Some became political leaders, while others found success in business. The promise of freedom and democracy in the North and West, however, was illusory: relocation was hard on African American families; migrants were often separated from their relatives while they searched for jobs and housing; and extended families were often squeezed into small living quarters. Families suffered economically, because black men rarely secured positions as skilled workers, and black women had even fewer opportunities for employment.

Discrimination, housing shortages, the movement of jobs and infrastructure to suburbs, the breakdown of family structures, crime, and the proliferation of drugs became serious and complex issues for African American communities. Moreover, the influx of large numbers of African Americans into northern and western cities often kindled the flames of white racism. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, fought prejudice and racial inequality. Discrimination and antagonism continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century as race riots rocked major cities, sparked by the apathy and rancor of whites and by the indignation and hopelessness of blacks.

As the twentieth century ended, African Americans continued to migrate, in large numbers, in search of opportunity. They now moved primarily to western cities and back to the South. After 1970 the number of new immigrants from Africa also increased dramatically to swell the numbers of those seeking freedom and democracy.


Gomez, Michael Angelo. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transition of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Hunter, Tera W. To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and the Labors after the Civil War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. Revised, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: Norton, 1998.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr., ed. The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.


See alsoAfrican Americans ; Harlem Renaissance ; Sharecroppers ; Suffrage: African American Suffrage .

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