Migration has been a persistent theme throughout African-American history. Africans entered the New World as slaves, unlike European immigrants and their Asian counterparts. With the advent of the Civil War and Emancipation, black population movement took on a voluntary character and slowly converged with that of other groups. Nonetheless, only with the coming of World War I and its aftermath did blacks make a fundamental break with the land and move into cities in growing numbers. The Great Migration of the early twentieth century foreshadowed the transformation of African Americans from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban population. It reflected their quest for freedom, jobs, and social justice; the rise of new classes and social relations within the African-American community; and the emergence of new patterns of race, class, and ethnic relations in American society as a whole.
From the colonial period through the antebellum era, Africans and their American descendants experienced forced migration from one agricultural region to another. One and a half million blacks reached the United States via the international slave trade, primarily from the west coast of Africa. Through natural increase, their numbers rose to an estimated four million by 1860. By 1750, there were more than 144,000 blacks in the tobacco-growing states of Maryland and Virginia, representing the highest concentration of slaves in the country. In the wake of the American Revolution, however, slaves experienced a dramatic relocation from the tobacco region of the Upper South to the emerging cotton-growing areas of the Deep South. The tobacco country slowly declined in fertility during the late eighteenth century, and planters first transported or sold their slaves to the neighboring states of Kentucky and Tennessee. After the close of the international slave trade to the United States in 1808, this movement accelerated. Between 1810 and 1820, an estimated 137,000 slaves left the Chesapeake Bay region and North Carolina for the cotton-growing states of the Deep South, particularly Alabama and Mississippi.
Some slaves entered the Deep South with their masters, but growing numbers came via the domestic slave trade. Whether they traveled by water or by land, they moved to their new homes in handcuffs and chains. As one ex-slave recalled, "We were handcuffed in pairs, with iron staples and bolts, with a short chain about a foot long uniting the handcuffs and their wearers." Contemporary travelers frequently commented on the sight of migrating slaves. In 1834, for example, an English traveler reported on his trip from Virginia to Alabama: "In the early grey of the morning, we came up with a singular spectacle, the most striking one of the kind I have ever witnessed. It was a camp of Negro slave-drivers, just packing up to start; they had about three hundred slaves with them, who had bivouacked the preceding night in chains in the woods; these they were conducting to Natchez, upon the Mississippi River."
Although Africans, and increasingly African Americans, were the victims of coerced migrations during this period, they were by no means passive. Slaves acted in their own behalf by running away, planning rebellions, and deepening their efforts to build a viable slave community. According to one historian, the transition from an African to a predominantly American-born slave-labor force facilitated the emergence of new forms of rebellion and demands for liberation in the new republic. As slaves learned the language, gained familiarity with the terrain, and built linkages to slaves on other plantations, they increased their efforts to resist bondage. Newspaper advertisements for runaways increased as planters and slave traders mediated the transfer of slaves from the tobacco-growing regions to the "cotton kingdom." Advertisements for runaways not only reflected the slaves' resistance, but also the harsh conditions they faced: "Bill is a large fellow, very black, shows the whites of his eyes more than usual, has a scar on his right cheek bone, several on his breast, one on his arm, occasioned by the bite of a dog, his back very badly scarred with the whip."
The Civil War and Reconstruction radically transformed the context of black migration. Black population movement accelerated, spurred by the presence of federal troops, the ending of chattel slavery, the enactment of full
citizenship legislation, and rising white hostility. In the first years following Emancipation, one Florida planter informed his cousin in North Carolina, "The negroes don't seem to feel free unless they leave their old homes … just to make it sure they can go when and where they choose." A South Carolina family offered to pay its cook double the amount that she would receive in another village, but the woman insisted, "No, Miss, I must go…. If I stay here I'll never know I am free."
When the promise of freedom faded during the late 1870s, the Exodus of 1879 symbolized the new mobility of the black population. Within a few months, some six thousand blacks left their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas for a new life in Kansas. As one black contemporary stated, "There are no words which can fully express or explain the real condition of my people throughout the south, nor how deeply and keenly they feel the necessity of fleeing from the wrath and long pent-up hatred of their old masters which they feel assured will ere long burst loose like the pent-up-fires of a volcano and crush them if they remain here many years longer." Still, the Exodus was a rural-to-rural migration, with blacks moving to Kansas when an earlier Tennessee option proved fruitless. African Americans expected to resettle on available farmland and continue their familiar, but hopefully freer, rural way of life.
Despite the predominance of rural-to-rural migration, the migration of blacks to American cities had deep antebellum roots. Boston launched its career as a slave-holding city as early as 1638, when the Salem ship Desire returned from the West Indies with a cargo of "salt, cotton, tobacco, and Negroes." Slavery in New York City, beginning under Dutch control in 1626, entered an era of unprecedented growth under the British in 1664. In Philadelphia in 1684, within three years after the first Quakers settled in Pennsylvania, the first fifty Africans arrived. The number of slaves in the seaports of the Northeast rose from negligible numbers during the seventeenth century to sizable proportions by the mid-eighteenth century, when there were over 1,500 in Boston, over 1,400 in Philadelphia, and over 2,000 in New York. Southern cities such as New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, Baltimore, Louisville, Savannah, and Richmond also had sizable antebellum black populations.
Black migration to American cities escalated during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, blacks increasingly moved into rural industrial settings such as the coalfields of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Others gained increasing access to nonagricultural jobs as lumber and railroad hands in the expanding industrial order. Still, as late as 1910, nearly 90 percent of the nation's black population lived in the South, and fewer than 22 percent of southern blacks lived in cities.
After World War I, blacks made a fundamental break with their southern rural heritage and moved into cities in growing numbers. An estimated 700,000 to one million blacks left the South between 1917 and 1920. Another 800,000 to one million left during the 1920s. Whereas the prewar migrants moved to southern cities such as Norfolk, Louisville, Birmingham, and Atlanta (and to a few northern cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York), blacks now moved throughout the urban North and West. Beginning with relatively small numbers on the eve of World War I, the black urban population in the Midwest and Great Lakes region increased even more dramatically than that of the Northeast. Detroit's black population increased by 611 percent during the war years and by nearly 200 percent during the 1920s, rising from fewer than 6,000 to over 120,000. Cleveland's black population rose from fewer than 8,500 to nearly 72,000. In St. Louis, the increase was from under 45,000 in 1910 to nearly 94,000 in 1930.
In the urban West, the black population increased most dramatically in Los Angeles, growing from 7,600 in 1910 to nearly 40,000 in 1930. Nonetheless, as in the prewar era, New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia continued to absorb disproportionately large numbers of black newcomers. Between 1910 and 1930, Chicago's black population increased more than fivefold, from 44,000 to 234,000; New York's more than tripled, from about 100,000 to 328,000; and Philadelphia's grew from 84,500 to an estimated 220,600.
Upper South and border states remained important sources of black migrants during World War I and the 1920s, but Deep South states increased their importance. Blacks born in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana now dominated the migration stream to Illinois and Chicago, for example, making up over 60 percent of the black population increase in that area between 1910 and 1920. African Americans from the Upper South predominated in New York City more so than in Chicago, but blacks from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida came in growing numbers. In the rapidly industrializing cities of Cleveland and Detroit, the ratio of black men to black women escalated from just a few more men than women in 1910 to between 120 and 140 men to every 100 women during the war years. In Milwaukee, where the ratio of men to women was 95 to 100 in 1910, the ratio reversed itself, and the number of men versus women increased between 1910 and 1920. Finally, in the northeastern cities of New York and Philadelphia, where women significantly outnumbered men before the war, the ratio evened out.
A variety of factors underlay black population movement. African Americans sought an alternative to sharecropping, disfranchisement, and racial injustice in the South. In 1917 the AME Review articulated the forces that propelled blacks outward from the South: "Neither character, the accumulation of property, the fostering of the Church, the schools and a better and higher standard of
the home" had made a difference in the status of black Southerners. "Confidence in the sense of justice, humanity and fair play of the white South is gone," the paper concluded. One migrant articulated the same mood in verse: "An' let one race have all de South—Where color lines are drawn—For 'Hagar's child' done [stem] de tide—Farewell—we're good and gone."
African Americans were also attracted by the lure of opportunities in the North. The labor demands of northern industries, immigration-restriction legislation, and greater access to the rights of citizens (including the franchise) all encouraged the movement of blacks into northern cities. Wages in northern industries usually ranged from $3 to $5 per eight-hour day, compared with as little as 75 cents to $1 per day in southern agriculture and with no more than $2.50 for a nine-hour day in southern industries. Moreover, between 1915 and 1925, the average wages of domestics in some northern cities doubled. Northern cities also promised access to better health care. The nonwhite infant-mortality rate dropped in New York City from 176 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1917 to 105 in 1930; in Boston, from 167 to 90; and in Philadelphia, from 193 to 100. Between 1911 and 1926, according to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the incidence of tuberculosis among the nation's blacks declined by 44 percent for black males and 43 percent for black females. New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago showed similar patterns of decline.
With better social conditions, higher wages, and the franchise, it is no wonder that African Americans viewed the Great Migration to northern cities in glowing terms, with references to "the Promised Land," the "flight out of Egypt," and "going into Canaan." One black man wrote back to his southern home, "The (Col.) men are making good. [The job] never pays less than $3.00 per day for (10) hours." In her letter home, a black woman related, "I am well and thankful to say I am doing well … I work in Swifts Packing Company." "Up here," another migrant said, "our people are in a different light." Over and over again, African Americans confirmed that: "Up here, a man can be a man." As one southern black man wrote home from the North, "I should have been here twenty years ago … I just begin to feel like a man … My children are going to the same school with the whites and I don't have to humble to no one. I have registered. Will vote in the next election and there isn't any yes Sir or no Sir. It's all yes and no, Sam and Bill."
The Great Migration was by no means a simple move from southern agriculture to northern cities. It had specific regional and subregional components. More blacks migrated to southern cities between 1900 and 1920 than to northern ones. Moreover, African Americans frequently made up from 25 percent to 50 percent of the total population in southern cities, compared with little more than 10 percent in northern cities. Before moving to Philadelphia, Boston, or New York, for example, rural migrants first moved to cities such as New Orleans, Jacksonville, Savannah, Memphis, Charleston, and Birmingham. The Jefferson County cities of Birmingham and Bessemer, with extensive rail connections, served as the major distribution points for blacks going north from Alabama. The Southern, the Louisville and Nashville, the Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, and the Illinois Central railroads all traveled northward from Birmingham and Bessemer. In Georgia, cities such as Columbus, Americus, and Albany served as distribution points for blacks leaving from western Georgia and eastern Alabama, while Valdosta, Waycross, Brunswick, and Savannah were distribution centers for those leaving the depressed agricultural counties of southern and southeastern Georgia. To blacks moving north from Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, Chicago was the logical destination, whereas cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England attracted blacks from Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.
Upon the arrival of blacks in northern cities, their population movement usually developed secondary streams. As one contemporary observer noted, "All of the arrivals here [Chicago] did not stay…. They were only temporary guests awaiting the opportunity to proceed further and settle in surrounding cities and towns. With Chicago as a center there are within a radius of from one hundred to one hundred and fifty miles a number of smaller industrial centers…. A great many of the migrants who came to Chicago found employment in these satellite places." In Philadelphia, black migration also "broke bulk" and radiated outward to Lancaster, York, Altoona, and Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania, as well as to Wilmington, Delaware.
Southern blacks helped to organize their own movement into the urban North. They developed an extensive communications network, which included railroad employees, who traveled back and forth between northern and southern cities; northern black weeklies such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier; and an expanding chain of kin and friends. Using their networks of families and friends, African Americans learned about transportation, jobs, and housing in an area before going there. As one contemporary observer noted, "The chief stimuli was discussion…. The talk in the barber shops and grocery stores … soon began to take the form of reasons for leaving." Also fueling the migration process were the letters, money, and testimonies of migrants who returned to visit. One South Carolina migrant to Pittsburgh recalled, "I was plowing in the field and it was real hot. And I stayed with some of the boys who would leave home and [come] back … and would have money, and they had clothes. I didn't have that. We all grew up together. And I said, 'Well, as long as I stay here I'm going to get nowhere.' And I tied that mule to a tree and caught a train."
Other migrants formed migration clubs, pooled their resources, and moved in groups. Black women, deeply enmeshed in black kin and friendship networks, played a conspicuous role in helping to organize the black migration. As recent scholarship suggests, women were the "primary kinkeepers." Moreover, they often had their own gender-specific reasons for leaving the rural South. African-American women resented stereotyped images of the black mammy, who presumably placed loyalty to white families above attachment to her own. Black women's migration reinforced the notion that lifting the race and improving the image of black women were compatible goals.
Black migration was fundamentally a movement of workers, and as blacks moved into northern cities in growing numbers, a black industrial working class emerged. Southern black sharecroppers, farm laborers, sawmill hands, dock workers, and railroad hands all moved into new positions in the urban economy. Labor agents helped to recruit black workers for jobs in meatpacking, auto, steel, and other mass-production industries. As suggested above, however, these labor agents were soon supplanted by the expansion of black familial and communal networks. Employers attested: "After the initial group movement by agents, Negroes kept going by twos and threes. These were drawn by letters, and by actual advances of money, from Negroes who had already settled in the North." Further, "Every Negro that makes good in the North and writes back to his friends starts off a new group."
Wartime labor demands undermined the color barrier in basic industries. In Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Milwaukee, the percentage of black men employed in industrial jobs increased from an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the black labor force in 1910 to about 60 or 70 percent in 1920 and 1930. An official of Cleveland's National Malleable Casting Company exclaimed: "We have [black] molders, core makers, chippers, fitters, locomotive crane operators, melting furnace operators, general foremen, foremen, assistant foremen, clerks, timekeepers[;] in fact, there is no work in our shop that they cannot do and do well, if properly supervised." In the Pittsburgh district, the number of black steelworkers rose from less than 800 on the eve of World War I to nearly 17,000 by 1923. In Detroit, the Ford Motor Company outdistanced other automakers in the employment of African Americans, with the number of black employees rising from fewer than 100 in 1916 to nearly 10,000 in 1926. Black women also entered industrial jobs, although their gains were far less than those of black men. In Chicago the number of black women in manufacturing trades increased from fewer than 1,000 in 1910 to over 3,000 in 1920. Industrial jobs now employed 15 percent of the black female labor force, compared with less than 7 percent in 1910. Buffalo and Pittsburgh offered neither black nor white women substantial industrial opportunities, but the war nonetheless increased their numbers in manufacturing. In Harlem, black women gained increasing employment in the garment industry and in commercial laundries. Still, few
black women entered the major factories of the industrial North. Moreover, despite black men's increasing participation in the new industrial sectors, most moved into jobs at the bottom rung of the industrial ladder.
If African Americans helped to shape their own movement into cities, they also played a role in shaping their experiences within the labor force. In order to change the terms on which they labored, they frequently moved from job to job seeking higher wages and better working conditions. In Milwaukee, at one very disagreeable tannery plant, a black worker related, "I worked there one night and I quit." During the war years, the steel mills of western Pennsylvania frequently experienced a 300 percent turnover rate among black workers. In 1923, for instance, the A. M. Byers iron mill in Pittsburgh employed 1,408 African Americans in order to maintain a work force of 228. At the same time, some African Americans served as strikebreakers; they expressed bitter resentment over the discriminatory practices of white workers, who frequently referred to blacks as a "scab race" and justified their exclusionary policies. Black workers also organized independent all-black unions such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. When whites occasionally lowered racial barriers, others joined white unions such as the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. During the 1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations built upon these traditions of collective action among black workers.
Closely intertwined with the increasing urbanization of the black population was the rise of the ghetto. As the black urban population increased, residential segregation increased in all major cities. The index of dissimilarity (a statistical device for measuring the extent of residential segregation) rose from 66.8 to 85.2 percent in Chicago;
60.6 to 85.0 percent in Cleveland; 64.1 to 77.9 percent in Boston; and 46.0 to 63.0 percent in Philadelphia. The increasing segregation of blacks in the city not only reflected their precarious position in the urban economy, but also the intensification of racial restrictions in the urban housing market. In cities with large black populations, like New York and Chicago, the World War I migration intensified a process that was already well under way. Harlem—planned as an exclusive, stable, upper- and upper-middle-class white community—represented a desirable location to the city's expanding black population.
Although an economic depression undercut the flow of whites into Harlem, white residents resisted black occupancy. Between 1910 and 1915, the Harlem Property Owners' Improvement Corporation waged a vigorous fight to keep blacks out. It launched a restrictive covenant campaign and informed black realtors that houses in the area were not available to black buyers. Although the movement failed to keep Harlem white, discriminatory prices, along with the dearth of necessary repairs, undermined housing quality during the 1920s.
In Chicago and elsewhere, both North and South, blacks faced similar restrictions in the housing market. When legal tactics failed, whites resorted to violence. Race violence erupted in Chicago, East St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia during the era of the Great Migration. Race riots not only helped to reinforce residential segregation in northern cities, they highlighted the growing nationalization of the "race question" in American society.
African Americans developed cross-class alliances and fought racial discrimination in the housing, institutional, and political life of the cities. The black migration reinforced a long tradition of black urban institution-building activities. As early as the 1790s, blacks launched the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia, followed closely by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church in New York, and the Baptist Church in both cities. In 1886, African Americans formed the National Baptist Convention and spearheaded the formation of new churches.
Along with churches, blacks soon formed a variety of mutual aid societies and fraternal orders, including the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Independent Order of St. Luke. The National Association of Colored Women, formed in 1895, emphasized service to the community. Mobilizing under its credo "Lifting as We Climb," the association organized, administered, and supported a variety of social-welfare activities, including homes for the aged, young women, and children; relief funds for the unemployed; and legal aid to combat injustice before the law. Under the impact of World War I and its aftermath, new expressions of black consciousness (as reflected in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance) and the growing participation of blacks in northern politics demonstrated solidarity across class and status lines.
The alliance between black workers and black elites was by no means unproblematic. As the new black middle class expanded during the 1920s, for example, it slowly moved into better housing vacated by whites, leaving the black poor concentrated in certain sections. In his studies of Chicago and New York, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier demonstrated the increasing division of the black urban community along socioeconomic lines. While each city contained significant areas of interclass mixing, poverty increasingly characterized specific sections of the ghetto.
Moreover, the rise of working-class-oriented organizations such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association created substantial conflicts between black workers and established middle-class leadership. Emphasizing "race first," black pride, and solidarity with Africa, the Garvey movement struck a responsive chord among large numbers of black workers. Its Jamaican-born leader, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), frequently exclaimed, "The Universal Negro Improvement Association … believes that the Negro race is as good as any other race, and therefore should be as proud of itself as others are…. It believes in the spiritual Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man." As one migrant stated, "We will make a great mistake if we step out of the path of the Universal Negro Improvement Association." While race-conscious black business and professional people endorsed aspects of Garvey's ideas, they feared his growing appeal and often complained that his message appealed primarily to the "ignorant class" of newcomers from the South.
Despite conflicts between black workers and middle-class black leaders, African Americans continued to forge cross-class alliances. In 1914 Oscar DePriest defeated his white opponents to become Chicago's first black alderman. In 1928 DePriest also symbolized the growing shift of black electoral power from the South to northern urban centers when he gained the Republican Party's endorsement and won a seat in the U.S. Congress, serving the First Congressional District of Illinois. When blacks sought a similar goal in New York, they failed because skillful gerrymandering had split the black vote between the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Assembly districts. In 1944, when the boundaries were redrawn, blacks elected the black minister Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., to the House of Representatives. Harlem thus became the second northern congressional district to send a black to Congress. By then, African Americans had realigned their party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and had become an indispensable element in the New Deal coalition.
Although black electoral politics reflected the growing segregation of the urban environment, black elites retained a core of white allies. African Americans had cultivated a small number of white friends and launched the interracial National Urban League in 1911 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. During the 1930s and 1940s, this inter- and intraracial unity gained even greater expression with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, New Deal social-welfare programs, and the March on Washington movement. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, calling for an end to racial barriers in defense industries, African Americans achieved a major victory against racial exploitation.
As the nation entered the years after World War II, a variety of forces again transformed the context of black migration. The technological revolution in southern agriculture, the emergence of the welfare state, and the militant civil rights and Black Power movements all helped to complete the long-run transformation of blacks from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban people. The African-American population increased from thirteen million in 1940 to over twenty-two million in 1970. The proportion of blacks living in cities rose to over 80 percent, 10 percent higher than the population at large. Beginning as the most rural of Americans, blacks had become the most urbanized.
The Great Migration helped to transform both black and white America. It elevated the issues of race and southern black culture from regional to national phenomena. It was often a volatile process, involving both intraand interracial conflicts. Distributed almost equally among regions, by the late 1970s the black urban migration had run its familiar twentieth-century course. Increases in black urban population were now primarily the
product of births over deaths rather than interregional movements. Moreover, southern-born blacks from the North and West returned home in rising numbers. During the 1980s, the proportion of African Americans living in the South increased, after declining for more than a century. At the same time, black migration to American suburbs escalated. While the outcome of this new migration is yet to be determined, the suburban migrants are faring better than their inner-city counterparts. The returning migrants are also much better off than those who left, and they envision a "New South," one that is much different from the one their forebears abandoned.
See also Chicago Defender ; Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Civil War, U.S.; DePriest, Oscar Stanton; Emancipation in the United States; Garvey, Marcus; Harlem, New York; National Urban League; Universal Negro Improvement Association
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