Migration, Industrialization, and the City

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Migration, Industrialization, and the City



The black migrations from the rural South to the city were part of a larger series of migrations that shaped American urban life. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centurythe period of most rapid urban industrializationstreams of migrants flowed into American cities from rural and small-town homes all over the nation and from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. These migrants provided both the labor and the demand for more goods and services, thus driving the growth of urban economies, cultures, and governments.

Especially in the North, cities grew to unprecedented size. More and more, they organized their economies around technologically sophisticated factories that used a combination of machines and plentiful labor to mass-produce goods for sale. Cities organized their space around rail lines that carried raw materials, goods, and people to and from factories, commercial districts, and densely crowded residential neighborhoods.

By 1900, northern industrial cities were some of the world's most important centers of manufacturing and trade. Chicago became famous for its railroads and stock-yards, Pittsburgh for its steel mills, and New Haven and Hartford for the production of firearms. New York and Philadelphia were known for thousands of small manufacturing concerns, crammed into loft buildings and producing everything from women's clothing to musical instruments. Supplied with labor by European immigrants, the cities of the North industrialized earlier and more quickly than did the cities of the South, where agrarian slavery and the Civil War had slowed industrialization.

Southern blacks did go to southern cities, however, hoping to improve their economic opportunities and social situation. Until about 1920, more southern blacks moved to southern cities than to northern cities. Some stayed on, while others used southern cities as temporary staging areas for the move north.


Following the Civil War, sharecropping arrangements kept black southerners poor and bound to the land, while the rise of Jim Crow made for strict separation of the races and denied blacks access to a citizen's basic protections and privilegesvoting, education, a fair wage, and legal recourse. But racial prejudice was not confined to the South. Northern cities were also segregated, and employers in Chicago or New York City would not hire blacks and pay them well as long as there were whites to do the work.

During World War I, however, war in Europe and new immigration laws stopped the flow of European immigrants to the United States just as a wartime boom in manufacturing made it necessary for factories to hire new workers. A wave of black migrants left the South and headed north to find work. They also came hoping to participate more fully in American democracy.

These interregional migrations followed three broad paths. Residents of the South Atlantic statesespecially the Carolinas and Georgiatended to move up the Atlantic coast into the string of urban centers that runs north from Washington, D.C., through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, and Boston. Migrants from Mississippi, Alabama, and the rest of the Deep South followed rail lines north to Chicago, as well as to Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and the other cities of the Midwest. Finally, blacks from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma went west to the growing cities of California, especially Los Angeles. (This third path became more important during the migrations of the 1940s.)


Blues Song by Michael Harper


The First Great Migration led to the expansion of black districts in cities across the nation. Between one and two million blacks moved north between 1916 and 1929. During this period, the South Side in Chicago and New York's Harlem became the cultural capitals of black America. Not only did large numbers of migrants gather in these places, creating an urban popular culture of their own; the most celebrated black artists, political and religious leaders, athletes, and intellectuals also gathered in Chicago and New York, producing a renaissance in black music, literature, painting, scholarship, and political thought.

Chicago was the great industrial metropolis of the Midwest, as well as the nation's great railroad hub. Chicago's leading black newspaper, the Defender , circulated widely in the South, and the paper's editors urged southern blacks to come work in Chicago's meat-packing plants and railroad yards. Between 1916 and 1919 alone, about sixty thousand southern blacks moved to Chicago, and many more passed through on their way to other destinations.

New York was not only a great industrial center; it was also the main center for the nation's cultural industriespublishing, radio, film, theater, and fine arts. As the formerly Jewish, Irish, and Italian district of Harlem became a black preserve, it also became a symbol of black cultural achievement. Here, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) created new ideas for an urbanizing people. Black and white connoisseurs looked to Harlem as a place of black cultural influence, where they might find innovation in jazz, poetry, sculpture, and dance.


Black migration slowed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in part because work was no longer plentiful up north. With the outbreak of World War II, however, and the end of the Depression in the early 1940s, there developed another migratory wave much greater than the first. As the nation's industries geared up for wartime production, there was again good work to be found in the North. Reports of race riots and segregation suggested that the North was as racially divided as the South. Even so, southern blacks still looked to the North to deliver on the promise of a better life.

At the same time, industrialization was finally transforming the rural South. The agrarian way of life had always required a plentiful supply of black labor. Now, the mechanical cotton picker and similar devices were drastically reducing the need for farm workers. Mechanized agriculture did not require a large pool of labor. The decline of southern agriculture helped drive blacks to the cities in search of work.

As before, many southern blacks found their way to the growing southern cities, but more than four million of them went north. This Second Great Migration, from the 1940s through the mid-1960s, finally made black Americans a predominantly urban people.

The second migration also led to drastic changes in the geography of urban life. In Chicago, for instance, blacks pushed beyond the old South Side ghetto and settled on the West Side, which had long been divided into Eastern European, Irish, and Italian ethnic neighborhoods. In New York, Harlem could not hold the influx of migrants, and large new black colonies began to transform the old Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Similar expansions of the black inner cityand contractions of the old European immigrant districtsoccurred throughout the urban North.

City governments sought to control these changes with the construction of public housing. In the 1950s and early 1960s, federal funds and local politics combined to produce massive high-rise housing projects like Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe towers (since demolished), to name two notorious examples. These projects and others came to represent the worst aspects of ghetto lifethe concentration of poverty, misery, crime, blocked opportunity, and inept government that became synonymous with the word "ghetto" in the 1960s. Ghetto had once meant any immigrant ethnic district. By 1965, it meant the crisis at the intersection of black history and urban history.

SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Excerpt from Man-child in the Promised Land by Claude Brown


The black ghetto of the 1950s and 1960s occupied the inner core of a changing urban world. The Second Great Migration made blacks an urban industrial people, but at the very moment when American cities were becoming less industrial and more suburban.

After World War II ended in 1945, America began to reorganize itself as a suburbanized nation. As new waves of southern blacks arrived in the inner cities, piling into the cramped ghettos, government and private enterprise began to invest more and more of their resources in the expanding suburbs. Federal investment in various formsloans to homeowners, tax breaks for businesses, the construction of highwayshelped make it cheaper to move to the suburbs. Even as America's northern cities underwent dramatic suburbanization, they continued to attract millions of black migrants.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, then, there began another migrationthis time of jobs, capital, and overwhelmingly white homeowners and taxpayers to the suburbs. Millions of American city dwellers realized a dream of owning property and leaving the industrial city when they moved to the suburbs. Americans now began to think of the suburbs as the place of upward class mobility and prosperity. They also began to think of inner cities as "declining": crowded, dangerous, dirty, fallen from past greatness.

Black city dwellers found it difficult to follow jobs and capital out of the inner cities. Recent migrants from the South had risked everything to get to the city. They had no reserves to finance another move, let alone to buy property. Those who could afford to movethe comparatively small black middle class of teachers, professionals, and highly skilled workersencountered an array of legal and illegal barriers designed to keep them where they were.

By the 1960s, it was apparent that the inner city could no longer deliver on the promise of plentiful work and social advancement. The movement of manufacturing to other areasa process known as deindustrializationhad drained away the factory jobs that initially attracted blacks to northern cities. Urban economies gradually changed over from manufacturing to service work. At the higher end of the pay scale, service work involves the processing of information, the kind of work done by lawyers and other professionals, real estate and finance companies, banks, and universities. At the lower end, it involves low-paying nonfactory labor like serving food and cleaning.

Historically, black Americans had always had the least access to the educational training required for high-end service work. Now, with little prospect of reaching the suburbs, they found themselves isolated in disproportionate numbers in inner-city ghettos, in jobs at the low end of the service economy.


The stage was set for the urban crisis of the 1960s, when rioting in black ghettos provided a clear sign that blacks had not found what they sought in the American city. That crisis changed the way Americans thought about their cities and their country. Crime and racial conflict became the leading urban issues. In national politics, the Democrats, who had always relied on urban power bases, lost control of the presidency. Race and racism were now no longer a "southern" problem, but an urban one.

Since the 1960s, the South-to-North and country-to-city migrations of blacks have slowed and in some places even reversed. Urban blacks have begun to make significant moves to suburbia. The industrial city has given way to the service city. The urbanizing nation of 1900 has given way to the suburbanized nation at the end of the century. The Great Migrations of southern blacks to the American inner city have subsided, leaving behind a series of artifacts as varied in their meaning as the persistent ghetto, the urban black middle class, and a popular music that rests in large part on the blues.


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Last Affair: Bessie's Blues Song by Michael Harper


The poet Michael Harper's tribute to the great blues singer Bessie Smith uses lyrics from a song,"This Is My Last Affair," made famous by another great singer, Billie Holiday. Bessie Smith died in 1937 at the age of forty-three, bleeding to death on a southern road when, after an automobile accident, the ambulance driver refused to take her to the hospital because she was black.

Harper's poem alternates between the scene of Bessie Smith's death and the song lyrics, drawing them together in a single meaning he calls "the same stacked deck": Bessie's death in the Jim Crow South is reflective of the appropriation and transformation of her genius by the segregated music industry of her day. She bleeds to death metaphorically as well as actually, her song becoming "her blood in all-white big bands."The line "I'm not the same as I used to be "provides an echoing commentary on the fate of Bessie Smith in particular and of black musical genius in general.

arm torn out,
large veins cross
her shoulder intact,
her tourniquet
her blood in all-white big bands:

Can't you see
what love and heartache's done to me
I'm not the same as I used to be
this is my last affair

Mail truck or parked car
in the fast lane,
afloat at forty-three
on a Mississippi road, Two-hundred-pound muscle on her ham bone,
'nother nigger dead 'fore noon:

Can't you see
what love and heartache's done to me
I'm not the same as I used to be
this is my last affair

Fifty-dollar record
cut the vein in her neck,
fool about her money
toll her black train wreck,
white press missed her fun'ral
in the same stacked deck:

Can't you see
what love and heartache's done to me
I'm not the same as I used to be
this is my last affair

Loved a little blackbird
heard she could sing,
Martha in her vineyard
pestle in her spring,
Bessie had a bad mouth
made my chimes ring:

Can't you see
what love and heartache's done to me
I'm not the same as I used to be
this is my last affair

SOURCE: Harper, Michael S."Last Affair: Bessie's Blues Song," in Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems. University of Illinois Press, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Michael S. Harper. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

Leaflet from the Chicago

Urban League: "Which for Me?"

In concert with articles printed in papers like the Chicago Defender, the largely middle-class Chicago Urban League began passing out leaflets as the Great Migration picked up speed during World War I. Which for Me? requested that southern migrants adopt behaviors and wardrobes that would bring them in line with people in the North. It also offered the following credo: "I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN. I AM PROUD of our boys 'over there' who have contributed soldier service. I DESIRE to render CITIZEN SERVICE. I REALIZE that our soldiers have learned NEW HABITS of SELF-RESPECT AND CLEANLINESS. I DESIRE to help bring about a NEW ORDER OF LIVING in this community. I WILL ATTEND to the neatness of my personal appearance on the street or when sitting in front doorways. I WILL REFRAIN from wearing dust caps, bungalow aprons, house clothing and bedroom shoes out of doors. I WILL ARRANGE MY TOILET within doors and not on the front porch. I WILL INSIST upon the use of rear entrances for coal-dealers, hucksters, etc. I WILL DO MY BEST to prevent defacement of property either by children or adults."

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