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B y 1890 the United States had expanded from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. With growing populations in the Great Plains and the West, the frontier was considered closed. But the nation was far from settled. The turn of the century would be a time of great movement from the farmlands to the cities of America owing to the jobs and demand for labor caused by industrialization. African Americans in the South were drawn to the cities of the North by the promise of work and improved circumstances. They also desired to escape from racism in the post–Civil War South, which had fought in favor of slavery and was bitter about losing the war and the right to own slaves. By 1915 they were heading to the industrial cities by the thousands, beginning the historic African American Great Migration.

All the migrations that occurred during the United States from its founding had pushed Native Americans into smaller and less accommodating reservations as the country continued to take the lands that had once sustained them. Some moved to the cities to look for work or opportunity. In the 1950s the U.S. government passed a series of acts intended to remove the Native Americans from reservations and relocate them to the cities, where, it was determined, they would assimilate into (blend into) U.S. society. The goal of this governmental act was to "terminate" the tribes and eliminate the reservations. Although the government would later reconsider this act, a high percentage of Native Americans became urban because of it.

Urbanization begins

In 1800 America was a rural nation made up almost entirely of farms and small towns. Most people made their living working off the land or by manufacturing items in their homes to sell to the farmers who lived nearby. But as the economy changed in the 1820s and 1830s, the lure of steady work drew large populations to New York City, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; and other cities, most of them in the North. Overall, during the nineteenth century, the nation's urban population grew at a rate of 60 percent per decade. As the cities grew, the way their residents viewed their community and lived their daily lives changed forever. People in small villages knew their neighbors intimately, but city dwellers were confronted with strangers nearly every time they left their houses. In the sea of unfamiliar faces people tended to pull back into smaller circles of friends. Distrust of those who were unknown or different marked the lives of city people in a way that it never had before.

From the mid-1800s, when immigrants from Ireland and Germany poured into the United States, the rapid growth of America's cities led to a crisis in living conditions that included overcrowding, unhealthy drinking water, the lack of sanitary conditions for waste disposal, and the spread of disease. Most urban dwellers did not have indoor toilets, so they used outdoor privies (toilets), the sewage from which often leaked into the water supply. In addition, streets were filled with the manure produced by the many horses that were used for transportation, making an ordinary walk a dirty and dangerous proposition. Inhabitants also threw their refuse out of their windows and into the streets, where roaming pigs, goats, and dogs were the main method of trash removal.

Not everyone lived in these conditions. The wealthy began to build indoor toilets, also called water closets, in their homes in 1815. They also lit up their homes with lamps that burned sperm oil from whales and kept themselves warm with coal-burning stoves that were more efficient than fireplaces. Some fortunate homes even received gas lighting. The urban poor, meanwhile, were lucky to have any light in the evenings or a hearth to keep them warm in the winter. The new upper classes of the North were made up of the families of wealthy manufacturers, professionals such as lawyers or judges, and those engaged in real estate, finance, and commerce. They could be recognized by the fruits of their labor: their extensive education, their fine clothing, their large mansions, and the elaborate furnishings within. In a climate of economic opportunity many of these families had risen to prominence in a single generation rather than by inheriting ancient fortunes.

Urbanization: Fact Focus

  • In the years after the American Civil War (1861–65), the U.S. economy became industrialized. Within a few decades millions of people had moved into American cities.
  • By 1900 roughly 1.7 million children under the age of sixteen worked in factories.
  • Starting in 1915, nearly five million blacks moved from the rural South to Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and the other cities of the North and West, in what is now called the Great Migration.
  • During the last half of the twentieth century, the number of American Indians in urban areas increased rapidly, from less than 10 percent in 1930, to 45 percent in 1970, to 66 percent in 2000.

In the cities of the North in the first half of the nineteenth century the gap between the rich and the poor was very wide. In most large cities, only a few blocks from the opulent new mansions, elaborately decorated hotels, and fashionable boutiques, could be found hundreds of the poorest Americans living in the most wretched conditions. Many of these poor were recent immigrants or the sons and daughters of farmers who had come to the city looking for jobs in the manufacturing and transportation industries. They were unskilled workers who performed heavy manual labor or monotonous (boring and repetitive) tasks in factories for insufficient wages. Few men of this class could support their families alone, so their wives and children also worked as domestic servants or factory workers, contributing as much as one-third of the family's income. The labor required to keep a family fed, clothed, and sheltered was never ending, but the biggest worry was having no job at all. The streets of America's major cities were filled with unemployed families who had no place to live or decent food to eat.

Urbanization: Words to Know

The ruling class; or a government by a small privileged class.
Craftsman; someone who is skilled at a trade or a craft.
The way that someone who comes from a foreign land or culture becomes absorbed into a culture and learns to blend into the ways of its predominant, or main, society.
Someone who lives in and participates in a political community or country, who has fulfilled the requirements for citizenship as set out by the government. Citizens can expect certain rights and privileges from their government, such as voting or military defense, and at the same time the government has a right to expect its citizens to obey its laws.
An economic theory that does not include the concept of private property. Instead, the public (usually represented by the government) owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.
Unfair treatment based on racism or other prejudices.
Involuntarily removal from one's home or nation.
Leaving one's country to go to another country with the intention of living there. "Emigrant" is used to describe departing from one's country—for example, "she emigrated from Ireland."
Relating to a group of people who are not from the majority culture in the country in which they live, and who keep their own culture, language, and institutions.
An area within a city where members of a minority group live, often not by choice but because they have been isolated from the community due to discrimination or ethnic prejudice.
To travel to a country of which one is not a native with the intention of settling there as a permanent resident. "Immigrant" is used to describe coming to a new country—for example, "she immigrated to the United States."
The historic change from a farm-based economy to an economic system based on the manufacturing of goods and distribution of services on an organized and mass-produced basis.
Labor unions:
Organizations that bring workers together to advance their interests in terms of getting better wages and working conditions.
Migrant labor:
People who move regularly in order to work at temporary jobs.
To move from one place to another, not necessarily across national borders.
Abusive and oppressive treatment.
The laboring class.
Separating people by race, class, or ethnic group.
Tenant farmers who are usually provided with the land, seed, and equipment to farm but who owe the landlord a significant portion of their crops in return.

Before 1818 there were no legal restrictions on immigration in the United States. Anyone who could afford passage was welcome, and no one paid much attention until the winter of 1818 to 1819, when America experienced its first wave of large-scale unemployment as a result of the country's first banking crisis. Recently arrived immigrants were among the first to lose their jobs, but because it took a while for the news that there was no work available to reach Europe, immigrants kept coming in large numbers. This scenario was repeated after the Panic of 1837 initiated the worst economic depression America had yet experienced. After that, nativist (or anti-immigration) sentiment reached new heights. Many native-born Americans began to fear that the country was being overrun by the poorest and most degraded inhabitants of Europe, who would work for lower wages and, according to this thinking, were taking jobs from American laborers. Nativist societies arose in an attempt to stop their influence. Then, the American Civil War (1861–65) devastated the United States. In rebuilding the country's economic structures after the war, industry began rapidly expanding and the demand for labor was higher than ever. Business and industry as well as farming interests once again welcomed incoming immigrants who were willing to work at low-paying jobs, though resentments among some of the national or ethnic groups of laborers continued, at times erupting into anti-immigrant violence.


In the years following the American Civil War, the United States established a new economy based on industrialization (the change from a farm-based economy to an economic system based on the manufacturing of goods and distribution of services on an organized and mass-produced basis). During the 1870s and 1880s, big businesses replaced the small ones. With large groups of investors behind them, the new businesses were able to invest huge amounts of capital (money) into modern machine technology and efficient building structures. Rearranging the work force for premium cost-savings, efficiency, and maximum production, they made tremendous profits, sometimes without raising the prices of their goods. The transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869. The railroad, going all the way across North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, helped to extend the range of sales from local markets to national markets. Soon the American economy surged to the forefront of world commerce as its oil, steel, rail, mining, and agricultural industries flourished.

The 1870s and 1880s witnessed the worst agricultural depression in the country's history, and large numbers of farmers, giving up on the agricultural dream, packed their

Excerpt from the U.S. Census: Population Composition of Major Cities, 1910

New York

  • Total: 4,766,883
  • Foreign-Born White: 1,927,703 (40.4 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 1,820,141 (38.2 percent)
  • Black: 91,709 (1.9 percent)


  • Total: 2,185,283
  • Foreign-Born White: 781,217 (35.7 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 912,701 (41.8 percent)
  • Black: 44,103 (2.0 percent)


  • Total: 1,549,008
  • Foreign-Born White: 382,578 (24.7 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 496,785 (32.1 percent)
  • Black: 84,459 (5.5 percent)


  • Total: 670,535
  • Foreign-Born White: 240,722 (35.9 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 257,104 (38.3 percent)
  • Black: 13,564 (2.0 percent)


  • Total: 465,766
  • Foreign-Born White: 156,565 (33.6 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 188,255 (40.4 percent)
  • Black: 5,741 (1.2 percent)

San Francisco

  • Total: 416,912
  • Foreign-Born White: 130,874 (31.4 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 153,781 (36.9 percent)
  • Black: 1,642 (0.4 percent)


  • Total: 331,069
  • Foreign-Born White: 24,351 (7.4 percent)
  • Native Born of Foreign or Mixed Parentage: 45,066 (13.6 percent)
  • Black: 94,446 (28.5 percent)

bags for the city. By the 1880s and 1890s millions of Americans had moved from the country to small towns, from small towns to the medium-sized cities, and from those cities to the large urban-industrial centers. Joining these farmers was an increasing number of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Like their American counterparts, these immigrants came mostly from the countryside and knew very little of urban life. The immigrants were mostly Catholic or Jewish Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Serbs, and Russians. The attraction of the cities—with their jobs, higher wages, and, beginning in the 1880s, such technological wonders as electricity and the telephone—was strong for some Americans who were working night and day on a small farm and barely keeping food on the table. The majority became laborers in the mines, mills, and factories of a rapidly industrializing America.

As more Americans moved to the cities and joined the industrial labor force, the social structure began to reflect the increasingly diverse population. Family farmers, the backbone of America ever since the earliest colonial settlements nearly three centuries earlier, declined in social status while a new kind of business leader—the manager—rose in status. As the workplace role of native-born, white, male craft workers became smaller, the role of immigrants, blacks, women, and unskilled and semiskilled workers expanded.


In 1880 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that of the nearly three million American industrial workers, at least four-fifths were working in factories. Large-scale factories were rapidly replacing artisans (craftsmen) and work produced by skilled hands. The trend had begun in the early 1800s in the textile (cloth) industry with new machines and new ways of managing labor. Over the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s the transformation rippled outward to a host of other industries.

In the late 1800s, factories did not yet operate on the scale of modern plants. Nevertheless, the new factories represented a major innovation in manufacturing enterprise. They required a substantial initial investment, often hundreds of thousands of dollars; they employed hundreds of workers, paying them cash or company "scrip" (currency or documents printed, often by an employer, as a kind of money system) at hourly, weekly, or piece-rate wages; and they usually operated under the direction of salaried middle managers—people who were hired by the big bosses to oversee the processes of the workers. Manufacturing was becoming "big business."

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a spectacular increase in industrial growth in the U.S. economy. Abundant resources, an expanding labor force, government policy, and skilled entrepreneurs (people who started up new businesses) facilitated this shift to the large-scale production of manufactured goods. For many Americans, industrialization resulted in prosperity, but this prosperity was not for everyone and it was not distributed equally. The expansion of manufacturing created a need for large numbers of factory workers. Although the average standard of living for workers increased steadily during the last decades of the nineteenth century, many workers struggled to make ends meet. At the turn of the century, it took an annual income of at least six hundred dollars to live comfortably, but the average worker made only between four hundred and five hundred dollars per year. Factory workers also had to face long hours, poor working conditions, and job instability. During economic recessions, many workers lost their jobs or faced sharp pay cuts.

New employees found the discipline and regulation of factory work to be very different from other types of work. Work was often monotonous since workers performed one task over and over. It was also strictly regulated. Working hours were long, averaging at least ten hours a day and six days a week for most workers, and even longer for others. For men and women from farming backgrounds, these new conditions proved challenging, since farm work offered a variety of work tasks. Factory work was also different for skilled artisans, who had once handcrafted goods on their own schedule.

Factory conditions were usually poor and, in some cases, dreadful. Lack of effective government regulation led to unsafe and unhealthy work sites. In the late nineteenth century, more industrial accidents occurred in the United States than in any other industrial country. Roughly 35,000 workers per year were killed in workplace accidents. In only one year's time, 195 workers in steel and iron mills were killed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Employers rarely offered payment to workers or their families when the worker was hurt or killed on the job.

In order to save money, many employers hired women and children to work in factories, since these workers

would work for lower wages than men. Some women were paid as little as six dollars per week, a sum much lower than a male would have received. Children also worked long hours for low wages. The number of children employed in factories rose steadily over the last three decades of the nineteenth century. By 1900 roughly 1.7 million children under the age of sixteen worked in factories; less than half that many children had been employed thirty years before. Under pressure from the public, many state legislatures passed child labor laws that limited the hours children could work to ten hours per day, but employers often disregarded such laws. In southern cotton mills, children who operated looms (weaving machines) throughout the night had cold water thrown in their faces to keep them awake. Long working hours for children also meant that accidents were more likely to occur; like adult workers, many children were injured or killed on the job.

Worker responses to poor factory conditions and low wages were varied. Some employees intentionally decreased their production rate, while others quit their jobs and sought work in other factories. Other workers resorted to a more organized means of protest by joining labor unions (organizations that bring workers together to advance their interests in terms of getting better wages and working conditions). Most industrial workers, however, were not union members and, having few alternatives, simply endured the hardship of factory work.

U.S. City Populations, 1870 and 1920

1870 1920
Boston, MA 250,526748,060
New York, NY 942,2925,620,048
Newark, NJ 105,059414,524
Philadelphia, PA 674,0221,823,779
Pittsburgh, PA 139,256588,343
Baltimore, MD 267,354733,826
Atlanta, GA 21,789200,616
Charleston, NC 48,95667,957
Cleveland, OH 92,829796,841
Detroit, MI 79,577993,678
Chicago, IL 298,9772,701,705
St. Louis, MO 310,864772,897
Omaha, NE 16,083191,601
Minneapolis, MN 13,066380,582
Birmingham, AL 178,806
New Orleans, LA 191,418387,219
Houston, TX 9,382138,276
Denver, CO 4,759256,491
Los Angeles, CA 5,728576,673
Seattle, WA 1,107315,312

Turn of the century urbanization

By the end of the nineteenth century, large urban centers had developed in all four major regions of the United States: East, Midwest, South, and West. New York City and Chicago, Illinois, emerged as the major metropolitan centers, while regional centers such as St. Louis, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; and Detroit, Michigan, emerged as areas that drew specialized work forces. Some cities became

Henry Ford: Pioneer in Industrial Labor

In 1864 the modern steel production process was launched. Detroit, Michigan's location along the Great Lakes offered the city a role in this new industry, and many foundries (places in which metals are cast and molded) sprang up. In 1865 the first short stretch of pipeline carried oil along the Allegheny River. Cheap oil, steel, and transportation set the stage for Henry Ford (1863–1947) to revolutionize the automobile industry. He created his first car in 1893 and began to develop his dream of mass producing inexpensive cars.

After finding financial backing, he went to work on his concept of mass assembly. In the workspace, if workers bumped into each other while assembling cars, Ford reorganized their movement and the timing of their work. If they spent time walking over to a storage area to retrieve parts, Ford moved the storage area closer to the worker. He created assembly lines in his factories to bring parts to selected groups of workers for assembly. Soon whole cars moved along conveyor belts to worker groups, each specializing in one of five thousand jobs that could be learned easily and sequenced so that cars could be assembled rapidly. Since each worker produced much more per hour, profits skyrocketed. At the same time, Ford used some of these cost savings to reduce the price of his cars. Every time that he reduced his prices, his market grew and his profits increased. In little more than ten years, Ford had become one of America's first billionaires. He financed most of this growth and expansion with corporate profits and savings. When Ford began making cars, it took more than a day and a half to make each car. By introducing and perfecting the use of the assembly line, he eventually was able to produce one car every twenty-nine seconds. With each increase in efficiency, his profits soared. As early as 1905, he began sharing profits with his workers. He tied profit sharing to employee efficiency and saw workers and management as partners in production.

On January 5, 1914, Ford Motors released a statement nationwide announcing the introduction of the five-dollar, eight-hour workday, beginning on January 12. The decision to pay five dollars a day resounded nationwide. Thousands of African Americans were in the process of leaving the South and searching for job security in the North. In 1916, Ford had hired 50 African American employees (out of a total of 32,072 employees). A few years later, the Ford plant had 1,675 African Americans in a variety of job levels. At that time, few industries hired African Americans for any type of work that whites were willing to do. Even fewer companies were putting African Americans into managerial positions. Most paid African Americans less money for the same job than they were paying whites. But Ford hired African Americans for skilled jobs in his plant and promoted them to management and white-collar (salaried managerial) positions, believing in, and exploiting, their abilities in many fields.

Ford claimed that he raised wages so dramatically to lift workers out of poverty. He also believed that the U.S. economy would grow faster if workers could afford to buy the products that they made. Raising salaries made it possible for workers to buy Fords, expanding the market for his products. Ford claimed that higher wages would make workers pay more attention to their work and improve the quality of the cars produced. If Ford's customers were happy with their cars, they would continue to buy them.

Some experts claim that he had no choice, that he was forced to raise wages to attract labor in a market that was short of workers. Other labor analysts claim that Ford's problem was not a shortage of labor but high turnover rates. Still other observers argue that Ford had to pay higher wages to get workers to work harder. The monotonous work drove men to their breaking point: Workers resented being treated like machines and would seize every opportunity to shirk work or remain idle.

Whatever the reason, the results of the five-dollar day for Ford were clear. The labor force became much more stable and production costs declined. Laborers feared losing jobs that paid so much above the industry average. With the five-dollar day, modernizing industry became less difficult. Workers began to associate better standards of living and benefits with the increased output of labor that machines made possible.

known for certain products and companies. For example, Dayton, Ohio, housed the headquarters of the National Cash Register Company; Corning, New York, became known for its glass kitchenware; Hershey, Pennsylvania, grew famous for its chocolate; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, gained recognition as the home of a number of renowned German breweries. As the century closed, railroads began connecting the countryside to growing cities within each region, increasing the communication and transportation between the regions.

For several decades after the Civil War, the majority of African Americans remained in the American South. Although they had begun to slowly migrate northward, they numbered only 68,000 urban residents in the 1870s; by the first decade of the twentieth century, that number had grown to 194,000. By 1910, 80 percent of black Americans who lived outside the South lived in urban areas. Their migration did not necessarily result in significantly better treatment. In the Northeast and the Midwest, housing discrimination, unfair employment practices, and inadequate public services were commonplace, leading to the creation of racially segregated ghettos (areas within a city where members of a minority group live) such as Harlem in New York City. Before 1924, Japanese and Chinese workers were arriving in the West and had significant populations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants were crossing the border in the Southwest to find jobs. Many Mexicans worked in agricultural jobs, but they, too, provided a boom in urban populations in the early twentieth century.

Cities of the late nineteenth century grew without plan, with a minimum of control, and usually according to the needs of local industry. In part because of the lack of planning for human needs, American cities were plagued with poverty, disease, crime, and decay. In spite of massive construction in the 1880s and 1890s, population growth outpaced the supply of housing. Landlords whose buildings were in great demand tended to exploit the situation. In addition to raising rents, they often split up existing buildings to house more people. Honeycombed into barrack-like rooms, many apartment dwellers not only lacked direct access to light or air, but also had to do without sanitation facilities, privacy, or comfort. Moreover, the only source of heat was usually a dangerous and physically harmful coal-burning stove.

City tenement housing (apartment buildings that are below normal standards and are usually found in a poor city neighborhood) quickly degenerated into slums that not only bred vermin (like lice, fleas, and rats) and rotten odors, but also increased poverty, prostitution, organized crime, and dangerous diseases. In 1881 the murder rate in America was 25 per million; in 1898, the rate had risen to 107 per million. Diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and diphtheria increasingly plagued cities and wreaked havoc on working-class populations.

Several factors made many problems in American cities more pronounced. In the 1880s and 1890s the gulf between social classes was dramatically emphasized. For example, a few blocks from New York's elite and fashionable Fifth Avenue, the sixty-block Shantytown with its Irish poor people and roaming livestock posed a sharp contrast. Poverty in ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy, Polonia, and Greektown also served to highlight and define the gap between rich and poor.

By the turn of the century, some improvements were on the way, but slowly and with great resistance. Public health regulations, water purification methods, and sewage disposal systems relieved some of the worst sanitation problems. City governments began to regulate certain areas in housing and poverty relief and expanded police power. Powerful urban politicians called "city bosses" arose and at times made real improvements in living conditions. Progressive reformers, who brought social issues to the forefront, also helped. Many urban dwellers, whether displaced farmers or recent immigrants from other countries, endured their lot in life and hoped for a better future for their children.

African American Great Migration

After the American Civil War, African Americans shifted from rural farm labor to urban industrial employment. They moved in great numbers to southern cities like Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Houston, Texas. Starting in 1915, nearly five million blacks moved from the rural South to Chicago, Illinois; New York City; Los Angeles, California, and the other cities of the North and West.

Historical background

In 1865 the United States was faced with the job of restoring the Southern governments as part of the Union. After much turmoil, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act, which divided the South into five military districts under the direction of a military general. The general had the responsibility of calling a constitutional convention in each state and the duty to make sure that all adult males, black and white, had a chance to vote. Once a new state government had been established and had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which promised equal protection to all citizens under the laws of the nation, it could petition Congress for readmission to the Union. This was the beginning of the Reconstruction Period.

By 1870, all the Confederate states had been reconstructed and black citizens were voted into office in the South for the first time. Between 1869 and 1877, fourteen blacks won southern seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and two won seats in the U.S. Senate. Blacks could finally sit on juries. Most importantly, many southern states provided state-funded public education for the first time. But former slaves needed a new means of making a living. Their demand for "forty acres and a mule," or a little land and the equipment to begin a tiny farm, fell on deaf ears. Even as the federal government was working to protect blacks' rights in the South, white supremacist organizations were taking power. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and other secret organizations terrorized blacks and their supporters throughout the South. By 1875 even the federal support for Reconstruction fell through.

Mississippi created a new state constitution in 1890 that formalized white rule. The other southern states all followed suit. Within twenty years, black voting throughout the South had virtually ceased. During the same period, Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation (separation of people by race) in everything from education to public facilities to religion. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the "separate but equal" philosophy in the case Plessy v. Ferguson. In this decision the nation's highest court sanctioned racial segregation, so that separate schools were established for black and white students, railroad cars were designated for black or white passengers, and restaurants had separate seating areas. Although the decision specified that facilities for blacks and whites should be equal, that standard was rarely followed.

After losing the vote and any representation in government, blacks in the South faced grim prospects. Most rented land from white landlords, trying to make a living as sharecroppers—tenant farmers who are usually provided with the land, seed, and equipment to farm, but owe the landlord a significant portion of the crops in return. With each passing year they grew increasingly indebted to the landlords.

Many African Americans did succeed in their professions, but they did not always get a chance to enjoy their prosperity. In an effort to preserve their superiority and keep blacks down in society, some whites in the South resorted to physical violence. Between 1889 and 1941, an estimated 3,811 blacks

were lynched (murdered by a mob, often by hanging), often with thousands of white spectators cheering the event.

The beginning of the migration

At the end of the Civil War, approximately 92 percent of all African Americans lived in the South. Thirty-five years later, at the end of the century, 90 percent, or 8,883,994 African Americans, remained in the South. Only 911,025, or 10 percent of all African Americans, lived in the North. There was one early migration from the South between 1879 and 1881, when about sixty thousand African Americans moved to Kansas and the Oklahoma Indian Territories. But most southern African Americans stayed in the South. European immigration may be one explanation for the slow start of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North. As the North industrialized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it generated a huge demand for labor. This demand was met in large part by massive immigration of Europeans. A great many of the urban factory jobs were filled first by Irish and German laborers, and later by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Had Northern factories not been able to meet their labor needs through immigration, they might have relied more on domestic sources, including southern blacks.

World War I (1914–18) reduced immigration to the United States. In the 1920s, more restrictive immigration laws were passed, further reducing the number of new immigrants. A strong demand for labor developed in the cities of the North. African American newspapers began to print stories of high-paying factory jobs in the North that would double or even triple the incomes of southern blacks. The economy in the South, not yet industrialized, depended on agriculture, and at that time a series of floods and an insect called the boll weevil were destroying the crops.

In 1900 nine out of ten African Americans still lived in the South, but over the next decade 366,880 African Americans migrated to northern cities from the South. Between 1910 and 1920 the percentage of blacks living in the South began to fall, as a migration of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 African Americans made the trip north. By 1930 more than one in five blacks resided outside of the South.

By 1930, Chicago's South Side and New York's Harlem became the capitals of African American life in the North. Large numbers of migrants gathered in these places, creating an urban popular culture of their own. The most celebrated African American artists, political and religious leaders, athletes, and intellectuals also gathered in Chicago and New York, producing a surge of arts, scholarship, and political thought. Chicago was the great industrial city of the Midwest, and 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 about sixty thousand southern blacks moved to Chicago.

New York was not only a great industrial center, it was also the main center for the nation's cultural industries—publishing, radio, film, theater, and fine arts. As the formerly Jewish, Irish, and Italian district of Harlem became the home

Harlem in the 1920s

The Harlem area of New York City is internationally famous for its rich African American cultural history spanning back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The first great wave of African Americans migrating to New York between 1890 and 1910 tripled the city's black population. It was a generation that had been born after slavery had ended in 1865—a generation that was ready to express itself freely in what seemed to be a brave new era.

As the first African Americans moved into the neighborhoods of Harlem, the original planners conceived of it as an upscale urban setting for wealthy blacks. An economic depression in 1904 and 1905 cut off money for investment and development. Huge apartments that were meant for wealthy families were cut up with makeshift walls or rented to several families to live in together. Blacks arriving in New York City almost always ended up in Harlem, where they were allowed a degree of peace they were not given elsewhere. Some migrated from the South, where Jim Crow laws made it legal to keep blacks at economic disadvantage and where violence against blacks was left unpunished. Others arrived from Panama, where thousands of workers from the West Indies had built the Panama Canal and were then left without jobs when the canal was completed in 1914. African Americans arrived in Harlem from the armed forces, since a great number of the 370,000 blacks who had served in World War I, and had seen racial tolerance in other parts of the world, particularly France, found it hard to go back to the South.

By the 1920s, Harlem was a vibrant community, the center of the modern African American world. The Harlem Renaissance is the term used for the intellectual and artistic community that flourished in Harlem in the 1920s—some of the best writers, painters, philosophers, and musicians in the world lived or worked there. Harlem nightclubs, such as the famous Cotton Club, were popular with affluent white New Yorkers, so that black entertainers could earn more in a week in Harlem than they made in a month on the road, battling travel conditions and racism. As Harlem's fame grew, more people arrived.

But then in 1929, the stock market crashed, initiating the Great Depression (1929–41). In the months that followed the country sank into the worst financial crisis of its history. No one had money for entertainers, and the artists scattered to find jobs. Racist employment practices gave preference to unemployed whites over unemployed blacks. The Depression ruined Harlem: the thriving neighborhood became an overcrowded slum, where the lucky residents had unskilled jobs and the unlucky residents were unemployed. By 1935, the former center of culture was well on its way to becoming an international symbol for poverty and urban blight.

of a mostly African American population, it became as well a symbol of black cultural achievement. In Harlem during the 1920s and beyond such great African American thinkers as W.E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), James Weldon Johnson (1871– 1938), and Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) created new ideas for an urbanizing people.

A second and even larger migration of southern blacks occurred between 1940 and 1950. World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, and other countries defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), even more than World War I, had a tremendous impact on American business and the economy. During and following World War II a virtual boom occurred, causing a great northward migration of blacks. Through the 1960s the ultimate migration of blacks from the South totaled between four and five million persons. Mechanization of Southern agriculture after World War II decreased the demand for low-wage labor and gave African Americans further cause to leave agricultural areas. The continued exodus (mass departure) of rural blacks decreased the supply of farm labor, thereby motivating southern farmers to mechanize further and adopt laborsaving methods. By 1970 about four in ten blacks were Northerners, a little more than five in ten were Southerners, and the remainder lived in the West.

This migration created an overflow in the African American sections of some of the northern cities. In Chicago, the new wave of African Americans pushed the black population well beyond the old South Side ghetto and into 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 communities began to transform the old Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

These population changes created political turmoil and resulted in the massive high-rise housing projects of the 1950s and early 1960s, as city officials and the federal government tried to deal with the overcrowding. The projects came to represent the worst aspects of ghetto life—the 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 generally meant an impoverished African American urban slum.

The exodus of blacks from the South during the thirty years between 1940 and 1970 is one of the major migrations in American history. In volume, it equals the total Italian immigration to the United States during its peak a half century earlier. For most blacks, this journey out of the South meant exchanging a rural, agricultural existence for an urban life based on factory jobs. Often the journey resulted in exchanging a rough rural cabin for an apartment in a high-rise project.

During the 1940s and 1950s, millions of city dwellers moved to the suburbs. In time, many industries followed, leaving expensive urban surroundings for the industrial complexes near suburban highways. Most of the African Americans who had recently migrated from the South did not have the funds to move to the suburbs. Those who could afford to move—the comparatively small black middle class of teachers, professionals, and highly skilled workers—encountered discrimination in housing and schools. By the 1960s, as manufacturing jobs left the cities, city economies began to revolve around service work. Millions of urban African Americans, whose educational background was often minimal or lacking, took on the city's low-paying service jobs like food preparation and office cleaning.

By the 1970s the black migration to the North from the South had ended. Although blacks continued to leave the South, many returned. A few Northern-born blacks, the children of earlier migrants, moved to the South in response to the availability of jobs there and a change in the political and social climate. In the early 1970s just as many blacks were moving to the region as were leaving it.

By the mid-1980s, owing to reduced economic growth in some areas of the South, black migration to the South had leveled off. The percentage of African Americans living in the western United States had increased from 0.5 percent in 1910 to 9.4 percent in 1990. In the year 2000, about 37 percent of blacks were likely to live in the North, 53 percent in the South, and 10 percent in the West.

Native American urbanization

As a result of the rapid settlement of the United States by its immigrant populations, American Indians lost much of their land, but through treaties and other official acts of the federal government, American Indians won the right to exist as separate, self-governing nations within the United States. The system of reservation life isolated them for many years from non-Indian society. Thus, although uprooted, often impoverished, and forced to learn European-based languages, religions, and traditions, reservation Indian tribes remained in separate communities, often remote from mainstream American society.

The 2000 U.S. Census reported 2.5 million people whose descent is solely American Indian, but 4.5 million whose descent is Indian in combination with one or more other ancestries. Today there are more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States, meaning tribes and groups that have a special, legal relationship as nations within the U.S. nation. There are approximately 275 American Indian reservations in the United States today. The Navajo Reservation, which extends over sixteen million acres of land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, is the largest reservation. Some of the small reservations are only a few hundred acres. An estimated 56.2 million acres of land are held in trust by the United States as reservations for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Reservation life is certainly not for everyone. Many Native Americans have moved from reservations to towns and cities throughout the nation. During the last half of the twentieth century, the numbers of Native Americans in urban areas has increased rapidly, from less than 10 percent in 1930, to 45 percent in 1970, to 66 percent in 2000. Not all of this movement was due to natural population shifts; much has resulted from specific U.S. government policies.

In the 1950s the U.S. government decided to try to make Indians assimilate into mainstream society rather than keep their own cultures. This policy meant moving Indians from reservations to cities. The government hoped Indians would find work in the cities and adopt an "American" lifestyle. Then, the government would be able to "terminate" the tribes and eliminate the reservation system. Thus Congress passed an act that placed Indian country (reservations and other areas in which Native Americans live under self-rule) in five states (California, Nebraska, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin) under state criminal and civil jurisdiction (authority), rather than the previous mix of federal and reservation law. In 1953 the House of Representatives passed a resolution that outlined its intent to end the special federal trust relationship between the United States and Indian tribes. In 1954 legislation passed by Congress ordered the termination of the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin. From 1954 to the mid-1960s, Congress terminated more than one hundred Indian tribes, communities, bands, and allotments. As a part of this governmental attempt to "get out of the Indian business," Congress also passed two important laws. One law transferred Indian health care to the Public Health Service, while another law encouraged Indians to apply to state social service programs and to attend public schools as full U.S. citizens.

By 1961, the government began to realize that these policies were causing damage to Native Americans. A government report stated the new official view that terminating tribes hurt Indian morale and made the Native people angry or apathetic (not willing to make an effort). The statement went on to say that these reactions limited Native Americans' willingness to go along with other federal Indian programs. Government policies began to change. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has not actively encouraged Indians to move to the cities since the late 1960s. However, many continued to relocate to be with family or friends, to find a better job, to get an education, or just to find a different way of life.


During World War II, some twenty-five thousand Native Americans served in the armed forces, and almost twice that number left reservations for war-related work. Many members of both groups settled in urban areas after the war. In 1947 the Bureau of Indian Affairs set up a program to find off-reservation employment for Hopis and Navajos. In the following year, a government commission investigating ways to improve efficiency recommended that a large-scale program of job training and placement for Native Americans be established to meet the threat of overpopulated reservations.

In 1950 Dillon S. Myer (1891–1982) became commissioner of Indian affairs. Myer had been head of the War Relocation Authority that placed Japanese Americans in internment (detention) camps during World War II. He came to view reservations as similar to the internment camps that had isolated Japanese Americans from American society. At the end of the war, he had tried to foster the reentry of Japanese Americans into American life as individuals, rather than have them remain apart as a group. A similar solution seemed desirable for Native Americans, especially because Myer believed that they could never enjoy an acceptable standard of living as long as they remained on reservations. He supported both relocation and termination as means of assimilation.

In 1950, the BIA began its first general relocation program. Placement offices were opened in Aberdeen, Washington; Billings, Montana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Portland, Oregon. In 1953 the program expanded and relocation offices were established on most reservations. In the early years of the program, Native Americans were pressured by officials who were working to meet quotas assigned to them by the relocation division. The officials had to convince a certain number of Native Americans to relocate to meet their job requirements.

Native Americans applying for the program were typically allowed one month to prepare for the transition to urban life. They were given fifty dollars apiece to cover moving expenses, one-way train or bus tickets to relocation cities, and small sums of money to buy the minimum necessities of life. (Originally, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver were designated as relocation cities, but the list was later expanded to include Cincinnati, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Dallas.) Once at their destinations, the new urban Native Americans received help from local relocation offices in obtaining housing and employment, including a month's financial assistance (forty dollars a week for an individual or couple; more for larger families).

Many of those who left the reservation experienced frustration and failure. One of the basic problems was that many Native Americans were simply not prepared for life in the metropolitan United States. Coming from cultures that were often communal (collective or shared) and cooperative, many migrants found it difficult to adjust to the impersonal and competitive character of urban life. In many cases, the BIA provided inadequate counseling and insufficient economic support for the transition. Many relocated people received little job training, and the employment they obtained often proved to be poorly paid or temporary. Many missed medical and other programs that had been available to them on the reservations. Program participants, in short, often found themselves becoming discouraged slum dwellers beset by a host of social problems. Particularly noticeable among these was alcoholism. The BIA admitted in 1959 that about a third of those participating in the relocation program had returned to reservations.

The BIA attempted to respond to criticism of its relocation programs. The effectiveness of the changes in its approach, however, did not mean the process was actually working. While the number of urban Native Americans continued to increase, there was little evidence that Native Americans were being assimilated into the mainstream of American society. In the 1960s most of the problems of relocation were eased as federal policy increasingly focused on Native Americans' right to self-government. The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 gave Native Americans a much greater voice in the planning and administration of federal programs that concerned them.

Problems and positive aspects of Indian urbanization

Today, there are some urban Native Americans who have never seen their reservation. They have never spoken their tribal language or learned about the history and culture of their people. Many Native American leaders see this as the most important crisis Indians have faced since European contact five hundred years ago. Urbanization posed the new problem of how Native Americans could keep an Indian identity while living in cities, separated from the rest of their people.

Native American leaders are concerned about these issues for a number of reasons. It is common for people living in cities to have fewer children than people living in rural areas do. If the population levels off, Native peoples will form a small subgroup in the United States. As an even smaller group, it is feared that Native Americans will lose some of their power and influence, and there will be fewer people to carry on Native American traditions and culture.

Some Native American leaders are also concerned about the high rate at which Indians marry non-Indians in the cities. By 1980 over half of all Native Americans were married to non-Indians. Today the rate is even higher. Eventually it may become hard to define Native Americans as a group. Tribal leaders have also expressed concern that many urban Indians no longer consider themselves members of a tribe. More Native Americans are learning English as their first language than ever before. This adds to the loss of connection with the tribe.

On the other hand, not all Native leaders agree that urbanization will lead to the loss of tribal culture. Some believe that many Native Americans will retain their identity and a tie to their homelands even if they live in the city. A lot of Native Americans think their own cultural values are better than American values. Many have not really assimilated into American society, partly or largely because racism has excluded many people of color from the mainstream. Since many Indians feel they are outside the mainstream, they are not as likely to give up the old values. Preserving the traditional Indian ways of life is important to many American Indians today and will ensure the future of tribal identity.

Despite the determination to preserve a way of life, American Indians in U.S. cities have faced many challenges. Urban Native Americans are often forced to meet their needs without much money. Rent, child care, transportation, and health care are all available on reservations. However, despite government acts promising health care and other services to urban Indians, these services are usually difficult or impossible to find in the city. In 1980 about 25 percent of urban Indians lived in poverty. One study showed that only about 2 percent manage to get general assistance (money from the government) to help with living expenses. Native Americans who have spent their lives on reservations often do not know how to apply for general assistance once in a city. Sometimes the people working in government agencies refuse aid to Native Americans, mistakenly thinking that Indians are already receiving help from the BIA.

Lack of education is one cause of low income and unemployment. Over 40 percent of urban Indian teenagers drop out of high school. Non-Indians are twice as likely to have a college education as Indians. For American Indians, as with other groups, lack of education often means working low-income jobs that do not provide health insurance. Many Indians cannot find health care in the cities. In fact, American Indian health is better on the reservations than in American cities. Native American children in cities get more pneumonia, flu, and lung disease than those on reservations. More die as infants in cities than on reservations.

The University of California at Los Angeles undertook a three-decade study of American Indian children in Los Angeles County beginning in the 1970s. The 2003 report indicates that one-fourth of the Native American children live in poverty and a high proportion are not getting the kind of education or child care that other children in the county received. They are also eight times more likely to live in the poorest neighborhoods than non-Hispanic white children. Los Angeles has the second highest number of Indians (next to New York City) of any American city at 110,000, with the number rising rapidly.

In recent years, urban American Indians were beginning to organize to help each other. At first they started small volunteer clinics. These clinics provided community support and helped Native Americans with problems such as lack of housing, jobs, and health care. Urban Indians started programs to maintain cultural traditions as well. Most of these programs were funded by small grants and were only able to serve Indian people in limited areas. In 1976 Congress passed a law to help urban Indians. This law was called the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. By the late 1980s, $9.6 million was given to urban programs. These funds helped more than half a million urban Indians. Even though this is a start, the money is not enough to help the number of Native Americans who need services.

Along with all the problems it has brought with it, urbanization has led to many positive developments. There is a current Native American rebirth of spirit. Much of this has come from the activities of Indians in the city. Many leaders on the reservations are former urban Indians who have returned to share valuable skills they learned while off the reservation. Many Native American scholars, university professors, artists, and leaders acquired skills in the cities and have helped teach others outside of the reservations about Native American culture. Urban Indians who have succeeded in mainstream society frequently continue to serve Indian people. They do this in spite of, and perhaps along with, pressures to assimilate.

For More Information


Barth, Gunther. City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. Industrialism and the American Worker, 1865–1920. 3rd ed. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1996.

Fixico, Donald L. Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945–1966. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

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

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