We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
How the Great Migration Changed American History
In the early 20th century, black southerners fled racial violence and sharecropping for steady work in northern cities like New York and Chicago. But these migrants still faced challenges once they arrived. In this talk, Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield explores the Great Migration and its great influence on American history.
The talk was recorded at the University of Vermont on November 16, 2019 for our Fall Conference 2019.
Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield: Black people are in the South, and they have all these different things that we’re going to talk about in a few moments happening to them. But there are all of these jobs up north. These are good opportunities. You have jobs in steel mills, railroads, meatpacking plants, the automobile industry. This is a lot better.
Dr. Whitfield: Why is it better? Because where are they being pushed from?
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Throughout the 20th century, African Americans fled southern states to escape persecution and seek opportunities in northern and western cities. But once they arrived in cities like New York and Chicago, the migrants still faced economic and racial challenges.
Known as “the Great Migration,” this was one of the largest mass internal movements in history, and it reshaped our country’s culture and politics. In this talk, Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield explores the Great Migration and its great influence on American history.
Dr. Whitfield is a Professor of History at the University of Vermont. His talk was recorded on November 16, 2019 as part of the Vermont Humanities Fall Conference. The theme of the conference was “Searching for Home: Journeys, Quests and Migrations.”
Dr. Whitfield: I’m here to talk to you about the Great Migration, and I think in American history, or at least in African American history, but I think it’s true for all of American history, migration is really important. I know immigration is such a hot topic in the United States today. But truth be told, I stopped watching the news two months ago. Maybe things have changed. I don’t know. I know it’s the single best decision I’ve ever made aside from getting married and having my daughter. I don’t feel you can talk about the Great Migration without mentioning some of the earlier migrations that are important to this country. I mean, first you have the Atlantic slave trade. And, you know, funny enough. I think the 10.7 million people that are brought over to the new world, only about 400,000 of those people actually end up in what we call the United States today. But in fact, a much larger migration, which in some ways is like a precursor to the Great Migration, obviously is the domestic slave trade, which has gotten a lot more attention over the last 15 or 20 years. Walter Johnson wrote a great big book about this. He’s a professor at Harvard.
Dr. Whitfield: So from 1800 to 1860, there’s about 1 million people moved from the area that I study, slavery in the Chesapeake region, down to the south west. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, places like that. And it is a lot of those people’s descendants who make up the African Americans who ended up coming up on the Great Migration in the 20th century. But I also think we have to remember all the different migrations that happened with African Americans before the Civil War. And my research focuses on a couple of those migrations that people don’t always talk about. One is the migration of 23,000 to 25,000 African Americans outside of the United States after the Revolutionary War. The numbers are hard to get. We think 23,000 to 25,000. About 8,000 to 10,000 of those people were free. The rest were slaves who were taken by American loyalists. And they went to the Maritimes. They went to what we call today central Canada. They went to Jamaica, the Bahamas and some to England as well.
Dr. Whitfield: And we also want to think about those black people who under the auspices, if you can call it that, of the American Colonization Society, went to Liberia. So another several thousand people. And of course, the black people who also migrated to Haiti, even though quite a few of them returned to the United States. And of course, lastly, we don’t want to forget about all the black people who migrated to what at the time was called Canada West, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, though they were coming earlier. So it’ll be a lot of fun to talk about this and we’ll sort of talk about all the reasons why people migrated and then sort of why it was important.
Dr. Whitfield: I’m going to give you a very basic overview. Then we’ll talk about why migration. We’re going to talk about all these different reasons why people actually left. And then we’re going to talk about what happens when they get to the promised land. This north, where things are supposed to go better. And they do go better in a lot of ways. But in some other ways, they don’t go so great. But we’re going to talk about the political realignment that happens in America that’s so important to understanding the Democratic Party today.
Dr. Whitfield: So the Great Migration, what was it? Basically, it’s from about 1915 to 1970. And during that time, we think about six million African Americans migrated mostly from the rural South to the urban North. But when we say North, we don’t mean like just New England or the Northeast. We mean like North writ large. So including the Midwest and, of course, the Northeast. And also after 1940, the West, especially Los Angeles, places like that. So it’s pretty interesting.
Dr. Whitfield: But I think most historians we sort of divide the Great Migration. It’s probably more accurate to speak about it as Great Migrations, plural. And that’s because we usually divide it up into a first Great Migration and then a second Great Migration. We’ll do most of our focus today on the first. But when we talk about the first Great Migration, we’re really talking about the period 1916 to about 1940. And during that time period, you’re talking about maybe one and a half million African Americans that migrate to the Northeast.
Dr. Whitfield: But the second great migration, 1940 to 1970, that’s several million people, maybe up to five million. And that’s not only from the rural South, but it’s also black people who are in towns in urban areas in the South. Now, to be completely fair about this. Black people had been leaving the South for like ever. Right. I mean, just to be clear about it. You know, black people were leaving the south in the 1810s, 1820s, 1830s. So on and so forth. The Exoduster movement, black people going out to Kansas in the 1870s. I mean, there’s a lot of history there. And there were black people migrating to the Northeast before 1916. The numbers just weren’t as big.
Dr. Whitfield: In America, unfortunately, this is a historical and a historiographical problem. We tend to think that history matters just because there’s lots of people. We like to study slavery in South Carolina because somehow it’s more important than slavery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, because there’s a lot more slaves in South Carolina. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do history, but I think it’s important to realize that there were black people that were coming up to the North well before 1916. I wrote an article many, many years ago, too many years ago now, in Vermont History, our academic journal for the Vermont Historical Society. And it was about black people in Burlington, 1880 to 1900. And what I found in that was that there were many people in Burlington – there were only probably 115 black people here at that point from at least what the census records and city directory said – but a lot of these people were from Tennessee, South Carolina. Some of them were born in Vermont, that’s for sure. But a lot of them weren’t. So that sort of gives you an idea.
Dr. Whitfield: The other part that I want to mention about the Great Migration is that it’s not so simple as people: they’re in Mississippi and then bam, they go to Evanston, Illinois. It’s not that simple. A lot of times they’ll migrate to one city and for whatever reason, they will migrate to another city. Could be jobs, could be families. It’s not much different from my friends that do Italian American history. Sometimes Italian Americans might start off in New York, but then they might go somewhere else after that. So there’s multiple migrations that are going on. And I kind of love that complexity about American history.
Dr. Whitfield: So why migrate? There are so many things we need to talk about. I’m going to give you a couple overall reasons. A few serious anecdotes then some ones that are a little more amusing. We’ll talk a little bit about Reconstruction first. And then I’m going to give you a section on racial violence, because I don’t think you can really understate what was going on in the South. Especially after 1880.
Dr. Whitfield: So about Reconstruction. Reconstruction is like America’s great failure. The funny thing about it is that historians, you know, from the left, like Eric Foner, agree with sort of the more conservative historians of the early 20th century who thought the Reconstruction failed because it gave black people too many rights. Eric Foner comes along and he says, no, actually, that’s not why it failed. It failed because actually black people weren’t protected enough. But what happens during Reconstruction? How does this affect the Great Migration? Like, what does that actually mean?
Dr. Whitfield: So here’s the problem, OK? There’s a very simple American historical problem of why Reconstruction failed and why you have the Great Migration. One of the good things about slavery from people’s perspectives like John C. Calhoun or James Henry Hammond or people like that, was that it’s not just simply a labor system or an economic system. It’s definitely that, as more recent historiography is showing. But it’s also a cultural system. And this is what you get in Virginia in the early 1600s. It’s the idea that if you’re white, at least you’re not black. If you’re white, at least you’re not a slave. This is important. John C. Calhoun talked about slavery as a way to reduce class conflict among whites. In that sense, it’s like a pretty good idea, right?
Dr. Whitfield: Because they realize that if we can convince, in Mississippi or Virginia, if we can convince Joe Blow, who owns three slaves, that he has the same interest as somebody from the Carter family with two hundred slaves, that’s winning for us. And it is right because it’s a form of herrenvolk democracy. If you can convince a person in the South who is illiterate, has no money, is a tenant farmer, has three teeth. Can’t read, doesn’t know anything about the Constitution, doesn’t care either. That’s all fine. That he has something in common with John C. Calhoun or Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson. That’s a good system. Because if those people aren’t going to get pissed off at those elites, that’s a good thing. And that’s how the system kind of works. That’s what happens after Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676. And that’s sort of the system that these people create.
Dr. Whitfield: It’s amazing to me that the Civil War even occurred, to be honest. But what’s the real problem with the Civil War? The problem with the Civil War is very simple. When it ends, all of a sudden, you have four million people who had not been free, are all of a sudden free. What do you do with them? And frankly, this is horrible to say, I know. But what kind of system are you going to create when all of a sudden you’ve got a bunch of poor black people, your former slave, your poor, you’re not gonna have any capital, right? You’re a poor black person and you have a poor white person. What’s the difference? There is none. You got a problem. You got to fix it. You got to solve it, right. That’s what Reconstruction and lynching is all about is reestablishing a racial hierarchy because when you get rid of something like slavery. That line gets blurred.
Dr. Whitfield: If you’re a poor white person and maybe you can rent a slave, they actually back then wealthy slave owners would rent slaves sometimes on layaway, like Wal-Mart. You know, they would like sort of let them rent a slave for a little while, then they can get that feeling. Maybe they can work their way up. But once you get rid of this system of slavery, how much difference is there between a poor black person and a poor white person? What is that difference, exactly? Precisely. Well, you kind of have to have a system that works that out.
Dr. Whitfield: Reconstruction, they don’t really know what to do. The Republican Party, of course, not surprisingly, they want to expand their hegemony or their interest, shall we say, into the South. The way they think they can do that is by giving some black people, black men, not black women, the franchise. We can give these people the vote. But how committed are we to giving these black people the vote and then protecting them? The great thing about American history, I teach all my students all the time. Just because a law says something doesn’t make it so. I always tell them, I’m like, look, if somebody were doing the history of Burlington two hundred years from now and they said, you know what? I found a police book that said that the speed limit on Main Street was 25 miles per hour. So everybody must’ve gone 25 miles per hour. No. Same thing with Reconstruction. When you pass the 13th Amendment and then you pass the 14th Amendment, giving black people citizenship and equal protection under the laws and then you pass 15th Amendment, you give black men the right to vote. Which was very upsetting to a lot of white women who had worked in abolitionist communities. That was another whole problem that came out of that.
Dr. Whitfield: The only way this can function or even start to function is if the federal government is actually willing to have troops down there to support this. They have to be willing to protect these people. And really, we always think of Reconstruction as 1865 to 1877. Or 1863 until 1877. The truth is Reconstruction starts ending like in 1869-70. Because there’s less willingness to intervene on the behalf of not only black people, but their white Republican allies, whether they had come from the North, these people we previously called carpetbaggers. I don’t know if that’s the P.C. term anymore. And also, remember, there were also local Southern whites who supported the Republicans for a variety of reasons. We used to call them scallawags. Now, the problem here is when you’re not willing to protect these people through force of arms, they are very vulnerable. And when you have a group like the Ku Klux Klan, the first Ku Klux Klan, and they weren’t all in the Ku Klux Klan, right? Because when the federal government decides this is so embarrassing, we have to basically ban the Klan with the enforcement acts, they just go out in the open and start shooting people. And killing people. And they are not just killing former slaves. They’re doing that, but they’re also killing white Republicans. People who were like state legislators. They’re killing them in the streets. And basically what ends up happening is the federal government becomes less and less willing over time to intervene.
Dr. Whitfield: By the time Grant is in his second term, of what we can only call an unfortunate presidency. Great general, not such a great President. He’s not really willing to intervene and he gets calls from people in Mississippi, Republican state legislators, telegrams. They get letters, everything sent to him. And he’s not willing to go as far as needed to support Reconstruction. They’re just not willing to intervene.
Dr. Whitfield: So in Mississippi and Alabama, they sort of have something that we call the shotgun policy, which is basically if black people showed up to vote, they knew they would get killed. I mean, it’s pretty simple, but effective. The 14th Amendment doesn’t mean anything if you know how you’re gonna get murdered for voting. You probably just want to have a little bit of land that you’re leasing and have your wife or your husband or your children and hopefully be able to keep them somewhat safe. At least they can’t sell you apart from your family.
Dr. Whitfield: Those are the many reasons why Reconstruction fails. But the racial aspect angle that we’re going to talk about a little bit more. That’s only part of the reason why people leave during the Great Migration. There’s a lot of other reasons. And we usually divide them up everyone into what we call push-pull factors. Push means you’re pushed out of a place and pool means you’re sort of drawn to a place.
Dr. Whitfield: The push factors are pretty obvious, we’re going to go into detail about them. It’s basically the sort of racial violence that people are facing, especially after 1880. Reconstruction is insanely violent, but it takes another step in the 1880s and 1890s when people are actually, when you start having these public lynchings, these sort of festivals of violence. Where people are cutting off arms, hands. Cutting out people’s hearts. Cutting off people’s genitals and selling them. It’s like at an extra level. So we’re going to talk about that.
Dr. Whitfield: But people move for many reasons. So that’s a push thing. The pull factor is in the North. What they see – especially during World War One – are the opening of all these sort of industries in manufacturing? And we have to remember that at the very same time, the war really halts European immigration, which had been super, super heavy between 1880 and 1914. And these white people who came over during that time period, they were not treated very well either. Many of them were from southern and Eastern Europe. And they were sort of looked down upon. They were not seen as Northwestern European. They really saw these people as sort of inferior. So there had been all sorts of pushes to stop this kind of immigration. And that’s why you get something like eugenics in University of Vermont was one of the centers of eugenics. There’s the idea that we have to stop all these Europeans, these lesser than white people. Today to us, we might see them and think, what are they talking about? But to Americans back then, these people were not Americans. They weren’t even really white. They were something less than that. They might not have quite been black, but closer to that than to the Northwestern British model. That was one of the things that was going on.
Dr. Whitfield: So the war sort of stops this European immigration. There’s less cheap labor. So there’s all these jobs. So black people are like in the South, they have all these different things that we’re going to talk about in a few moments happening to them. [But there’s all these jobs up north. These are like kind of good opportunities. You have jobs in steel mills, railroads, meatpacking plants, the automobile industry. Right. This is a lot better. Why is it better? Because where are they being pushed from?
Dr. Whitfield: We haven’t talked a lot about the economics of African Americans after the Civil War. The majority of black people in the South. The majority of them are either tenant farmers or they’re sharecroppers. And in this system of sharecropping, or tenant farming, they’re sort of caught in a cycle of poverty. They don’t own the land that they’re on. Sharecropping gives them a little bit more independence than tenant farming, but they’re both systems that basically exploit cheap labor. They don’t make a lot of money. They’re always in debt. It’s not a good situation. If there’s any schools around, they’re not that good. You know, they’re putting all the kids, whether they’re aged five to 19, 18 in the same little school house. It’s not a good situation.
Dr. Whitfield: So the north has all these things that it seems to be offering. So people see this. And they’re kind of like we should do this. White Southern reaction at the very beginning is sort of like, well. They’re kind of happy that black people are leaving because they kind of hold them in low regard. At the same time, they don’t really want to lose all these tenant farmers and sharecroppers. It’s the exact same situation that you read about in the constitutional convention. That you see people like Thomas Jefferson in his notes on the state of Virginia, George Washington and all of his letters. That they struggle with especially the Virginian planting elite in the 1780s and 1790s. They want Virginia to be whiter. They do. They have all sorts of insane plans. I mean, there some of them like literally crazy. But they want Virginia to be whiter and they think there’s too many black people there, but they don’t want to give up the black people in Virginia because they know that’s their economy. And this is the same thing they’re struggling with at the constitutional convention.
Dr. Whitfield: They sort of know theoretically that slavery is kind of bad. Now, they have a lot of reasons why it’s bad. Right. A lot of them had to do with what it did to white people, if you can believe that that was their one of their biggest fears. But they kind of know in theory. They think about John Locke and you think about, the Enlightenment. Maybe it’s wrong, but what can we do about it? All these black people here and they couldn’t really conceive of a biracial democracy like what we’re doing in this room, as harmless as it might seem, was like something that was a little too much for them. This is a situation of white southerners in 1910s, 1920s, they look down on black people, but they also realize it’s a source of cheap labor. So how do you deal with this?
Dr. Whitfield: Well, black people are like, this is great. We’re out of here. Some of them. They are sort of excited because there are a lot of black newspapers in the north that are printing articles and they’re being taken down to the south. So you have newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, and they encourage black southerners to basically move north and black railroad porters and dining car employees distribute thousands of copies all throughout the south. People are reading them and people are thinking maybe this is a good idea. One editorial from the Chicago Defender said to other black people, “To die from the bite of frost is far more glorious than that of the mob. I beg of you, my brothers, to leave that benighted land. You are free men.” Now, if we can excuse the gendered language when he says free men, I think he meant all people. But it’s the money issue as well. You can make a lot more money up north. Even just being in domestic service, you could make more money, weekly, monthly than you could ever make sharecropping.
Dr. Whitfield: Just to give you an example. One man who came from the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands area, and that’s the subject of my first book, was these people from the Georgia Sea Islands who ended up in Nova Scotia after the War of 1812. It’s a very strange story. But he said I could work and dig all year on the island. The best I could do would be to make one hundred dollars and take a chance of making nothing. Well, I figured I could make around 30 or 40 dollars every week up here, and at that rate I could probably maybe even save one hundred dollars every couple months. He ended up settling in Philadelphia and then he moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Dr. Whitfield: Just to give you another example, a lot of people are moving up there and a lot of times it’s for racial violence. A lot of time it’s for economic things. But we have to remember that these folks who are living in the south they are people. I tell my students this all the time because whenever we talk about slavery, or this kind of thing, they have this big idea of like this mass of black people, they’re all the same, and their lives are just horrible. You know, and I try to remind them of what Ralph Ellison said. “African-American history has to be more than the sum of his brutalization.” It has to be more than that. And so when I say that, what I mean by that is that. These are people I mean, they were born into this world. You know what we might think? How could anybody live in this world? This is their lives. And they were different types of people. Some were strong. Some were weak. Some were tall. Some were short. Some had musical talent. Some did not. There is a wide range of people who are moving up there and doing it for a wide range of ideas. And a lot of times they’re human beings and sometimes they’re 18 years old and they’re young and they have blood pumping through their veins and want to have a good time.
Dr. Whitfield: Good example of this was a woman who left the isolation of St. Helena’s island, another South Carolina sea island. She said, I got. They were like, why did you move here? As you said. I got tired of the island, too lonesome. Go to bed at six o’clock. Everything dead. No dances, no movie pictures show, no nothing. Because every once in a while they would have a dance. But here you can go to them every Saturday night. And honestly, that’s the reason people move here more than anything else.
Dr. Whitfield: When we talk about these big issues, economic, racial violence, that stuff is all true. And none of that’s made up. But we have to also remember, these people are human beings. And sometimes it’s like, OK, here I am. I live in rural South Carolina. And I want to go to Harlem because I heard Harlem’s a lot of fun. And I can make more money. And I might not get lynched.
Dr. Whitfield: So people decide to do that. And so people are migrating. And just to give you an example of some of the numbers. New York had 91,709 black people in 1910. By 1920, it had 152,000. Chicago had 44,000 black people in 1910, by 1920 it had one hundred and nine thousand. That might help explain the race riot of 1919 in Chicago.
Dr. Whitfield: And you know, it wasn’t just some of the big cities we’re thinking about. Think about a place like Gary, Indiana. Gary had 383 black people in 1910 by 1920 it had 5,299. So people are going to different places and for a lot of different reasons. One of the big things we want to talk about is the racial violence, because it really is so extreme, especially after 1889. Lynching is one of those phenomena in American history that…I don’t know how else to say it. It seems extremely American to me in that it’s extremely violent.
Dr. Whitfield: It’s a weird form of controlled violence against a very specific and targeted group. Sometimes my students – and I don’t know about anybody here – but they have this idea that when people were lynched, they did it like late at night in the dark, like by themselves. I’m like, no, no, they did it in front of hundreds or thousands of people. And they made postcards of it like literal postcards. People weren’t ashamed of this. And as I’m sure everyone in this room is well educated, as we all know, the reason that people thought black people were getting lynched wasn’t the actual reason black people were actually getting lynched. As one Little Rock, Arkansas paper said, and I won’t pretend that this is my own work. I’ve taken many of these examples from a very famous historian, Leon Litwack. He did a really good job trying to explain why this is happening, why is this going on? One Little Rock, Arkansas paper sort of summed it up. It said, as long as black people, quote unquote, cast their lustful eyes on white women, that there would be a reaction. And this was very important. And the same newspaper said this may be southern brutality – lynching – as far as the Boston Negro can see, but in polite circles, we call it southern chivalry, a southern virtue that will never die.
Dr. Whitfield: But here’s the crazy thing about this. The fear of black men raping white women or black men and white women having consensual sex. They did not seem to distinguish. Was very, very upsetting for these people. But can I just tell you how bizarre this is for me? I mean, as I go on with this, I can’t help but tell you I can trace my heritage back to 17th century Virginia. And I come from a long line of slaves and slave owners. And, you know, growing up, I guess people just told me that I was black. That’s just what it was. And I think the weird thing for me was I took an ancestry DNA test. And it messed my mind up. It can do that to you. Because I found out that I was like 53 percent European. I had never even been told anything about that in my life. I never been told about all these English, British, Scottish, Irish heritage that I had. My friend Sean Field, a wonderful medieval historian, he’s like “welcome to the club.”
Dr. Whitfield: I literally had no idea. But it’s very clear that my third great grandfather, who was a soldier for the Confederacy, he was a white guy. A direct relation. You know, obviously he was sleeping with – he was young, he was only 17 or 18 – with an enslaved black woman. But it was very common for white men’s first experience to be with enslaved black women. That was not uncommon. A lot of the archive that slave historians are working with to look at these different relationships are uncovering this. It’s everywhere. You see it in letters. And, of course, the biggest example, obviously, is Strom Thurmond. Right. We all remember good old Strom Thurmond. With his black daughter. You can’t avoid this sort of stuff. It’s very interesting that there was this gigantic fear post Civil War of rape or sex between black and white. Before the Civil War, it’s not the same level of concern. There are different concerns. One of the biggest concerns is, well, what if the mother is white and the father is black? It wasn’t this sort of sexualized thing. It was more like what you do with this child. Because if it’s a white mother, the child was free. So that’s a problem.
Dr. Whitfield: So how do we understand this? In actuality, rape or sexual indiscretion actually was a relatively minor cause of the mob violence of the three thousand black people known to have been lynched between about 1889 and 1918, only about 20 percent were accused of rape. The majority of them were lynched for super trivial reasons. It’s depressing, but it’s so outrageous. It’s so hard to believe, but some of the offenses included the following: using disrespectful language, being insulting. Being insolent, being boastful, threatening, using my favorite word incendiary language, insubordination, impertinence, improper demeanor, a sarcastic grin, laughing for too long or too long of a prolonged silence. Refusing to doff one’s cap to a white person, refusing to give the right of way. And this is like something that could definitely get you lynched.
Dr. Whitfield: There were all sorts of reasons. You could jump a labor contract, meaning you left a household that wanted to still employ you. Well, you could get lynched for that. All sorts of examples. For example, Charles Jones, who is from Georgia, was lynched by 150 white people for stealing a pair of shoes and quote unquote, talking big. Thank you again, Leon Litwack for this. Henry Sykes was lynched in Mississippi for calling up white girls on the telephone and annoying them. Jeff Brown accidentally brushed against a white girl as he was running to catch a train and a mob hanged him for attempted rape.
Dr. Whitfield: And I think we have to understand all of this happening in light of what one federal official said in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, he said, when a [n-word] gets ideas, the best thing to do is to get him underground as quick as possible. And I think that just about sums it up. But the best example I can give you again, thank you Leon Litwack is from Rufus Moncrief. He made one mistake when on his way home from work, he encountered a group of men. He did not display the expected humble demeanor and seemed reluctant to pull off his hat to them when they spoke to him. The men beat him badly, and soon other people joined in the attack. Some of them severing Moncrief’s limbs with a saw. They dragged what remained of him to a nearby tree and strung him up as they continued to mutilate his body for good measure. They hung Moncrief’s dog next to him, and then informed Moncrief’s wife that she would find two black puppies hanging to a tree and ordered her to remove them quickly, or the farm would be burned down. The 80-year-old woman cut the bodies down and placed him in large oat bags for burial. The coroner’s inquest, of course, and this was very common, decided that Moncrief had come to his death by hands unknown.
Dr. Whitfield: All it is is racist terrorism. It’s literal terrorism. Because if this didn’t happen to you, you hear about it, you know that it could happen to you. So going up north doesn’t seem like a really bad idea. And I don’t think that black people moving up north were dumb enough to think that the north was going to be like, great. But it was better.
Dr. Whitfield: My father’s mother. She was extremely light skinned. They lived in Amite, Mississippi. Anybody ever been down there? Yeah. So pretty infamous from the civil rights days. So this is like she left there in like the 1910s. But it was so bad in Mississippi. Our family left Mississippi and moved to Alabama for a couple of years because it was that much better. I’m not making this up. And then they went to Evanston, Illinois. And so my grandmother became a pharmacist. And her son, my dad, who’s now 80 years old. He became a medical doctor and he lives in Evanston. But just gives you an idea of what these people were actually dealing with.
Dr. Whitfield: I think we’re pretty clear on why they moved north. So what happens in the north and why does it matter? So they get to the north, they are in all these different cities. But even though things aren’t great and there are race riots throughout the north. In the 1910s, there’s Chicago 1919, I think East St. Louis in 1917, there are a series of other outbreaks of racial violence. Chicago is incredibly violent. There’s been several books written about that. All that stuff is true, but they could get a factory job. They could feed their family. They could vote. Or at least try to. And I think that’s extremely important.
Dr. Whitfield: And voting is one of the most important things that happens. Being able to start to exercise the franchise in the 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know if you have a civil rights movement, if you don’t have more and more black people moving up north and voting, especially in swing states. Whether we agree with the Electoral College or not, and I can think of like 3000 reasons not to, in this sense, it actually helped black people because they were moving up to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Chicago. And they vote. They can tip an election. They can tip a state, right, and think about the democratic elections that will come after the 1920s. Think about this coalition that Roosevelt builds. All of a sudden, black people can vote. So FDR, and let’s give credit where credit’s due to Eleanor Roosevelt because she was way more supportive of racial justice than FDR. FDR said, I don’t know if we can bring about this century quite yet. He might have wanted to do more, he’s a little hard to read that way, but he certainly was more willing to help black people than any of these presidents between 1900 and 1932. He was open to that. But it’s because black people are moving north, it’s because they can vote and they start voting. Now we have to remember, I mean as weird as it sounds today, black people voted for the Republican Party almost exclusively. Right from the 1860s on.
Dr. Whitfield: But it’s in the 1930s and 1940s that this starts to change. People in the Democratic Party start to notice. So what does the Democratic Party do? They got a weird coalition going. They got the Deep South. Right. They got people like Strom Thurman, the descendants of James K. Vardaman, right? They have all of these people who are sort of southern anti-black people, but black people will start to vote for the Democratic Party. And this is a very interesting thing. So by 1948, of course, the Democrats, they adopt a civil rights plank. And out of that, of course, the Deep South are people who aren’t happy, who don’t think the Democratic Party is sufficiently racist enough. They formed the Dixiecrat Party. And they decide, OK, we’re gonna do this. And some of those people who would be left over since late 60s, early 70s, they would switch over to the Republican Party.
Dr. Whitfield: Now, we have to be careful because not all black people immediately switch to the Democratic Party. My grandfather voted for the Republican Party well into the 1970s, probably. And of course, we know Edward Brooke, who didn’t die all that long ago, is the first black person elected to the Senate post Reconstruction. He was a Republican. And when he was asked toward the end of his life why he had left the Republican Party, he said, I didn’t leave it. He said they left me. And you know, that’s coming from Edward Brooke. He’s not exactly what I would call, super far left. So that’s an interesting thing. So the question is, of course, as we talk more about this, will black people in the future at some point go back to the Republican Party, the original party that they voted for. I guess we don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen next 20 years we think we do. I don’t think it’s very likely right now. But you never know.
Dr. Whitfield: I always like that example for my students because it always helps them see how these parties can shift and so on and so forth. But black people become, as we know now, the sort of the backbone of the Democratic Party. I mean, they’re very important. JFK in 1960. If he won the election, he barely won it. Nixon could have challenged that. He didn’t. Black people helped. Does Kennedy win without the black vote in 1960? I don’t doubt it. But you can see the black people did vote for him and they voted for LBJ. And one of the most ironic things about the Great Migration are these black people moving to the north. We’ve talked about for all these different reasons. You know, it seems to me that the two presidents that were best for black civil rights were two white Southern males, Harry Truman and LBJ. I mean, LBJ was way better on civil rights than some of the earlier ones. So it’s a very interesting thing.
Dr. Whitfield: The last thing I want to mention that I think is important is the cultural exchange that happens. I think that’s super important is you have this sort of cultural exchange that happens in the sense that black people are migrating up to these northern cities and you have this blossoming of African-American culture in terms of literature, in terms of music. With jazz. So especially in Chicago, you know, you think of the Harlem Renaissance. So you have all of that and. When this migration takes place in nineteen thirties and forties and then we have the further migration on top of it. You have certain issues that make the civil rights movement difficult.
Dr. Whitfield: So what happens with the civil rights movement? How does the Great Migration influence this? This is a very touchy subject for people. Because it’s pretty clear that Martin Luther King and some of the leaders of the civil rights movement, what they did and spoke for, even though toward the end of his life, he was moving on towards more of a class-based issue, it was very helpful for middle class African Americans. Like my parents could not buy a house in Chevy Chase, Maryland in like 1967. They literally actually couldn’t. But when they went back in 1981, I was only a couple years old. They could buy it. So that part of the civil rights movement is very successful for middle and upper-class black people.
Dr. Whitfield: But one of the things that happens with this migration, especially after 1940, is people moving to black urban areas. With all the problems that go along with urban settlement and so on and so forth. And some black people, obviously not all, in these urban areas did not think that the civil rights movement spoke to them. They felt maybe Malcolm X speaks a little more to us or better yet, as you get into later 60s, the Black Panthers speak more for us. They’re speaking a language. They’re talking about breakfast. They’re talking about issues with the police. These things actually matter to us. And, of course, what do you have in the late 1960s? Some people call this a failure of the civil rights movement. The Kerner Commission talked about this. What do you have in the late 1960s? You have a riot in Bed-Stuy in 65. You have Newark in 67. You have Detroit in 67. A lot of race riots. So all of these people who have migrated up, maybe their children were there and plus a second wave. So who was the civil rights movement speaking to? This is a sort of a broader question.
Dr. Whitfield: But I think we can all agree that the Great Migration is one of the most important events in American history. Now, more recently, there’s been a bit of a reverse Great Migration into certain parts of the south. The reason is there are pretty good jobs. Taxes are lower. It’s cheaper, much cheaper actually to live in many parts of the south. And there are. So it’s not perfect. What people in the hip hop industry would call the New South. They had a New South and in the 1880s turned out that was a little bit more like the old South. But now they talk about the new South and they talk about it in terms of improved race relations. So there has been a bit of black people moving back down to the South.
Dr. Whitfield: And we see, a black woman can run for governor in Georgia and come within two points of winning. You can have a black man running in Florida. And don’t kid yourself. We haven’t talked a lot about colorism within the black community, and we can. But the fact that you have two darker-skinned African Americans, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, running in the South and doing so well, even though they didn’t quite win, I think says something. Now, what exactly that will mean, I guess we’ll see.
Between the 1920s and the 1970s, more than 14 million Americans left their rural homes in search of jobs and new opportunities. Known as the Great Migration, this exodus represents one of the largest internal resettlements in American history. Arkansas played a leading role in this development, as the state lost more people than any other more than 1.2 million left during this period. In fact, Arkansas had witnessed steady population decline since the 1890s, and, according to U.S. census records, lost people in every decade of the twentieth century until 1970.
Migration out of Arkansas was largely caused by two factors: the lack of high-paying jobs (which tended to drive out educated Arkansans) and the lack of available arable land (which led to rural depopulation). The latter issue probably played the most decisive role in the Great Migration. In the nineteenth century, relative to neighboring states, rural Arkansas was actually over-populated, at least in terms of available farm land. As a result, Arkansans began leaving the state once it became apparent that few economic opportunities existed in the countryside. While historians studying the Great Migration as a nationwide phenomenon have tended to argue that mechanization drove Americans off the farm, in Arkansas, out-migration preceded mechanization by at least twenty years. National studies have also emphasized the predominance of African-American migration that occurred throughout most of the twentieth century. In Arkansas, most people who left were white however, a greater proportion of black Arkansans left the state.
Arkansas’s Great Migration dramatically increased during World War II as residents left for higher-paying jobs, often in defense industries. The state’s population losses were the greatest in the early 1950s, with more than 355,000 leaving between 1951 and 1955, most likely leaving the farm for urban manufacturing jobs. As the economy improved later in the decade, out-migration continued, but at a slower rate than at any time since the nineteenth century. By the 1960s, migration out of Arkansas had declined further, and in the following decade the state enjoyed the first increase in its population in almost a century. At its peak, Arkansas led the nation in population losses, with a twenty-two percent decline between 1940 and 1960. Only Mississippi, with a 19.9 percent loss during the same period, approached Arkansas’s exodus.
Arkansas’s Great Migration played an important role in its civil rights movement, though the degree to which it did has proven difficult for historians to assess. The departure of black citizens, coupled with farm mechanization, made Jim Crow segregation in rural Arkansas gradually vulnerable, as longstanding intra-racial job competition that had driven racial tensions began to dissipate. The breakdown of the Arkansas plantation system ended the social controls that had been in place for over a century, and the depopulation of rural black Arkansas helped propel the civil rights movement forward by eroding rural paternalism and urbanizing the struggle.
Among the destinations for Arkansans who left the state, California received the largest number of people. Census records show that roughly 313,000 native Arkansans lived there in 1960. Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri absorbed, respectively, the second-, third-, and fourth-largest numbers of Arkansan migrants. Movement to these states belies the conventional notion that the Great Migration marked a wave of rural Southerners leaving for northern industrial cities. While such resettlement certainly occurred, most Arkansans migrated to neighboring states or to the West Coast. Recent research on Arkansans who left between 1950 and 1970 reveals that the typical migrant was forty years old and from a farm. About eighty percent of migrants were white. High school graduates were more likely to migrate than less-educated Arkansans. More than seventy-five percent of migrants moved to cities.
The Great Migration had an enormous impact on Arkansas. Politically, it helped shift power to urban centers. Economically, the number of farms in the state declined, and those that remained tended to be much larger. The Great Migration also contributed to Arkansas’s gradual industrialization, which accelerated in the post–World War II era. While migrants certainly experienced upheaval in their lives, those who remained underwent adjustments too as the state witnessed permanent changes in its race relations, as well as in its overall demographic composition. In general, those who migrated enjoyed new educational and economic opportunities, better housing, and higher incomes. Some observers remarked with alarm about the Great Migration as it unfolded, yet, with hindsight, it can also be seen as a positive development in Arkansas, both for those who left and for those who stayed.
For additional information:
Blevins, Brooks. Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Bolton, S. Charles. “Turning Point: World War II and the Economic Development of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 61 (Summer 2002): 147–149.
Holley, Donald. “Leaving the Land of Opportunity: Arkansas and the Great Migration.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Autumn 2005): 245–261.
Johnson, Ben F., III. Arkansas in Modern America since 1930. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2019.
Smith, C. Calvin. War and Wartime Changes: The Transformation of Arkansas, 1940–1945. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.
The Great Migration Timeline
The Great Migration was a exodus of around six million African Americans between 1915-1970 from the South to the North in an attempt to escape racist ideologies and practices, and to create new lives as American citizens. Dubbed one of the largest internal movements in the history of the United States, the Great Migration was driven by the duality of a post-slavery life in the U.S.: while no longer slaves, African Americans in the South continued to face debilitating Jim Crow laws, violence, and lack of economic opportunity.
Step Afrika’s The Migration (MAY 3 – 6) is a celebration of the perseverance and strength of those who chose to migrate north, leaving behind their homes and families, in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves. Based on painter Jacob Lawrence’s “The Great Migration” series, Step Afrika! is able to weave history through several mediums of expression (South African Gumboot, Western African dance, vocals, drumming, to name a few) to honor those who made the journey north.
In advance of the show’s Boston run, we’ve created this timeline to details the chain of events that prompted the Great Migration.
1863: Emancipation Proclamation is issued
On September 22, 1862, soon after the Union victory at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, it was an important turning point in the war, transforming the fight to preserve the nation into a battle for human freedom. While used primarily as a war measure during the Civil War, it did bring into focus the President’s aim to end slavery and set into motion the legislature required to free slaves.
1865: 13th Amendment officially abolishes slavery
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War, abolished slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
1866: Confederate veterans in Tennessee found the Ku Klux Klan
Founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) enacted violent acts against freed African American people and eventually spread across the entire south. Usually small groups of men with white sheets covering their heads traveling on horseback, the KKK were the vigilante’s of the previous generation of slave owners, trying to rectify and control newly freed people in an underground slavery so to speak. The KKK continues to operate today as a white nationalist and supremacist group, targeting all minorities, from racial, religious, and socioeconomic.
1868: 14th Amendment guarantees African American citizenship
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” One of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for black Americans, it would become the basis for many landmark Supreme Court decisions over the years.
1870: 15th Amendment guarantees African American men to vote
The 15th Amendment, granting African-American men the right to vote, was adopted into the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Despite the amendment, by the late 1870s discriminatory practices were used to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote, especially in the South. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that legal barriers were outlawed at the state and local levels if they denied blacks their right to vote under the 15th Amendment
1877: Jim Crow laws are enacted
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws created to enforce racial segregation in the south. A formalized version of the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws coined the term “separate but equal” ensuring that African Americans remained at a distance from white populations. Schools, transportation, water fountains, even the US military remained segregated. These laws remained in place until the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement to abolish them and regain freedom.
1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded in New York City
After race riots in Springfield, Illinois in 1908 and increased lynchings nationwide, several African American and white activists founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York City in order to further advocate for African American civil rights. Their mission states: To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States to advance the interest of colored citizens to secure for them impartial suffrage and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law. Still active today, the NAACP remains a champion of civil rights throughout the country and organizing activists.
1910: National Urban League is established
While the Great Migration had not officially started, many African Americans had already begun the journey north, but had difficulty integrating into the urban lifestyle of the major northern cities. The National Urban League was founded in New York City to help African American migrants assimilate to urban life, such as job opportunities, housing arrangements, and economic education.
1915: The Great Migration begins
The first phase of the Great Migration began in 1915 and ended around 1930. In that time, an estimated 1.6 million African Americans moved from rural southern towns to urban northern cities.
1917: The United States enters World War I.
With the beginning of World War I, many factory jobs were left vacant by drafted soldiers. Because of this, many northern industry opportunities opened up and businesses specifically recruited African Americans in the south, offering them discount housing or low transportation and moving costs as incentives to move north.
1919: The Red Summer
When World War I ended, many white factory workers learned that they had been replaced at the their factories by African Americans, which created intense further resentment toward black communities. During the summer of 1919, over 27 race riots across the country erupted as labor tensions reached a precipice.
1921: The Tulsa Race Riots
On May 31 st and June 1 st , 1921 a white mob attacked residents and business of the African American community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Bureau officially reported 39 deaths, but the American Red Cross estimated 300 deaths with over 800 non-fatal injuries. Many survivors left Tulsa after the attacks and went north to escape the increasingly dangerous south.
1929: The stock market crashes
When the stock market crashed in 1929 cause the Great Depression. Because economic opportunity across the country came to an astounding halt, this ended the first era of the Great Migration.
1939: The US enters World War II
Similar to the First World War, millions of drafted soldiers left behind their professions to go overseas. Not only was there a need to fill the open positions left behind, there was a greater need to expand the economy for the war effort and the United States’ economy began to flourish again The career opportunities available in the North seemed infinite and these economic advancements motivated the second phase of The Great Migration
1940-1941: Jacob Lawrence created The Migration Series
At the age of 23, Jacob Lawrence started and completed the sixty paintings that make up The Migration Series. Funded by the Works Progress Administration, Lawrence’s paintings depicted the hardship, opportunity, and fear African Americans experienced as they moved north during the early 20 th century. As he was completing his series, Lawrence included notes that suggested the migration would continue into the 1950s and the 1960s, despite finishing in 1941. You can learn more about the paintings by visiting our website.
1940: The Second Great Migration begins
Between the years of 1940 and 1970, more than 5 million African American’s moved North in search of the same equalities and opportunities they sought out earlier in the 20 th century. While The Migration primarily focuses on the first phase of The Great Migration, it is important to note that Jacob Lawrence began his series the same year as the second phase began.
Great Migration - HISTORY
Although migration from the South had contributed to Chicago&aposs black community since the 1840s, the city offered few opportunities to dissatisfied black southerners until World War I. Chicago, like the rest of the North, offered freedom from legally sanctioned racial discrimination, but industrial employers turned away African Americans who approached the factory gates. Widespread beliefs about the aptitudes of racial and ethnic groups on the part of employers relegated East and South European immigrants to the least skilled jobs in industry, and African Americans had even fewer opportunities. Allegedly incapable of regular, disciplined work, they were virtually excluded except as temporary strikebreakers, notably in the meatpacking industry in 1904.
The Great Migration established the foundation of Chicago&aposs African American industrial working class. Despite the tensions between newcomers and “old settlers,” related to differences in age, region of origin, and class, the Great Migration established the foundation for black political power, business enterprise, and union activism.
The Great Migration&aposs impact on cultural life in Chicago is most evident in the southern influence on the Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as blues music, cuisine, churches, and the numerous family and community associations that link Chicago with its southern hinterland—especially Mississippi. To many black Chicagoans the South remains “home,” and by the late 1980s increasing evidence of significant reverse migration, especially among retired people, began to appear.
What to expect and where to stay each month of the year
Many people think that the great wildebeest migration only happens once a year, but the migration is in fact an all-year-round event -- with each time of year offering a unique widlife experience.
Select a month below to find out what each month offers in terms of weather, wildlife, migratory movements, predator interactions, river crossings and where the best place to stay is, to get the most out of your trip to see the great wildebeest migration.
The Great Migration And Beloit's African American Heritage
Perched along the state's border with Illinois, Beloit is as far south as one can get in Wisconsin. However, the city's roots extend much farther into the South, where they tap into the fertile soils of northeast Mississippi and a handful of small agricultural towns.
Beloit stands out in Wisconsin. It's a small city — home to fewer than 40,000 people — with a relatively large African American community. Black residents have called Beloit home since its early years in the mid 19th century — one of the city's first blacksmiths was an African American man. But the city's black community remained tiny in its early years, numbering in the dozens until the second decade of the 20th century.
African Americans began arriving in Beloit by the hundreds in the 1910s as part of the first Great Migration, which continued for several decades up to World War II. Millions of black Southerners moved north to find employment and to escape rampant racial violence and state-sanctioned segregation. In the Midwest, major cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee became prominent Great Migration destinations. But despite being lesser-known, some smaller communities also attracted African American migrants from the South.
It was Beloit's manufacturing sector that attracted and benefited from the new workforce. Specifically, the Beloit Iron Works foundry and a manufacturer of pumps, engines and other products known as Fairbanks, Morse and Company drew hundreds of young men and their families north. In just a decade or so, Beloit's African American community numbered greater than 2,000, upward of a tenth of the city's total population. (Beloit is about 15% African American in 2020.) Many of these newcomers came from four small communities in northeast Mississippi's agricultural belt: Pontotoc, Houston, New Albany and West Point.
In Beloit's factories, African Americans found new opportunities, but they also encountered familiar racism.
"They were still getting overlooked to become superintendents, foremans and all those things," said Linda Fair, an academic advisor at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville. Fair recounted Beloit's black history in a talk at the Beloit Public Library recorded for a June 25, 2019 episode of PBS Wisconsin's University Place.
In addition to workplace discrimination, Fair described the structural and cultural barriers African Americans encountered in Beloit, including housing segregation, health care discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities outside of low-wage manufacturing and domestic work. But Beloit's black residents persevered, Fair said, leaning on their religious faith and pursuing education as a means to greater opportunities.
Such opportunities expanded in the second half of the 20th century, as a national civil rights movement precipitated landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited educational, employment and public services discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The legislation and changing attitudes opened up new opportunities for Beloit's African American community, and Fair named a number of community members who were the first among their peers to land positions in city government, local schools and Beloit's health care system.
"At the time when they were doing these things, they weren't doing it so that I could stand here in 2019 and shout their names out," said Fair. "They did it because it was in their heart, it was in their mind, it was embedded into them to reach out, do what you gotta do, take care of your family and help leave a legacy for some others to follow."
The Great Migration began in the 1910s and continued through World War II in the 1940s. During this thirty year time period, hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the South to the North. In the South, most African Americans had few rights and opportunities. Many of these people worked as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or as day laborers. With the beginning of World War I, a number of jobs opened in Northern industries. Many businesses increased production to meet wartime needs. Many white men joined the armed forces of the United States military and were sent to Europe to fight. While some African American men also enlisted in the armed forces, many others migrated to the North to fill these positions. Estimates vary, but possibly as many as 500,000 African Americans moved from the South to the North during the 1910s and the early 1920s.
Most African Americans who moved from the South to the North settled in cities, where the available jobs were located. Many Northern businesses advertised in Southern newspapers or sent recruiters to the South to hire African Americans. The businesses commonly offered to pay the workers' moving expenses as well as their first month's rent. Fewer people moved from the South to the North during the 1920s and the 1930s. But with the coming of World War II, there was another surge in the number of people moving from the South to the North.
Thousands of African Americans who participated in the Great Migration settled in Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Akron and other Ohio cities. In 1920, African Americans made up only three percent of Ohio's population. Their numbers increased dramatically to five percent of the population by 1930. The growing new population of Ohio dramatically altered the state. Most African Americans in Ohio lived in segregated communities. Also, cities experienced a tremendous building boom during the 1910s and 1920s. For example, in a study of housing in Akron completed in 1939, it was determined that sixty percent of the city's houses were constructed between 1914 and 1924 when the Great Migration was at its peak. Violent encounters between African Americans and whites occasionally occurred in Ohio and other Northern states as well. Despite the problems that African Americans faced in the North, the Great Migration did create new opportunity and hope.
The Great Migration & Jazz
Between 1915 and 1918 roughly a half million African Americans left the South, followed by another 700,000 in the 1920s. Southern blacks living on the eastern seaboard most likely ended up in northern cities on the East Coast like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Those from the westernmost states of the South often chose to migrate to Midwestern cities like Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. So many black Alabamans moved to Cleveland that the black community of the city was nicknamed “Alabama North.” More than half of the total number of migrants settled in five cities: Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Pittsburgh. Chicago was, in many respects, the capital city of black migration by 1935, 250,000 African American migrated to the Windy City alone.
As recent scholarship suggests, the First Great Migration that witnessed the exodus of more than one million African Americans out of the South before, during, and after World War I was a crucial period of black activism. The causes of the movement have been the subject of much debate among historians both then and now. Indeed, Carter G. Woodson famously asked, in 1918, at the height of migration, “What then is the cause?” Woodson cautioned that the migrants themselves offered the best explanations. Despite Woodson’s admonishment, early studies of the migration, including Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, focused primarily on economic factors. Certainly, economics played an important role in the Great Migration, but it was far from the only factor. Given the lack of social justice and the legacy of racialized violence in the South, it is clear African Americans were motivated to leave the South on several fronts.
A more complete analysis of the Great Migration appeared in the late 1980s. In Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, James R. Grossman points to the tradition within African American communities of mobility as an assertion of agency. Following emancipation, Grossman contends, blacks found spatial mobility to be of the utmost significance. Furthermore, Grossman asserts that a grass-roots network of information and leadership emerged that was essential to the movement. In addition, he contends that such a movement developed despite the opposition of traditional middle-class black leaders. A key component of this grass-roots network was the Chicago Defender. Chicago migrant, Robert S. Abbott, founded the Defender in 1905. Abbott’s newspaper quickly developed a popular appeal to African Americans of both middle and working-class backgrounds. By 1916, it was the largest selling black daily in the country.
The narrative of the jazz musician shares several characteristics with the larger Great Migration story. Like their migratory counterparts, musicians left the South during this period for a variety of reasons. However, the migration of jazz musicians is often explained primarily in economic terms. To be certain, economic opportunities were a significant contributing factor for musicians journeying north. However, just as is the case with broader interpretations of the Great Migration, the primary focus on economic motives diminishes the agency of jazz musicians. Indeed, jazz musicians have a history of grass-roots networking with colleagues to find work. The link between southern musicians and their counterparts in the North during this period is no exception. Furthermore, the wide circulation of the Chicago Defender across the South indicates its availability to musicians as well. The trumpet player Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham confirmed as much in a 1976 interview saying, “We thought that was a great paper…. Chicago Defender really gave you all the news of the entertainment in Chicago at that time.” Cheatham believed the city’s white papers had no interest in writing about the achievements of African Americans. Therefore, he “only read the Chicago Defender.” In 1928 the cornetist Emmanuel Perez wrote Dave Peyton, the Defender’s music columnist, to let Peyton know Perez looked forward each week for the paper to arrive. In the pages of the daily, musicians could read about the scores of cabarets and the burgeoning nightlife in the South Side. For instance, a 1914 article in the Defender promoted the virtues of the South Side entertainment district known as the Stroll:
At night it changes to the sublime. The street is ablaze with light, the sidewalks are crowded and there is music and laughter everywhere. Nearly every block has a theater or two and together with the buffets, with their entertainment of singing and dancing, the Midway is outdone…. Until the police curfew rings at 1 o’clock the pleasure bent populace enjoys life to the extent of their pocketbooks.
These considerations suggest that a deeper analysis is needed to fully understand why musicians came north. Therefore, the advice of Carter G. Woodson is most apt. By examining the reasons musicians gave for coming to Chicago we can best ascertain their motivations.
The jazz exodus became possible only after a number of individuals assumed a critical leadership role by encouraging fellow musicians to leave the South altogether. For example, trumpeter Natty Dominique left New Orleans a few years before the closing of Storyville in 1917 to work as a cigar maker. Dominique had a job lined up before he left, thanks to a friend named Casino. “He said you want to come to Chicago?” Dominique recalled. “I said, all right, I’ll get ready. I got ready too, had my clothes, had my trumpet, and I got to Chicago.” Dominique’s oral history indicates that he left New Orleans because of economic considerations, but he made the decision to leave based on the advice of a friend. Dominique utilized the same kind of grass-roots support as dozens of other musicians in his journey to the Windy City. Like Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Paul Barbarin, and the members of the members of the Creole Jazz Band, Dominique left New Orleans before the closing of Storyville. The traditional interpretation holds that musicians left New Orleans en masse after Storyville closed in 1917, because there was no longer work for musicians in New Orleans. But, that interpretation does not take into account the experiences of these important individuals. Therefore, economic considerations, though important, were only one factor among many.
The Great Migration
Use this Narrative after the Jim Crow and Progressivism Narrative to have students explore how Jim Crow laws encouraged African Americans to migrate away from the South.
In the summer of 1901, two young, black, southern women debated the question, “Is the South the Best Place for the Negro?” Addie Sagers, born in Alabama, took the affirmative side of the debate. The South, she argued, gave African Americans the opportunity to succeed in business and the professions. Because of discrimination in northern workplaces, perpetuated by unions as well as employers, a black person could be only a “bell boy, waiter, cook, or a house maid.” Sagers pointed out that there were only 11 black teachers in Chicago’s schools. She argued that the disenfranchisement law might serve as motivation for black youth to seek more education to pass the literacy test it required. She did not yet realize that the literacy test would be unfairly administered to prevent any African Americans from passing it.
Sagers’ opponent, Laura Arnold, got the best of the debate. She pointed out that for black southerners the “judges of his illiteracy are his enemies, one of whom recently said, no Negro could explain a clause of the Constitution to his satisfaction.” Arnold emphasized the wave of violence and lynchings being perpetrated against southern African Americans. “My friends!” she warned, “You sleep over a volcano, which may erupt at any moment, and only your lifeless bodies will attest that you believed the South to be the best home for the Negro.” Even the economic success that Sagers lauded brought danger, Arnold argued: “Displease by look, word, or deed a white man and if he so desires, your property is likely to be reduced to ashes, and the owner a mangled corpse.”
Their debate marks the intertwined personal and political motivations that prompted approximately 1.6 million southern African Americans to move north in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Push factors – reasons to leave the South, including segregation, sharecropping, disfranchisement, violence, and racism – motivated many. But pull factors were at work as well. Industrial jobs slowly opened to African Americans in the North, they found themselves able to vote and even be elected to office, and vibrant neighborhoods with distinct cultures grew in northern cities. Despite heavy discrimination, particularly in employment and housing, black southerners began to build communities in the North, prompting the chain migration of family and neighbors. In the first decade, many of those who migrated were educated, urban people who had skills and resources to make the trip and to earn a livelihood in northern cities. But during World War I, as the United States geared up for war and northern factory workers joined the armed forces, the number of migrants increased dramatically. One scholar writing in 1920 commented, “They left as though they were fleeing some curse.”
Impoverished black farmers began to move from farms to southern cities in large numbers after 1910, and many continued from there to northern cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York, and Chicago. Rural southern African Americans worked chiefly as sharecroppers, planting and harvesting crops on white landowners’ farms for a percentage of the profit (often 50 percent). Many sharecroppers ended the year in debt, especially after the boll weevil began to move across the South in 1892 and decimated cotton crops. In 1900, nearly half of southern farmers did not own land, and a majority of them were African Americans. Under the thumb of white landowners and in constant debt to them, many of these sharecroppers compared their situations to slavery.
The majority of sharecropping families, like this group of families pictured in West Point, Mississippi, in 1909, were unable to escape the cycle of debt incurred through the sharecropping system.
Ernest Grey, born on a Sea Island off Savannah, Georgia, had few prospects in life. His father sent him to live with a woman in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he worked as a sharecropper. He ran away to work at a fertilizer plant in Savannah: “I wanted to get away from down there.” In 1916, a labor recruiter promised free passage north on a train but left the group in Paoli, Pennsylvania, at a railroad shanty, where they were to work on the railroad. Grey made his way to Philadelphia, where he found work in a Campbell Soup factory, but even in the city he had to “be careful” because the factory was in a white neighborhood. Nonetheless, Grey did not return to the South for 70 years, and he never saw his relatives again.
From 1910 to 1930, approximately 1.3 million black southerners moved north and west in several different migrant streams that generally depended on the transportation available to them. African Americans from the East Coast typically went to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York. New York City’s black population more than doubled during that decade, from 152,000 to 328,000. From the middle South, black residents of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky moved to Chicago and mid-Western industrial cities, where car manufacturers and related industries began to employ African Americans. For example, Detroit’s population grew from 41,000 in 1910 to 120,066 in 1920. Arkansians, Louisianans, and Texans went to places like Saint Louis and California.
This map shows the migrant streams of southern African Americans during the Great Migration from 1916 to 1930. (credit: “Great Migration” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr, CC BY 4.0)
Chicago became so familiar to black southerners that they called it by the nickname “Chi.” The black-owned newspaper The Chicago Defender wrote countless stories urging migration from the South, and people in the Deep South passed the paper from hand to hand. Labor agents advertised in thee Defender, drawing countless letters like this one from a woman in Mobile, Alabama, who was eager to emigrate in 1917. “I bore the reputation of a first class laundress . . . [and] much experience with all of the machines in the laundry. . . . You will do me a noble favor with an answer in the earliest possible moment with a description all about the work.” The Defender offered cheap train tickets from the South to Chicago for three dollars on special trains at particular times. Afraid of losing its cheap labor force and its sharecroppers, Mississippi banned distribution of the paper.
Black southerners also went to mid-sized cities across the North. When Moundville, Alabama, sharecropper Garther Roberson settled up his debt, he immediately put his clothes in a sack, left his wife and six-month-old son, and took the train to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where his brother had migrated. A year later, he sent for his family. He worked in a foundry, sang in the Baptist church choir, and became a Baptist minister. He faced down the Ku Klux Klan in Ypsilanti in the 1920s, began carrying a gun, and became a community leader. His son graduated from an integrated high school and went to work for Ford Motor Company, and his daughter became a social worker. By the mid-1930s, Ypsilanti hosted a close-knit black community, with a physician, real estate agents, ministers, and business owners, and a thriving chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
By the 1970s, six million black southern refugees from the Jim Crow states had moved to the North or the West. Their children and grandchildren were writers, artists, professionals, service workers, and factory employees. As historian Isabelle Wilkerson put it, the Great Migration ” moved those who had long been invisible not just out of the South, but into the light.”
1. Push factors at work in the Great Migration of African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century included all the following except
- literacy tests
- Jim Crow laws
- fear of lynching and personal violence
- expansion of industrial jobs
2. Many of the first African Americans who left the South to move north during the Great Migration were
- educated urban dwellers with resources
- people from the Appalachian foothills
- unemployed factory workers
3. Migration of southern African American sharecroppers increased dramatically in the early twentieth century because
- their skills transferred easily to northern factories
- they followed the progress of the boll weevil northward
- they sought to escape economic hardship
- they saved enough to purchase their own homes
4. Black southern migrants found the northern cities to be
- free of economic and social discrimination
- lacking in economic opportunity
- controlled by Jim Crow legislation
- sources of discrimination and prejudice as well as opportunity
5. Black southern migrants to northern cities generally settled in
- no recognizable pattern
- cities along existing transportation networks
- locations selected by their ministers
- cities chosen by the factories that paid for their tickets
6. Most black southerners who moved north during the Great Migration
- returned to the South after earning enough money to buy a farm
- remained in the North despite discrimination
- found little to no opportunity for advancement in the North
- moved to farming communities in the North
Free Response Questions
- Analyze the push factors that led more than one million African Americans to move from the South to the North in the early twentieth century.
- Discuss the conditions southern African Americans encountered in the North during the Great Migration.
AP Practice Questions
“If You are a Stranger in the City
If you want a job. If you want a place to live. If you are having trouble with your employer. If you want information or advice of any kind.
Call upon The CHICAGO LEAGUE ON URBAN CONDITIONS AMONG NEGROES
3719 South State Street. Telephone Douglas 9098. T. Arnold Hill, Executive Secretary.
No charges – no fees. We want to help YOU.”
Front of a card distributed by the Chicago Urban League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (now the Chicago Urban League), c. 1920
1. This document was created in response to
- demobilization of the integrated military after the end of World War I
- radicalism and labor activism associated with the Red Scare
- nativism aimed at Southern and Eastern Europeans
- limited economic opportunity and racial segregation in the South
2. Which of the following best contextualizes this document?
- The Spanish-American War
- The Socialist Party platform
- The Great Migration
- The Harlem Renaissance
3. This document was primarily intended to
- publicize federal programs designed to help immigrants and migrants
- gain votes for the urban political machines operating in major American cities
- promote union membership among newly hired workers
- offer community-based services to those recently arrived from southern states
DeVore, Donna. “Interview with interview with Ernest Grey, July 12, 1984.” Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History: University of Kentucky Libraries. https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/ark:/16417/xt7z610vtd5w
Roberson, S. L. Interview with Tony Ingram, July 26, 1981. African American Oral History Archive, 028, Ypsilanti District Library, Ypsilanti, Michigan. http://history.ypsilibrary.org/oral-histories/s-l-roberson/
Scott, Emmett J. ” Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918.” The Journal of Negro History4, no. 3 (1919): 290-340.
Scott, Emmett J. “Negro Migration During the War.” In Preliminary Economic Studies of the War. Vol. 16. Edited by David Kinley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1920. Reproduced at http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/migrations/text1/scottwwi.pdf
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor, 2009.
Daniel, Pete R. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. Urbana-Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Harrison, Alferdteen. Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Marks, Carol. Farewell-We’re Good and Gone: The Great Migration. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Tolnay, Stewart, Katherine J. Curtis White, Kyle D. Crowder, and Robert M. Adleman. ” Distances Traveled during the Great Migration: An Analysis of Racial Differences among Male Migrants.” Social Science History 29, no. 4 (2005):523-548.
Wilkerson, Isabelle. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Vintage: 2011.