World War II initiated the largest migration of African Americans in the region's history. During the 1940s, the West's black population grew by 443,000 (33 percent), with most of the newcomers settling in the coastal cities of California, Oregon, and Washington. Oklahoma lost 23,300 African Americans, 14 percent of its black population, while California gained 338,000. The increase resulted, in the main, from the booming defense industries, which rescued black workers from decades of menial employment. Thousands more African Americans were stationed on military bases; after the war, many sent for their families and settled permanently. The World War II migration made the entire region "younger, more southern, more female, and noticeably more black than ever before."
Getting to the Pacific coast in those days was not an easy task. Many migrants followed long, hot, dusty stretches of highway across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Since few hotels would take them in, travelers took turns driving, and camped along the roadsides. Those making the trip by train faced three or four days on crowded, uncomfortable, and often segregated cars. But people were willing to endure these poor conditions because black workers could find decent-paying jobs in shipyards and aircraft factories all along the Pacific coast. However, they also encountered their share of problems, including unwarranted job transfers, anti-black remarks by supervisors and co-workers, and residential segregation. Fanny Christina Hill recalled: "They did everything they could to keep you separated . . . . They just did not like for a Negro and a white person to get together to talk."
But black workers in the West Coast plants joined integrated unions, worked in the same buildings as whites, and lunched in the same cafeterias. For thousands of black women and men in skilled jobs, the defense industry work changed the quality of their lives. Fanny Christina Hill put it bluntly: "The War made me live better. Hitler was the one that got us out of the white folks' kitchen."
African Americans shared their nation's joy on V-J Day, 1945. But for many the celebration soon turned bittersweet. By 1947, thousands of African Americans who had been "essential workers" during the war were unemployed and roamed the streets of Los Angeles, Oakland, and Portland. In that year, black Oaklanders, although only 10 percent of the city's population, made up half of the applicants for welfare. The postwar job outlook in Portland was so dismal that the black population declined by half between 1944 and 1947.
But in other cities, African American people prospered. In San Francisco, men gained union membership and access to the skilled jobs those organizations controlled. Large numbers entered the construction trades and transportation, and a few obtained white-collar jobs in banks, insurance firms, and public utilities. Progress was slower for women; by 1950, more than half remained in domestic service, but a few were beginning to work as clerks, stenographers, and secretaries.
In Seattle, Boeing's black workforce kept growing. The Cold War required more military planes and there was a great demand for commercial aircraft. Between 1945 and 1950, Seattle's black population increased by five thousand people. By 1948, the median income of the city's African-American families was $3,334, only 4 percent below that of white families nationally.
Although African Americans continued to migrate westward after 1950, the region never again experienced the huge influxes of World War II. By 1965, the year of the Watts Uprising in Los Angeles, it was clear that racial discrimination in employment, housing, and public schools had made the region remarkably similar to the rest of the nation.
Although many African-American westerners saw their lives improved by the civil rights and Black Power movements, after Watts there was a palpable decline in optimism among both the middle and working classes about the region's potential for affording them opportunity and racial justice.
Even the most successful individuals now realized that thousands of other African Americans in South Central Los Angeles, Denver's Five Points, or Seattle's Central District faced a daunting task in overcoming both the physical and psychological barriers constructed by centuries of racism and poverty. These westerners had finally abandoned the search for a racial Promised Land. Instead they chose political and cultural struggle because, for them, the West was the "end of the line both socially and geographically. There was no better place to go."