Though they faced discrimination, exclusion, and violence, African-American migrants never stopped moving forward. In 1890, 63 percent of all black male laborers worked in agriculture. By 1930, only 42 percent did so. During that period, the number of African-American schoolteachers more than doubled, the number of black-owned businesses tripled, and the literacy rate soared from 39 to 85 percent.
Many newcomers discovered their entrepreneurial talents as storeowners, real-estate brokers, funeral directors, providers of various skilled services to their community and to the larger population. The large numbers of migrants resulted in the formation of new institutions. By the mid-1920s, there were over two hundred black hospitals and twenty-five nursing schools in the United States.
Under the banner of black self-help, several social service organizations were founded to aid migrants and, more generally, uplift the black community from the inside. Many northern churches also established recreation centers and welfare agencies to respond to the needs of their members.
A new spirit prevailed in the arts as well. Mamie Smith from Cincinnati did one of the first commercial recordings by a black artist. Her "Crazy Blues" sold two million copies and she earned nearly $100,000 in royalties. Her success ushered in an era of "race records" and recognition on the part of the recording industry that a significant market existed within the black community. Race records quickly became big business.
The 1920s saw the emergence of the New Negro Movement, later called the Harlem Renaissance. Writers, poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors took some of their inspiration from the lives and struggles of the newcomers to the North. But, as Langston Hughes wrote, "The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any." Nevertheless, the movement was a reflection of the racial consciousness and pride that people felt in the urban North, and it produced important works in all facets of the arts.
Many scholars have noted that African Americans seemed to leave the South uncounseled by the black leadership. Although Booker T. Washington died in 1915 and did not see the mass exodus, it is clear from his pronouncements that he would have opposed it. He often said, "The Negro is at his best in the South" and would find there greater economic opportunity and a higher moral life. The New York Age warned skilled southern workmen "to think carefully" before migrating where skilled jobs were hard to get. Professor Kelly Miller, of Howard University, declared, "The Negro's industrial opportunities lie in the black belts".
Yet ultimately, leaving the South was not about economic opportunity or living a "higher moral life." Most migrants paid dearly, in some coin or other, for their departure. The Great Migration was about African Americans starting over and making sacrifices for future generations. As W. E. B. Du Bois concluded, the journey north represented not the end of a struggle but only its beginning.