The Great Migration spurred a massive increase in the African-American communities in northern cities. In the decade between 1910 and 1920, New York's black population rose by 66 percent, Chicago's by 148 percent, Philadelphia's by 500 percent. Detroit experienced an amazing growth rate of 611 percent.
In the Motor City, Henry Ford started a small experiment to see if black workers could be used on the assembly line. In 1910, fewer than 600 of the more than 100,000 automotive workers in the United States were African American. By 1929 there were 25,000 and Ford employed approximately half of them.
Once settled, usually with the aid of family members or friends from "down home," migrants strove to achieve their vision of the American Dream. Long hours and several jobs were not unusual. The great majority was on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Many had been skilled craftsmen in the South but were barred from such jobs in the North by company policy, union regulations, or white-only traditions within various trades.
There was also a wide disparity in pay scales. In Alabama, unskilled foundry workers earned $2.50 for a ten-hour day. The same workers in Illinois took home $4.25. As a result, southern migrants, at times unwittingly, worked for less than the going rate. White workers were decidedly unhappy at being undercut.
The newcomers entered a labor market at the rear of a delicately balanced ethnic employment line already sustained by low wages and vulnerable workers: the twenty-five million Europeans who had entered the country between 1871 and 1915, and their descendants. By 1910, the foreign-born made up a quarter of the nation's workforce. In many of the key industries, such as mining, clothing factories, steel mills, slaughterhouses, and packinghouses, they constituted a clear majority.
The arrival of masses of southern black workers changed the face of the industrial world. Employers' initial reluctance to tap this "inferior" stock was quickly erased. "If it hadn't been for the negro at that time," said a former official of the Carnegie Steel Company, "we could hardly have carried on our operations."
The migrants also became easy scapegoats. In the eyes of most whites, low wages, deteriorating factory conditions, unemployed white males, all had but one cause: black workers had been brought in. Labor unions were overwhelmed by the rapid introduction of tens of thousands of African Americans from the South. The labor surplus now made it possible for employers to operate as if the unions did not exist. In the past, labor organizations had absorbed the foreign- born into their ranks, but racism now prevented them from extending a similar welcome to the African Americans.
The migration altered black employment patterns dramatically. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of African Americans in the manufacturing industries increased by 40 percent. In Chicago in 1910, 51 percent of the black male labor force was engaged in domestic and personal service, but ten years later that figure had been cut nearly in half. In 1910 only sixty-seven blacks were working in the packinghouses of the Windy City; in 1920, there were nearly three thousand.
Wages varied by city, industry, and the worker's skill level, with the average migrant earning about $25 for a forty-eight to sixty-hour workweek, while Pullman porters could take home as much as $35. Wages remained fairly constant during the migration period, but prices rose quite sharply in a war-related inflationary spiral. In 1919 the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that $43 was the weekly income necessary for a family of five to maintain an acceptable standard of living. Obviously, on the migrants' salary alone, most families could not achieve this standard.
Many had been shortchanged in wage agreements that they signed before leaving the South. Those who avoided that pitfall fared little better. Arriving in the North with few assets, they were in no position to bargain over wages. The high cost of food and lodging were sufficient incentives to force many to take the first available job.
After wages, the most common complaint among migrants was lack of opportunity for advancement. The foremen, they stated, favored white workers in the distribution of work, recognition of efficiency, and the opportunity to work overtime. This preferential treatment for whites cost the African-American workers dearly. The denial of promotions cost them even more.
The low wages paid to black men forced women into the workplace. In Chicago in the 1920s, over 85 percent of African-American women were on the work rolls - 21 percent in manufacturing and 64 percent in domestic service. By comparison, only 31 percent of native-born white women held jobs.