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The Northern Migration
A Comparative Look at Migrations Lesson Plan
The Northern Migration outlines the migration of African Americans during the decades before and following the Civil War. The narrative provides an explanation of the push and pull factors related to the migration along with the social, political, and economic impact that the migration had on both the point of origin of the migration as well as on the destination point. Similarly, The Great Migration reviews the factors leading to one of the largest population shifts in the country's history. The narrative details the social, political, and economic motivations for the movement along with the impact this had on the North and the South. In this lesson, students will examine the two narratives and provide and opportunity for them to compare the migration of African Americans at two distinct points in history.
Grade Levels:High school, grades 9-12
For use with:The Northern Migration, The Great Migration
Concentration Area:History: U.S.
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • How the Industrial Revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions.
  • Policies affecting regional and national interests during the early nineteenth century (e.g., how expansion-based economic policies, including northern dominance of locomotive transportation, contributed to growing political and sectional differences; the cheap price for the sale of western lands to residents of the North, South, and West; Andrew Jackson's veto of the Bank Recharter Bill of 1832).
  • How slavery influenced economic and social elements of southern society (e.g., how slavery hindered the emergence of capitalist institutions and values, the influence of slavery on the development of the middle class, the influence of slave revolts on the lives of slaves and freed slaves).
  • The impact of the Industrial Revolution during the early and later nineteenth century (e.g., the growth and spread of the factory system in New England, the effects of ethnic, religious, and racial tensions on the emergence of a unified labor movement).
  • The sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period.
  • Elements of slavery in both the North and South during the antebellum period (e.g., similarities and differences between African-American and white abolitionists, defense of chattel slavery by slaveholders, growing hostility toward free blacks in the North, how African-American leaders fought for rights).
  • Changing gender roles in the antebellum period (e.g., men's and women's occupations, legal rights, and social status in the North, South, and West; how gender roles were influenced by class, ethnic, racial, and religious lines).
  • How the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society.
  • Issues associated with urban growth in the late nineteenth century (e.g., how city residents dealt with urban problems; demographic, economic, and spatial expansion of cities; how urban bosses won the support of immigrants).
  • Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.
  • The challenges diverse people encountered in late nineteenth-century American society (e.g., the role of new laws and the federal judiciary in instituting racial inequality; arguments and methods by which various minority groups sought to acquire equal rights and opportunities; experiences of African-American families who migrated from the South to New York City in the 1890s).
  • Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption.
  • How the Progressive movement influenced different groups in American society (e.g., counter-Progressive programs of labor organizations compared to social democratic programs in industrial Europe, the response of mainstream Progressives to women's issues, the changing perception of Native American assimilation under Progressivism, the founding of the NAACP, how African-American women contributed to the movement, how the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provided alternatives, the success of the Progressive movement to groups outside the mainstream).
Time required

  • Three 50-minute class periods, OR
  • Two 50-minute class periods if student read essays outside of class
  • Materials needed
    Anticipatory Set

    1. Display the quote, below for students. Explain to students that the lesson will look at the migration of African Americans during two different time periods. The quote explains the different ways in which migration influences society:

      Migration is the dynamic undertow of population is, as it has always been, the great adventure of human life. Migration helped create humans, drove us to conquer the planet, shaped our societies, and promises to reshape them again.

      --Michael Parfit, "Human Migrations," National Geographic, October 1998
    2. Use the following questions to discuss the idea of migration:

      1. In what way has migration shaped our society/world in the past?
      2. In what way does migration shape our society/world today?
      3. In what way might migration shape our society/world in the future?
    3. Explain to students that this lesson will compare the migration of African Americans at different points in time and explore the effects the migration had on society. Explain to students they will explore the push/pull factors that led to the migration, as well as the political, economic, and social impact on both the point of origin and the point of destination.

    1. Vocabulary Development: Divide students into five groups. Give each group one of the vocabulary word definitions provided below:

      1. Demographic Patterns
      2. Diffusion
      3. City Distribution Patterns
      4. Pull Factors
      5. Push Factors
    2. Have each group will draw a comic strip or illustration that represents the term. The students should not write the term on the paper.
    3. When all groups have finished, one student from each group will explain the term and illustration. Choose randomly which student from the group will explain the drawing.
    4. After each group has presented their illustrations, have students complete the Vocabulary Graphic Organizer. After reviewing the vocabulary, explain to students that these terms will help them understand the impact of historical African-American migrations in the United States.
    5. Give each student copies of The Northern Migration and The Great Migration.
    6. Have students read the narratives, identify salient points, and debrief the information using the jigsaw strategy as follows:

      1. Divide each of the two narratives into five equal segments for reading. If possible, use natural breaks in the narratives to separate the document. Number each section 1-5.
      2. Group students into groups of five and assign a number to each student. The student is responsible for reading the segments in the narratives that correspond to the number they were assigned.
      3. The responsibility of the student is to become the "expert" on that segment of the narrative.
      4. As students read the narrative, have them highlight the salient (key) points of each segment. Students should then convene as a large group and debrief the readings segment by segment (in numerical order). During the debrief, students should complete the handout, Comparing Migrations.
    7. After the groups have debriefed the two narratives, debrief the content with the entire class and assign the assessment activity.

    1. Have students write a comparison essay on the two migrations. In the conclusion of the paper, students should select the area they feel the migrations have impacted the most and explain why.
    2. Assess the Comparison Essay on a five-point scale, which can be multiplied by 20 to convert to letter grade, according to this rubric.


    Demographic Patterns

    Demography is the study of population and the forces that affect change within the population. These include changes in birth (fertility) and death (mortality) rates, and the redistribution of a population (migration). Certain patterns are evident in the redistribution of population over time and space. Settlement occurred first in areas along transportation corridors including the coastline and interior waterways. Transportation routes funneled the population into the interior of the country. Throughout the history of the United States, the population became increasingly concentrated in and around urban areas. The United States shifted from being a rural nation to an urban nation in 1920 when the majority of the population no longer lived in the country. Demographic shifts rearrange patterns of the population, changing the human landscape. These include increased fertility, factors contributing to increased mortality such as famine and disease, and political factors such as war. Cultural factors such as language and tradition also influence how people move and where they settle. Thus, several factors influence the patterns of population distribution.


    Diffusion is the process by which an idea or innovation is transmitted from one individual or group to another across space. There are two types of diffusion: (1) relocation diffusion, i.e., when people move and take their culture with them; and (2) expansion diffusion, i.e., when information about a new idea or innovation spreads throughout a society.

    City Distribution Patterns

    There is an array of places, large and small, across space. Each place is where it is for a reason. There are many small villages, fewer towns, still fewer small cities, and a handful of giant urban areas. The larger places are, the fewer there are. This is termed a hierarchy of urban places. The pattern is one of a relatively small number of city-size classes; each class of place serves different functions and purposes.

    The very largest places provide the most goods and services for the largest areas; the smallest places provide the fewest goods and services for the smallest areas. Consumers are willing to travel shorter distances for some goods and services, and farther distances for others. Each place sits at the middle of the area for which it provides services; the area surrounding it is hexagonal in shape. The distribution of places follows a regularity described in Central Place Theory.

    Pull Factors

    Many factors cause people to move, including conflict, economic conditions, environmental change, and natural disasters. Migrants move on the basis of their perceptions of destination; distance tends to affect the accuracy of these perceptions. The decision to migrate is complex, but it can usually be conceptualized as the result of push factors and pull factors.

    Pull factors are the positive attributes perceived to exist at a new location, e.g., jobs, better climate, low taxes, more room, professional opportunities. Both factors are affected by place utility, an individual's existing degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a place. The decision to migrate is based on a person's evaluation: is it better for me to go or to stay?

    Push Factors

    Many factors cause people to move, including conflict, economic conditions, environmental change, and natural disasters. Migrants move on the basis of their perceptions of destination; distance tends to affect the accuracy of these perceptions. The decision to migrate is complex, but it can usually be conceptualized as the result of push factors and pull factors.

    Push factors include negative home conditions that impel the decision to migrate, e.g., loss of job, lack of professional opportunities, overcrowding, famine, or war.

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