The Great Migration
Leaving the South
Migration Fever
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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.

African American Population in Selected Cities 1920 (table)African American Population in Selected Cities 1920 (table)

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.

Black Automobile Workers in Detroit, 1910-1930The Journal of Negro History, vol. 64, no. 3 (Summer 1979)Black Automobile Workers in Detroit, 1910-1930 from The Journal of Negro History, vol. 64, no. 3 (Summer 1979) by Joyce Shaw Peterson

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.

North to Detroit     , Chapter 2Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's JournalNorth to Detroit , Chapter 2 from Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal by Charles Denby

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."

Migration and Jobs: The New Black Workers in Pittsburgh, 1916-1930The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, vol. 61, no. 1 (January 1978)Migration and Jobs: The New Black Workers in Pittsburgh, 1916-1930 from The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, vol. 61, no. 1 (January 1978) by Peter Gottlieb
Interview with Olin Wilson: Charter Member, Steel Workers Organizing Committee, Bethlehem Steel Corp, Buffalo, NYAfro-Americans in New York Life and History, vol. 21, no. 1 (January 1997)Interview with Olin Wilson: Charter Member, Steel Workers Organizing Committee, Bethlehem Steel Corp, Buffalo, NY from Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, vol. 21, no. 1 (January 1997) by James R. McDonnell

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.

Economic Discrimination     , Chapter 12Black AmericaEconomic Discrimination , Chapter 12 from Black America by Scott Nearing

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.

The Colored Woman in IndustryThe Crisis (November 1918)The Colored Woman in Industry from The Crisis (November 1918) by Mary E. Jackson
Resolving Urban Racial Problems: The NY Urban League, 1919-1959Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, vol. 4, no. 1 (January 1980)Resolving Urban Racial Problems: The NY Urban League, 1919-1959 from Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, vol. 4, no. 1 (January 1980) by Jesse T. Moore

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