The Great Migration


In the spring of 1916, the attention of the American press and public was focused on the Great War in Europe. Few noticed the tiny stream of Southern black men brought north by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to work on the rail lines. But following this experiment between 1916 and 1918 alone, nearly 400,000 African Americans - five hundred each day - took what they hoped was a journey into freedom.

The migration was a watershed in the history of African Americans. It lessened their overwhelming concentration in the South, opened up industrial jobs to people who had up to then been mostly farmers, and gave the first significant impetus to their urbanization.

In 1910, seven million of the nation's eight million African Americans resided below the Cotton Curtain. But over the next fifteen years, more than one-tenth of the country's black population would voluntarily move north. The Great Migration, which lasted until 1930, was the first step in the full nationalization of the African-American population.

Leaving the South

Several factors precipitated one of the largest population shifts in the country's history. In 1898 the tiny boll weevil invaded Texas and proceeded to eat its way east across the South. Crops were devastated, thousands of agricultural workers thrown off the land, and the long reign of King Cotton as the region's economic backbone was finally brought to an end.

Even more important was World War I. Its onset in Europe, in 1914, brought a halt - within three years - to the massive immigration of European industrial workers which had been going on for some sixty years. By 1900 more than a million were settling in the United States each year.

Although the country did not enter the conflict until 1917, it had been supplying the European combatants since hostilities began. The cessation of immigration resulted in an acute labor shortage at a time when workers were needed to gear up the arms and war-supplies industries. The war created an economic boom, and an alternative supply of labor was needed to meet the increased demand. The South, with its surplus of workers resulting from agricultural disaster and chronic underdevelopment, clearly fit the bill.

The region in 1916 suffered not only from underdevelopment, but also from isolation. Its separation from mainstream America was the result of unique historical factors: the institution of slavery, its slow recovery from the devastating Civil War, and its overreliance on cotton as the region's economic engine. The South was behind the rest of the country at the start of Reconstruction, and its disadvantage only grew over time. It had fewer schools, lower literacy levels, and poorer basic services. The rural areas had slow and inadequate communication with the outside world. In comparison to their counterparts in the Northeast and Midwest, southern workers were grossly underpaid; their wages no more than two-thirds of those paid elsewhere in the country. Indeed, the region was more of a colony exporting raw materials than an equal trading partner to the more economically advanced North. Large numbers of skilled workers, white and black, were trapped.

In addition, the political and social climate was deteriorating. Between 1890 and 1910, most African Americans in the South had lost the right to vote through restrictive requirements such as property qualifications, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the "grandfather clause" that limited the vote to those whose grandfathers were registered voters, thus disqualifying blacks who had gotten the franchise only with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The tightening of Jim Crow laws led many to leave the South, as illustrated in Alabamian Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport's Jim Crow Blues: I'm tired of being Jim Crowed, gonna leave this Jim Crow town, Doggone my black soul, I'm sweet Chicago bound, Yes, Sir, I'm leavin' here, from this ole Jim Crow town. I'm going up North, where they think money grows on trees, I don't give a doggone, if ma black soul should freeze I'm goin' where I don't need no B.V.D.s.

Intimidation and outright violence were also used not only to disenfranchise the black community, but also to control and terrorize it. At least two to three people were lynched every week. Although lynching had been used for decades, it evolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, becoming more sadistic and exhibitionist. People were horribly tortured and mutilated for hours in front of huge crowds that included women and children.

Though economic, social, environmental, and political forces were crucial to the migration, so too was the indomitable will of the African-American migrants, their burning desire to control their own destinies. The decision to pull up one's long planted roots and journey into the unknown is not easily made. For southern migrants, it was a balancing act. Serious questions had to be answered: How bad is it here? How good is it there? Who in the family will make the journey? How will those left behind be cared for? How much will it cost? Where will I live?

Migration Fever

As reports spread of plentiful job opportunities that existed above the Mason-Dixon line, the workers' situation began to change. They heard fantastic promises but were cautious and awaited reports from pioneers who went north to test the waters. One worker said, "Of course everything they say about the North ain't true, but there's so much of it true, don't mind the other."

Every conceivable method was used to draw the black labor supply from the South. Labor agents from northern companies stood on street corners offering train passes to the young, male, and strong. It soon sparked a migration fever. Black newspapers carried job advertisements touting good wages and other advantages of living in the North. They also published success stories about recent migrants already making more money than they had ever dreamed possible. Their letters confirming success were read out in churches, barbershops, and meeting halls. Southerners soaked up all the information available: Was this real? Would they pay? What was it like up North?

Still, not everyone wanted to go north, and in fact the migrants were not typical southerners in many ways. Over half came from cities and towns and had long abandoned work on the land. The great majority departing from the Alabama steel towns of Birmingham and Bessemer were experienced miners heading for the coal fields of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Despite the rural nature of the South, the migrants came from a variety of nonfarming occupations. Surveys done in Pittsburgh and Chicago showed that only a quarter of the migrants in those cities came from agricultural backgrounds.

Rarely did young and old, able-bodied and dependent, parent and child migrate together. It was too expensive. Young men between eighteen and thirty-five who had worked as unskilled industrial laborers were usually the first to go. Many were married and had children and expected to reunite with their families as soon as they had "made their way."

The reasons for leaving varied: "freedom and independence," better wages, educational opportunities for their children. Still others intended to stay only long enough to save some money and return. One migrant, asked why she left the South, replied: "I left Georgia because I wanted better privileges." Did that mean mixed schools and association with white people generally? "No," she responded, "I don't care nothing about that, but I just want to be somewhere where I won't be scared all the time that something is going to break loose."

The migrants headed to the large industrial centers - Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, and most of all, Chicago. Leaving home was a wrenching experience, though mitigated by exhilaration as hope for the future in some instances drowned out the accustomed sounds of the past. A migrant from Gulfport, Mississippi, reported from Chicago, "I'm tickled to death over this place. Sorry I was not here years ago."

Though many influences surrounded them, migrants made their own decisions about when and where to go, what type of job to take once they got there. They constantly attempted to control the world around them by negotiation, bargaining, and compromise.

The Journey North

The journey north was made by train, boat, bus, sometimes car, and even horse-drawn cart. It was most often a long, grueling experience; the travelers confronted segregated waiting rooms, buses, and train coaches, as well as unfamiliar procedures and unfriendly conductors. Very little food or drink was available. Fares were expensive, deterring many would-be migrants from making the trip. Regular passenger fares - 2¢ per mile in 1915 - skyrocketed within three years to 24¢ a mile.

Getting to "the Promised Land" did not come cheap, so many migrants made the journey in stages, stopping off and working in places in the South, then continuing on their way. This so-called step migration could take a very long time. Painter Jacob Lawrence recalled that his family was "moving up the coast, as many families were during that migration . . . . We moved up to various cities until we arrived - the last two cities I can remember before moving to New York were Easton, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia."

During the early period, northern employers assisted the migrants with transportation. Their agents gave out travel passes whose cost was often deducted from future wages. These agents, who were paid a flat fee for each worker they produced, were selective, favoring those who appeared in good health, men over women, the young over the old.

The railroads, in dire need of workers to transport war material and maintain the rail lines, were among the first employers to recruit. In the summer of 1916, the Pennsylvania Railroad brought sixteen thousand southern African Americans north to do unskilled labor. The agents from the Illinois Central Railroad issued passes to bring workers to Chicago. Other industries central to the burgeoning war economy, such as the steel mills, made great and unprecedented promises to prospective African-American employees. These workers were poor and eager to take advantage of any opportunity. "Just give us a chance" was their common refrain.

So many southerners made their way north on their own that employers soon cut back on travel passes. Meanwhile, local authorities were trying to deny the agents access to the black community. In some cases, their passes were not honored at the depots. On many occasions, travelers were pulled off trains to prevent them from leaving the South.

Networks and Media

More influential than the agents in the long run were family and friends. Prospective migrants financed their tickets by selling all their possessions. When that was not enough, families pooled their resources to send one member. With the breadwinner gone north, other family members had to support themselves until the migrant made good. Many women provided family support by taking jobs as domestics. They also saved money to buy their own tickets. One wrote, "So many women are wanting to go . . . we can't get work here so much now, the white women tell us we just want to make money to go North and we do." Both parents sometimes went north while grandparents or other family members cared for their children.

Letters from family and friends already settled in the North provided specific accounts of jobs and housing, encouraging others to make the journey. A few dollars enclosed in the envelope lent further legitimacy to the writers' claims.

These letters were often read at services. Churches formed migration clubs to exchange information and facilitate passage north. Leaders were chosen to correspond with northern industries, newspapers, and placement services on the entire group's behalf.

Many African-American newspapers were leading players in the epic drama that was the Great Migration. By the turn of the century, the black press was becoming a more effective weapon for the community in its struggle against racism. To respond to the demand of a growing racial consciousness, fifty new black periodicals were created. Some, like The Urban League Bulletin, were founded to respond to the migrants' needs. Established newspapers, such as the Amsterdam News in New York, covered issues vital to the newcomers. Robert Abbott's The Chicago Defender, however, was the unquestioned star.

The Defender emphasized southern racial injustice and provided African Americans in the region with information they could read nowhere else. Its loud and unceasing advocacy of African-American migration infuriated white southern commercial and political interests. Police in several cities confiscated copies, but vendors responded by smuggling them in from rural areas. Pullman porters secretly delivered bales of papers on their trips from Chicago. Copies were mailed in packages that disguised their contents.

One Mississippi county declared The Chicago Defender German propaganda and banned it. All of this intrigue only added to the paper's popularity. Though circulation estimates vary, Abbott claimed that during the Great Migration the Defender sold 150,000 copies an issue, with a total readership far exceeding that number.

In January 1917, the newspaper created its own migration event. Banner headlines proclaimed, "Millions to Leave the South. Northern Invasion will Start in Spring - Bound for the Promised Land." The article promised reduced fares and special accommodations starting on May 15, 1917.

The Great Northern Drive never happened. The Chicago Defender was forced to declare that "there were no special trains scheduled to leave southern stations on May 15th, and that this date had been selected simply because it was a good time to leave for the north, so as to become acclimated." But the forces were already in motion. Thousands of migrants, managing to scrape together the money to pay full fares, boarded the northbound trains.

A New Industrial Landscape

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.

Hard Life in the North

The migration years saw the emergence of service organizations to provide aid and support to the newcomers, such as the National Urban League, founded in 1911 in New York. The Chicago Urban League opened its doors in 1917, and in its first two years some fifty-five thousand migrants sought assistance in finding jobs and housing. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and similar organizations provided a needed lifeline for incoming migrants.

Besides the white-black competition for employment in the cities, there was also white-black competition for living space. Prior to the migration, African Americans were often dispersed in small clusters in several city neighborhoods, where they lived in relative obscurity and invisibility. But soon white opposition effectively closed the market to newcomers, thereby creating ghettos. Whites also fled the areas where black migrants concentrated "as if from a plague." City government, banks, and realtors conspired to keep African Americans' residential opportunities constricted.

On a single day in Chicago, real-estate brokers had over six hundred black families applying for housing, with only fifty-three units available. When the migrants did find housing accommodations, they were usually dilapidated and barely habitable. Landlords maximized their profits by dividing larger units, with no alterations, into several tiny flats. Black neighborhoods became seriously overcrowded as a result. In Cleveland, the population density in black areas was thirty-five to forty persons per acre, while citywide it was only half that.

The combination of overcrowding, poverty, and poor access to quality medical treatment - even in the North there were few black physicians and hospitals were generally segregated - ensured a variety of serious health problems in African-American communities. Working long, arduous hours in badly ventilated spaces, coming home to equally unhealthy conditions, getting insufficient rest and nutrition made migrants particularly susceptible to many infectious illnesses. African Americans death rates were consistently higher than those of whites. Children were even more at risk. A shocking number died before the age of ten; more than a quarter of these succumbed before their first birthday. The mortality rate for black infants was twice that of white babies. The deaths soared during the steamy summer months in overcrowded slums.

In some cities, the migrants were removed from other sectors of the African-American community. The black elite sought to distance itself from the newcomers, citing their lack of education and rural background. Black migrants responded to social isolation by forming communities that were comprised of people from the southern areas they had left behind. In northern cities, one could find blocks of people from the same general area of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or the Carolinas. Throughout the urban North, the migration brought concentrations of African Americans, and the combination of concentration and hope produced vibrant black communities.

The church was the cornerstone of the community, providing not only guidance but also relief. Besides the established churches, small Holiness or Pentecostal storefront churches with highly emotional services developed during the migration. Their pastors were migrants themselves who worked during the day, and they catered mostly to the newcomers. By 1919 there more than a hundred black storefront churches in Chicago, and in 1926, one hundred and fifty blocks in Harlem counted one hundred and forty churches. The more established churches grew rapidly too as southerners became used to city ways and joined them in great numbers, leaving the storefront establishments to the new arrivals.

Other religious movements developed as well and recruited heavily in the migrant population. Their focus on racial consciousness and pride was a powerful magnet to the Southerners in search of new identities. Noble Drew Ali, originally Timothy Drew from North Carolina, organized the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1913 in Newark, New Jersey. Drew proclaimed himself a prophet ordained by Allah and mixed some Islamic tenets into his teachings. In 1915 Prophet F. S. Cherry from Tennessee established the Church of God, a Jewish movement in Philadelphia that still retained numerous Christian elements and taught that God, Jesus, and other biblical figures were black. The Nation of Islam was established in 1931 in Detroit by Wallace Fard-Muhammad - believed to be from Pakistan. He was succeeded in 1934 by Elijah Poole, a migrant from Georgia who became Elijah Muhammad.

Migrants also followed charismatic leaders, such as Father Divine and Daddy Grace. Father Divine - a Southern migrant - established the Peace Mission Movement in Brooklyn around 1912. Calling himself God, he preached racial and gender equality and counted tens of thousands among his followers. Bishop Charles M. Grace, known as Sweet Daddy Grace, was born in the Cape Verde Islands, off Senegal, and had migrated to Massachusetts in 1903. He founded the United House of Prayer for All People, a Pentecostal church, around 1919.

What the Southerners found in these movements, according to African-American anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance activist Arthur Huff Fauset, was a response to their particular needs as migrants: "It must come as a great relief as well as release to such people to enter into the spirit of a group like one of the holiness cults, with its offer of assurance through grace and sanctification, and the knowledge that they will be aided not only in their efforts to support their customary burdens, but that in addition they will be equipped to measure arms with the white man, something they scarcely dreamed of doing previous to their advent into the North."

The Red Summer

The first years of the Great Migration would see an unprecedented wave of mob violence sweep the nation. Twenty-six race riots - in cities large and small, North and South - would claim the lives of scores of African Americans. But the migrants did not instigate this bloody wave of lawlessness; it was, in most cases, directed at them.

The so-called Red Summer of 1919 actually began two years earlier in East St. Louis, Illinois, in July 1917. It was the only one of the battles to be directly linked to racial conflict in the workplace, but white workers' fear of job competition was likely behind all of them. The East St. Louis riot began after African-American workers were hired to break a strike at an aluminum plant. A delegation of trade unionists met with the mayor and demanded that black migration to the town be stopped. As they left the meeting, they were told that a black man had accidentally shot a white man during a holdup. In a few minutes, the rumor spread that the shooting was intentional and involved an insulted white woman, then white girls.

Mobs quickly took to the streets, threatening and attacking any blacks they could find. The local police made no attempt to control the situation. Some of the whites later drove through the main black neighborhood firing indiscriminately into homes. Before the rampage ended, forty-eight African Americans were dead, hundreds injured, and more than three hundred buildings destroyed.

Chicago's turn came on July 27, 1919, as the temperature soared into the nineties. Several black children drifted into waters off a public beach, by custom reserved for whites. Stones were thrown at them and one child drowned. A crowd of blacks and whites gathered at the scene. When a black man was arrested on a white's complaint while a white man, identified by black witnesses as a suspect, was not, blacks attacked the arresting white officer and the riot was under way. The violence was confined mainly to the south side of the city, where 90 percent of the African-American population lived.

In the course of several days of rioting, both blacks and whites were beaten. Thirty-eight people were killed, twenty-three of them black, and 537 were wounded; most of the one thousand families left homeless were African Americans. Although the other riots during that terrible summer varied in ferocity, it was made abundantly clear that race mattered very much in urban America.

Two years after the Red Summer, a riot erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in an elevator, was arrested. On May 31, the Tulsa Tribune published a fictitious news story stating Rowland scratched the woman's hands and face and tore at her clothes. By 10:30 p.m., a mob of nearly two thousand white people surrounded the jail, ready to lynch the man. In hopes of defending him, a group of blacks, who were previously turned away, returned to the jail to assist the sheriff. But before they could return to Greenwood - a predominately black community that achieved such levels of wealth that it earned the reputation as the "Negro Wall Street of America," - the Tulsa Riot began. In its aftermath, more than three hundred African Americans were murdered, nearly six thousand were imprisoned. Half of Tulsa's black population, and as many as twenty-five hundred people, left town, some temporarily but many definitively.

The Quest for Political Power

Their painful experience of disenfranchisement in the South, coupled with their belief in the power of the ballot, led many migrants to register to vote almost immediately after arriving in the North. Having received so little benefit from their tax dollars for so long, African Americans now sought political representation. This new electorate brought with them bitter memories of political exclusion. Some had witnessed firsthand the violence and intimidation used against would-be black voters; many others had been told of them. Most, if not all, of these negative events were perpetrated under the auspices of the Democratic Party. A laborer originally from Alabama told an investigator that he could never vote for a Democrat as long as he kept his memory.

Their loyalty to the Republicans, however, did little, at first, to advance the interests of black migrants. But Republicans were more likely to field strong black candidates in predominantly African-American districts. The migrants firmly believed that electing such candidates was the key to achieving power, even, as was often the case, if the candidates were selected by a white political machine.

Chicago was one of the first cities where African Americans attained a measure of political influence. A number of black politicians rose to prominence. Perhaps the most outstanding was Oscar DePriest, who became Chicago's first black councilman in 1915. In 1928, in a defining moment in African America's political history, DePriest became the first black elected to the United States House of Representatives in the twentieth century. In 1935 Arthur W. Mitchell, a white Democrat, defeated him. This election signaled the beginning of the seismic shift of blacks' political allegiance from the party of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Black Nationalism, spurred in particular by Marcus Mosiah Garvey, became an important part of the sociopolitical landscape. Garvey had formed the Unitversal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in his native Jamaica in 1914 and brought it to New York three years later. He drew his following largely from the lower end of the economic spectrum - people who believed that middle-class black leaders had no concern for the masses. A large part of his followers were Southern migrants. Besides advocating going back to Africa, Garvey and the UNIA promoted economic independence and racial pride, crucial issues to people who had faced contempt, violent racism, and socioeconomic dependence in the South, and were determined to improve their lot in the North.


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.


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Web Links

The Great Migration: A Story in Paintings by Jacob Lawrence

Through a series of paintings in The Great Migration, Jacob Lawrence illustrates the mass exodus of African Americans who moved to the North in search for a better life. Lawrence's parents were among those who migrated between 1916-1919 during what was considered the first wave of the migration.

History Matters

Keyword Great Migration: a search listing of abstracts providing links to and information about the Great Migration, including critical text, transcription, audio, and images.

Women and Labor

Series of studies on African-American women, labor, and the black community's economic status during and after the Great Migration.

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

This interactive site presents a documentary about the history of African-American newspapers, which flourished during the Great Migration. Bios of papers like the Chicago Defender and extensive press history timelines are on the site.

Jim Crow

Multimedia site for the documentary, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. This page is an event listing and search site that includes the Great Migration.

Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport

Biography and discography of Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport" along with actual recording of "Jim Crow Blues".

The Black Migration

Information and links to information about the Great Migration including and audio file of an interview on with host Robert Siegel and Adero Malaika, editor of Up South, a collection of documents and stories by and about African-American migrants. Included are several readings from the book.

The New Negro and Panafricanism

"The New Negro Movement and the African Heritage in a Pan-Africanist Perspective" by Sonia Delgado-Tall. This article published by the Journal of Black Studies discusses the background and cultural forces of the New Negro Movement and Pan-Africanism as it relates to African heritage and kinship.

"Sir I Will Thank You with All My Heart":

This site has transcribed letters to the Chicago Defender, which urged African Americans to migrate to the North. History Matters considers migrants' letters to northern newspapers among the best and most voluminous sources for understanding the migration process and interpreting the migrants' motivations for leaving.

Chicago, Jazz, and the Great Migration

Listing of online resources and links such as photos, art exhibits, audio files, maps, literary excerpts, biographies, bibliographies, and curriculum tools by the Joseph Regenstein Library Chicago Jazz Archive.

Chicago Blues

A "short take on Chicago Blues" on the American Historical Association site.

Harlem Renaissance

Extensive archive of pictures taken by Carl Van Vechten in Harlem. Numerous portraits of celebrities of the Harlem Renaissance.

Rhapsodies in Black

Exhibit by the Institute of International Visual Arts: images and artist biographies with themes such as the Harlem Renaissance and The New Negro

Migrations to Hartford

A Struggle from the Start: pictures and information on the African-American population of Hartford, Connecticut, during and after slavery, including migrations.

Indianapolis and the Great Migration

Indianapolis at the time of the Great Migration, 1900-1920. Article from the Indiana Historical Society.

The Sweet Trials

Trial in 1925 of an African-American family in Detroit accused of killing a man when a mob besieged their house. Background material: pictures, tables, black migration to Detroit, comparison with other northern cities.

Migration to Michigan

Articles from the 1927 Hampton Institute publication, The Southern Workman: black businesses, migration difficulties in Michigan, women's businesses.

Tears, Trains, and Triumphs

In depth fact sheet and story on the history and legacy of African-Americans and the Pennsylvania Railroad by the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

African Americans in Pennsylvania

A seven-page layout about the history of African Americans in Pennsylvania by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission: