The economic conditions of World War I led to a massive movement of African Americans from the South to the North, known as the Great Migration.
Examine the causes and effects of this phenomenon.
The Great Migration
According to the Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent African American newspaper, a black Mississippian arrived in Illinois in 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I. He had left his home in the South to pursue labor opportunities in wartime industries. He was optimistic that in addition to work, he was also escaping the segregation and racial prejudices of the American South.
He wrote home:I just begin to feel like a man here. It’s a great deal of pleasure in knowing that you have some privilege. My children are going to the same school with the whites, and I don’t have to be humble to no one.Soon this migrant and many other African Americans in the North realized they would have to temper the grand expectations of the Great Migration.
As millions of young men went to Europe to fight, and as the American economy transitioned from peacetime to wartime production, factories and industries boomed and needed workers. Women laborers filled some of these vacancies, but African Americans moved into these jobs in extraordinary numbers. Northern factory managers sent labor recruiters to the South to bring black Southerners into the war industries of northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, St.
Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.This movement from the South to the North is called the Great Migration. African American workers eagerly left their low-paying jobs as agricultural laborers and domestic servants in the rural South and headed north in massive numbers. In the major cities of the Midwest and Northeast, they found relatively high paying jobs in meatpacking plants, shipyards, and steel mills.The second significant cause of the Great Migration was the desire of black Southerners to escape segregation, known euphemistically as Jim Crow. Rural African American Southerners believed that segregation – and racism and prejudice against blacks – was significantly less intense in the North.Between 1914 and 1920 almost half a million African American Southerners left plantations and farms and Jim Crow and headed north, where they sought higher paying jobs in the war industries and attempted to escape virulent racism.
From 1910 to 1920, for instance, the black population of New York increased over 66% to more than 150,000, and the number of Cleveland’s African American residents jumped 307% to around 35,000. Extraordinarily, during that same period Detroit experienced a 611% rise in the black population, to over 40,000.The Great Migration was aided and facilitated by community and kinship networks within black communities in the North and South.
Such networks shared information about employment opportunities, available homes, and other connections in the cities of the North. Black churches and a variety of voluntary associations raised money for the trips of many groups and families.
The Effects of the Great Migration
The significant increase in the African American population of the North was a major effect of the Great Migration.
But once black Southerners arrived, they found reality didn’t often parallel their optimistic expectations. Women were more likely than men to find quick steady work as domestic servants, cooks, or laundresses. Rather than immediately finding a high-paying skilled job in the war industries and manufacturing sector, African American men often had to accept lower wages as construction workers, teamsters, porters, or custodians.Black migrants also realized that though racial prejudice in the North wasn’t as overt as in the South, it still represented a powerful current. For instance, newly arrived African American Southerners were barred through custom and law from settling in northern white neighborhoods. So, in Chicago by 1920, over 100,000 black citizens were relegated to a tiny three-mile by one-quarter-mile strip on the city’s south side.The optimism of African American migrants was also shattered by a series of violent race riots stemming from the movement of people during the Great Migration.
In St. Louis, employers had recruited black laborers to break the power of unions. Local unions refused to admit African American members, and this tension broke open in the summer of 1917 when white mobs in East St. Louis attacked newly arrived black laborers, killing at least 200. In Chicago, too, riots left 23 blacks and 15 whites dead in 1919.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, experienced the worst violence, when in 1921 the entire black neighborhood of Greenwood was burned to the ground after racial animosity spilled into the streets.The Great Migration continued through the 1920s. African American Southerners sustained their movements from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina to Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Harlem became the scene of black cultural renewal known as the Harlem Renaissance. And during World War II, there was another migration of blacks out of the South, but in this instance, they went to the West rather than to the North.
The Great Migration was a massive movement of African Americans out of the South and into the North during the World War I era, around 1914-1920. Blacks moved to northern cities for the economic opportunity afforded by war conditions, but also to flee the overt racism and prejudice endemic in the South.
Once in the North, African Americans found relatively higher paying jobs, but they also encountered white opposition and continued prejudice, and sometimes violence. Nonetheless, the Great Migration created the foundation of most black communities in the North.
After reading through the lesson, set your goal to:
- Recall a movement referred to as the Great Migration
- Discuss the causes that led to the Great Migration
- Recognize the impact of the Great Migration