In what came to be called the Great Migration, an estimated five and a half million African Americans moved from the South to the urban North and West between 1915 and 1970. This massive population shift profoundly transformed the twentieth-century United States politically, economically, socially, and culturally. During those years, blacks left Southern towns and cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Florence in search of economic and political opportunities, while taking with them still-painful memories of life under Jim Crow segregation and their cultural traditions of religion, food, and music.
Between 1915 and 1940, approximately 1.7 million blacks participated in the Great Migration. These migrants headed for metropolitan centers known to be more racially tolerant and offer greater personal freedom than the South, among them Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. In these communities, some African Americans were able to realize their goals of political and economic freedom. Most, however, found themselves restricted to living in slums, working as strikebreakers, and having to defend themselves from white residents and law-enforcement officials.
Since the California Gold Rush in the 1850s and emancipation in 1865, African Americans have voluntarily moved to different parts of the nation, while many stayed put and continued to live in depressed areas within the South fighting oppression through the formation of community institutions such as churches, schools, lodges, burial organizations, and mutual aid societies. They often described their departure from the South in terms of the exodus of Moses and the Hebrews from Egypt in search of freedom. Other "great (voluntary) migrations" in African American history have occurred, beginning with the movement of blacks from the rural South to the urban South in search of industrial jobs, which was then followed by their quest for promised lands through the formation of black towns such as Nicodemus, Kansas, in 1877, and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887. Given this historical perspective and the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the United States in the early twentieth century, it is not surprising that blacks' next search for freedom shifted from Booker T. Washington's rural ethos to an urban one. This new ethos was spurred by industrial recruiters and black leaders in the urban North in the 1910s.
The Great Migration was triggered by political and economic oppression, ecological disasters, World War I, and industrial jobs in the urban North and West for the war effort. After Reconstruction, African Americans in Alabama faced legal segregation and discrimination, lynching, voter disenfranchisement, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Harpersville in 1915. They also faced hard times as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, during the floods of 1909 and the boll weevil infestation that began in 1910, all of which drove the state and regional economy into depression. Whereas these factors influenced many to leave the South, the decision became final when the ecological factors created a labor disaster, greatly shrinking the number of agricultural jobs. The migration was also sparked by opportunities outside the South, including the lure of industrial jobs, homeownership, better education, and the chance to affect change in public policy through voting. In addition, the United States restricted European immigration during World War I, which limited the growth of the North's industrial labor force. To fill the void, industrialists sent agents to the South to recruit black and white workers.
African American leaders and politicians in the North provided role models for greater social and political freedom. They included W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Alabama natives Oscar De Priest (a Lincoln Republican who became a Chicago politician and U.S. congressman) and Arthur W. Mitchell (a New Deal Democrat who defeated De Priest for a congressional seat). African Americans were also attracted to the North and West by black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Crisis (published in Harlem), and The California Eagle in Los Angeles, all of which were written in the same spirit as the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, published in New York City from 1827 to 1829. These papers documented stories and voices that were ignored by mainstream papers. They were published with a sense of duty and urgency by men and women dedicated to uplifting African Americans and included testimonials encouraging others to leave the South. These papers offered readers constant reminders of the racist brutality in the South and provided listings of churches and other organizations dedicated to helping black migrants transition into the urban and industrial life of the North and West. Once the migration began, blacks themselves became the greatest proponents of their own movement. Black porters on trains, as well as letters and oral testimonies, played a large role in informing African Americans of the positive social and economic opportunities that existed and warned them about the ghettos, pervasive racism, and violence that perpetuated the hardships of life in the socially segregated North and West.
White reaction to the Great Migration was mixed. Those whites in favor of promoting African American relocation to urban centers were mostly businessmen dependent on cheap labor. In response to the South's growing labor crisis, white businessmen and politicians imposed migration fees on blacks. They were enforced by state officials. In Alabama, Gov. Thomas Kilby (1919-1923) tried to quell the exodus from his state by attempting slight improvements in farming conditions for African Americans with the help of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University) and Tuskegee Institute. In contrast, white supremacists encouraged and prodded black migration by resurrecting the KKK and instituting harsher black codes, whereas the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began to exclude black workers from the abundance of industrial jobs with employers like Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company.
Once out of Alabama and other Deep South states, blacks pursued freedom by making the most of their opportunities as voters, students, entrepreneurs and industrial workers and through "don't buy where you can't work" boycotts. They built their own institutions and participated in national organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, which fostered community development and political activism. Moreover, the Great Migration inspired a rich period of African American artistic expression, often referred to as a great awakening, that informed Black political expression and their value as a people.
Black Alabamans playing an important role in this flowering of African American expression include W. C. Handy (the "father of the blues"), writers Zora Neale Hurston and Albert Murray, and historian John Henrik Clarke, to name just a few. Several New Negro Renaissance icons attended Tuskegee University, including writers Claude McKay and Ralph Ellison. In addition, the Great Migration had a huge impact on black entertainment, global politics, and desegregating American sports after 1947.
When jobs became scarce in the urban North and West, as they did following World War I (1919-1921) and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, thousands of African Americans returned to familiar communities in the South with renewed vigor, determined to remain free and to undermine Jim Crow—goals that fully bloomed into the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This was especially true during the First Great Migration (1915-1940).
Industrial opportunities in shipyards and factories with federal government contracts sparked the Second Great Migration, beginning with the United States' entry into World War II (1942-1945). Between 1942 and 1970, an estimated five million African Americans migrated to the urban North and urban West. Unlike the First Great Migration, most blacks during the postwar era remained in northern and western cities when jobs became scarce, to escape an even deeper poverty in the South and to avoid a worsening racial climate. In the postwar era, most African American dreams of better lives were deferred because of a lack of living wage economic opportunities and segregation in education and housing. This lack of employment was largely associated with demilitarization, base closures, mass layoffs from union jobs, and exclusion from white collar professions. Blacks were excluded from the newly expanding suburbs by means of restrictive covenants, FHA lending practices, and white voters and real estate groups opting for restrictive housing through the initiative vote in the mid-1960s.
Many African American lives have improved during the post-civil rights era (1968-present). Following reductions in discriminatory racial barriers in public accommodations, voting, and housing, after
the enactment of major civil rights legislation in 1964, 1965, and 1968, many blacks have been seeking social and economic
freedom in suburbs and migrating back to the South. Between 1975 and 2000, more than 647,000 blacks have returned to the South
than have moved out. Their main destinations have been suburbs of cities such as Atlanta, Georgia; Houston, Texas; Orlando,
Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina. For African Americans participating in the current "Great Migration," these areas
offer improved race relations, strong economies, and lower living costs as compared with the urban North and West.
Adero, Malaika, ed. Up South: Stories, Studies and Letters of African American Migration. New York: The New Press, 1993.
Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African-American Odyssey. New York: Prentice Hall, 2005.
Kelly, Robin. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Trotter, Joe William. The Great Migration In Historical Perspective: New Dimensions Of Race, Class, and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Herbert G. Ruffin
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Published January 17, 2008
Last updated June 27, 2013