Causes of the Great Migration

African Americans Searching for the Promised Land in Jim Crow America

black woman and young boy standing in front of packed car
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Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated 6 million African Americans migrated from southern states to northern and Midwestern cities.

Attempting to escape racism and Jim Crow laws of the South as well as poor economic conditions, African Americans found work in northern and western steel mills, tanneries, and railroad companies. 

During the first wave of the Great Migration between the two World Wars, 1 million African Americans settled in urban areas such as New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit, drastically increasing the Black populations in those cities. Segregation was illegal in those areas, but racism was still to be found there.

By the onset of World War II, African Americans were also migrating to cities in California such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco as well as Washington's Portland and Seattle.

Harlem Renaissance leader Alain Leroy Locke argued in his essay, “The New Negro,” that

“the wash and rush of this human tide on the beach line of the Northern city centers is to be explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom, of a spirit to seize, even in the face of an extortionate and heavy toll, a chance for the improvement of conditions. With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a mass movement toward the larger and the more democratic chance — in the Negro's case a deliberate flight not only form countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern."

Disenfranchisement and Jim Crow Laws

African American men were granted the right to vote through the 15th Amendment. However, white Southerners passed legislation that prevented them from exercising this right.

By 1908, 10 Southern states had rewritten their constitutions to restrict voting rights through literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses. These state laws would not be overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was established, granting all Americans the right to vote.

African Americans faced segregation as well. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case made it legal to enforce "separate but equal" public facilities, including public transportation, public schools, restroom facilities, and water fountains.

Racial Violence

African Americans were subjected to various acts of terror by white Southerners. In particular, the Ku Klux Klan emerged, arguing that only white Christians were entitled to civil rights in the United States.

As a result, this group, along with other white supremacist groups murdered African Americans by lynching, bombing churches, and also setting fire to homes and property.

The Boll Weevil

Following the end of enslavement in 1865, African Americans in the South faced an uncertain future. Although the Freedmen's Bureau helped to rebuild the South during the Reconstruction period, they soon found themselves reliant on the same people who were once their owners. African Americans became sharecroppers, a system in which small farmers rented farm space, supplies and tools to harvest a crop.

However, an insect known as the boll weevil damaged crops throughout the South between 1910 and 1920. As a result of the boll weevil’s work, there was less of a demand for agricultural workers, leaving many African Americans unemployed.

World War I and the Demand for Workers

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, factories in northern and Midwestern cities faced extreme labor shortages for several reasons. First, more than 5 million men enlisted in the Army. Second, the U.S. government halted immigration from European countries.

Since many African Americans in the South had been severely affected by the shortage of agricultural work, they responded to the call of employment agents from cities in the North and Midwest. Agents from various industrial sectors arrived in the South, enticing African American men and women to migrate north by paying their travel expenses.

The demand for workers, incentives from industry agents, better educational and housing options, as well as higher pay, brought many African Americans from the South. Much of this higher pay, however, was offset by a higher cost of living.

The Black Press

Northern African American newspapers played an important role in the Great Migration. Publications such as the Chicago Defender published train schedules and employment listings to persuade Southern African Americans to migrate north.

News publications such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Amsterdam News published editorials and cartoons showing the promise of moving from the South to the North. These promises included better education for children, the right to vote, access to various types of employment and improved housing conditions.