Causes of the Great Migration

Searching for the Promised Land

Leaving Florida
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Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated six million African-Americans migrated from southern states to northern and Midwestern cities.

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

During the first wave of the Great Migration, African-Americans settled in urban areas such as New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit.

However, 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 Fifteenth Amendment. However, white Southerners passed legislation that prevented African-American men from exercising this right.

By 1908, ten Southern states had rewritten their constitutions 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.

In addition to not having the right to vote, African-Americans were relegated to 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-American men and women by lynching, bombing churches, and also setting fire to homes and property.

The Boll Weevil

Following the end of slavery 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, African-Americans 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 decided to enter World War I, factories in northern and Midwestern cities faced extreme labor shortages for several reasons. First, more than five million men enlisted in the army. Secondly, the United States 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. For instance, in Chicago, a man could earn $2.50 per day in a meat packing house or $5.00 per day on an assembly line in Detroit

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. By reading these incentives along with train schedules and job listings, African-Americans understood the importance of leaving the South.