About the Author: Christopher Averill has taught AP® US History for 27 years and been actively involved in APUSH® grading for 22 years. Christopher has served as an APUSH® exam reader, table leader, exam leader, and question leader. Christopher was integral in establishing the AP® Teacher Best Practices Workshops at the annual AP® US History reading. He has been endorsed by the College Board as an AP Consultant since 1999 and has conducted numerous AP single-day workshops as well as Teaching and Learning Seminars. Starting in 2010 he began a four year term on the AP® US History Test Development Committee. Additionally, he was a Faculty Consultant editor for the 15th edition of the Alan Brinkley American History textbook.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration was the widespread migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North and West during the 20thcentury. Historians differ over the length and duration of the Great Migration; however, it began as a trickle in the 1890’s and increased in magnitude until the 1970’s. It was primarily the result of economic opportunities in the North and racism and discrimination in the South.
The Great Migration was primarily the result of economic opportunities in the North and racism and discrimination in the South.
The migration volume waxed and waned depending upon the economic opportunities available in the North. The two heaviest periods occurred during the World Wars. The need for labor in northern industrial centers increased and thus many more African American migrated northward. The Great Migration caused such a dramatic demographic change that by 1970 over 50% of African Americans lived in the Northern areas whereas only 10% lived there in 1900.
The Great Migration caused such a dramatic demographic change that by 1970 over 50% of African Americans lived in the Northern areas whereas only 10% lived there in 1900.
Starting in the 1870’s, the South reinstated economic dominance over the newly freed slaves. With the introduction of sharecropping and tenant farming, African Americans were caught in an economic system slightly more advanced than chattel slavery. Politically and socially, the Black codes prevented African Americans from advancing into any “white collar” professions. Thus, the principle occupation allowed for African Americans throughout the south to engage in was farming.
Due to the Black Codes, the principle occupation allowed for African Americans throughout the south to engage in was farming.
Most African Americans rented their land from former plantation owners as tenant farmers or had established “share-cropping” arrangements with them. Additionally, Jim Crow laws kept racial segregation locked in as a cultural feature. Furthermore, the existence of the covert KKK and other white supremacist groups in the South kept African Americans in a perpetual state of peonage.
Without access to professions and higher education, there was little opportunity for advancement. Thus, with the rise of the modern industrialization of the late 19thcentury principally centered in northern cities and its need for cheap labor, many began to consider the possibility of moving northward to find work.
The late 19thcentury principally centered in northern cities and its need for cheap labor, many African Americans began to consider the possibility of moving northward to find work.
One of the most prominent African Americans of the post Reconstruction period, Booker T. Washington, requested in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech that American capitalists “cast down their buckets” amongst the millions of African Americans in the South and employ them in their factories. Competition with migrants from eastern and southern Europe during this period however kept the numbers of African Americans employed to a minimum.
But the economic landscape changed during World War I. Starting in 1916, the need for millions of workers to create munitions for the war was the stimulus that brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans northward. The migration will wane during the Great Depression of the 1930’s when more than 25% of America’s industrial workers were without a job.
Starting in 1916, the need for millions of workers to create munitions for the war was the stimulus that brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans northward.
This will change with the entrance of America into World War II. Again, the need to fill industrial jobs in the north will be the impulse to draw hundreds of thousands more north. The sustained economic boon of the post war period combined with the continued segregationist policies of the South will push a steady stream of southern blacks to northern areas in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
There were numerous effects of the Great Migration. With the post-war depression following World War I and the resulting lack of jobs in northern cities, reactionism against African-Americans rose and resulted in violence against African American communities in northern cities. The most infamous were the Chicago Riots of 1919 which claimed the lives of 38 people, injured hundreds and displaced thousands of black families.
Due to the racial discrimination that pervaded in most northern states, the areas in which African Americans were allowed to settle were limited. Thus, cities within cities arose. Harlem, in New York City, for example became a destination for thousands. It became the center of African American culture and art. This Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s gave voice to the yearnings of African Americans.
Due to the racial discrimination that pervaded in most northern states, the areas in which African Americans were allowed to settle were limited. Thus, cities within cities arose.
Continuity and Change
The economic impulses behind the Great Migration were very similar to the impulses underlying the migration of other groups throughout American history. In the 1840’s and 50’s, due to the rising need for cheap labor to build the burgeoning Railroad system, hundreds of thousands of Irish will emigrate from Ireland. During the same period, Germans due to internal political strife in their home regions will migrate due to the availability of cheap land in the upper Mid-West along the Great Lakes. Additionally, the modern industrial revolution of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies and its need for cheap labor will see the migration of millions of southern and western Europeans to America. The economic pull factors and the political push factors that are the reasons for these large migrations of people are similar to the Great Migration.
The economic pull factors and the political push factors that are the reasons for these large migrations of people are similar to the Great Migration.
The changes wrought due to this demographic switch were tremendous. The cultural attributes of these groups tremendously changed the cultures of the regions in which they settled as exhibited by the Harlem Renaissance.
Additionally, with the rising concentration of African Americans in urban areas, their political and economic concerns moved into mainstream political arenas. Protests and activism to overcome discrimination became more prominent.
Also, the absence of a large unskilled workforce to work southern farms and produce agricultural goods such as tobacco and cotton hindered its economic development for decades to come – well in to the 1970’s.