When the Association for the Study of African American Life and History announced that its 2019 theme would deal with the Great Migration, many scholars praised the choice as especially relevant, given that a hundred years ago, the grand movement of Black people began.
The Great Migration consisted of the voluntary relocation of more than six million Blacks from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West from roughly 1916 to 1970. Never in American history had there been a larger number of people move from one part of the country to the other.
During this migration, Blacks emerged from being a rural, agricultural based people to an urban, largely service- and factory-oriented group that in many ways redefined the cities they moved to such as Chicago, the District of Columbia, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. These migratory Blacks changed the political, cultural and economic dynamics of the cities they went to.
Before the Great Migration
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, where Blacks exercised some political power in the southern states, things got progressively worse for African Americans as White supremacy set in after President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops that protected them. Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation and fostered the terror that African Americans went through in the latter part of the 19th century began to grate on Blacks.
While racial terror and limited political and economic opportunities began to upset southern Blacks, another factor also came into play.
“The boll weevil epidemic caused many crops to fail on the farms where Blacks were working,” said Dr. Gregory Carr, a Howard University history scholar. “There was massive crop damage in 1898 and it was difficult for many farms to recoup their losses. As a result, the decimation of those crops simply eliminated the need for the type of labor that Blacks in the South performed.”
Carr said that southern legislatures constantly added amendments to their constitutions and enacted laws that restricted the rights of Blacks in the political and economic spheres. In addition, lynchings and other types of racial violence forced Blacks to look for greener pastures.
Pamphlets, leaflets and Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender talked about how many Northern cities offered a better way of life, higher wages and little formalized racial segregation, and many southern Blacks decided to take a chance.
The Great Migration
The outbreak of World War I in 1916 started the process of Blacks leaving the South to work in the factories to support the war effort and to secure industrial labor jobs. Cities such as Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago quickly ballooned in population traveling from mid-South states such as Mississippi and Alabama while the District, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston benefited from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia African Americans.
Blacks from Louisiana and Texas went West to California primarily but some made it to Seattle, also.
While Blacks had better economic opportunities as a result of the migration, they encountered racial discrimination in housing and found that their public schools and communities didn’t have the same resources as White areas.
Racial restrictive covenants had become a common practice, limiting where Blacks could buy a house based on deeds that stated a property could not be sold to an African American.
Despite the discrimination, historical figures such as Jackie Robinson matriculated to the University of California, Los Angeles and became the first Black Major League Baseball player in the modern era, while Zora Neal Hurston, an acclaimed Black female writer, left Florida to settle in New York City during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and also attended Howard University. Richard Wright, who became famous because of his novel, “Black Boy,” left Mississippi with his family to go to Chicago and then New York City and ultimately to Paris.
Thomas Bradley left Texas to move to Los Angeles, where he became the first Black mayor of that city. Marion Barry, born in Mississippi, came to the District to run the SNCC office and ultimately became the mayor of the city.
Blacks from the Caribbean came to the U.S. as a result of better economic opportunities and have managed to mainstream themselves into Black culture. Cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia have large Caribbean populations and they have had a cultural impact on those places.
While it became clear that southern Blacks faced many economic and housing challenges, politics became an area where their support became important.
The Black vote in the North received attention from presidential candidates. In his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, “Truman,” by David McCullough, the author goes into great detail how Harry Truman, who faced Republican Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, courted the Black vote in states such Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois while southern Blacks remained largely disenfranchised.
The actions of the Truman campaign in 1948 toward the Black vote didn’t surprise Dr. Michael Fauntroy, a political scientist at Howard University.
“He needed the votes in Pennsylvania, particularly in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and in Michigan, especially Detroit, that provided him the margin of victory that year,” Fauntroy said.
Fauntroy said the Black vote in the 1940s made the Democratic Party competitive in national elections and that continues to this day.
In the early 1980s, a small number of Blacks started leaving the North to move back to the South. As the decade moved forward and into the 1990s, the numbers grew exponentially and Carr explains why.
“The factory jobs that produced the Black middle class in the northern cities disappeared,” he said. “Plus, the civil rights movement made Blacks feel more comfortable coming back to the South to stay. Blacks had access to jobs because of civil rights legislation and they even had political power to wield.”
Fauntroy said the cost of living in the South is much cheaper than the North.
“There is also a feeling of many Blacks of ‘going home,’” he said. “Many Blacks want to return to their roots. The reverse migration has had an impact with the rise of the Black vote in Georgia that nearly put Stacey Abrams in the governor’s mansion and the same situation with Andrew Gillum in Florida. North Carolina is now a presidential swing state because of the reverse migration.”