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The Great Migration

Jacob Lawrence painting of the Great MigrationThe Great Migration was the movement of 2 million African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West from 1910 to 1930. Estimates of the number of migrants vary according to the time frame used. African Americans migrated to escape racism and seek employment opportunities in northern industrial cities.

The migration was a watershed in the history of African Americans. It lessened their overwhelming concentration in the South, opened up industrial jobs to people who had up to then been mostly farmers, and gave the first significant impetus to their urbanization.

Several factors precipitated one of the largest population shifts in the country's history. In 1898 the tiny boll weevil invaded Texas and proceeded to eat its way east across the South. Crops were devastated, thousands of agricultural workers thrown off the land, and the long reign of King Cotton as the region's economic backbone was finally brought to an end.

Even more important was World War I. By 1900 more than a million immigrants  were settling in the United States each year, but within three years of the onset of World War I  in Europe, the massive immigration of European industrial workers which had been going on for some sixty years halted.

Jacob Lawrence painting series The Great MigrationAlthough the country did not enter the conflict until 1917, it had been supplying the European combatants with supplies since hostilities began. The cessation of immigration resulted in an acute labor shortage at a time when workers were needed to gear up the arms and war-supplies industries. The war created an economic boom, and an alternative supply of labor was needed to meet the increased demand. The South, with its surplus of workers resulting from agricultural disaster and chronic underdevelopment, clearly fit the bill.

In 1910, three out of every four black Americans lived on farms, and nine out of ten lived in the South. World War I changed that profile. Hoping to escape tenant farming, sharecropping, and peonage, 1.5 million Southern blacks moved to cities. During the 1910s and 1920s, Chicago's black population grew by 148 percent; Cleveland's by 307 percent; Detroit's by 611 percent.

World War I halted immigration from Europe while at the same time stimulated orders for Chicago's manufactured goods. Many employers needed a new source of labor for jobs assumed to be “men's work.” Factories opened the doors to black workers, providing  first time opportunities to black southerners eager to stake their claims to full citizenship through their role in the industrial economy. For black women the doors opened only slightly and temporarily, but even domestic work in Chicago offered higher wages and more personal autonomy than in the South.

Information about these differences and about “the exodus” spread quickly through the South, partly because of the Chicago Defender newspaper, which was so influential that many black southerners going to other northern cities went with images of Chicago. Equally important were the correspondence and visits that established “migration chains,” linking Chicago with numerous southern communities, especially in Mississippi.

Access to housing became a major source of friction between blacks and whites during this massive movement of people. Many cities adopted residential segregation ordinances to keep blacks out of predominantly white neighborhoods. In 1917, the Supreme Court declared municipal resident segregation ordinances unconstitutional. In response, whites resorted to the restrictive covenant, a formal deed restriction binding white property owners in a given neighborhood not to sell to blacks. Whites who broke these agreements could be sued by "damaged" neighbors. Not until 1948 did the Supreme Court strike down restrictive covenants.

Confined to all-black neighborhoods, African Americans created cities-within-cities during the 1920s. The largest was Harlem, in upper Manhattan, where 200,000 African Americans lived in a neighborhood that had been virtually all-white fifteen years before.

Though economic, social, environmental, and political forces were crucial to the migration, so too was the indomitable will of the African-American migrants, their burning desire to control their own destinies. The decision to pull up one's long planted roots and journey into the unknown is not easily made. For southern migrants, it was a balancing act.

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