Ancestry® Family History
The Great Migration
Between 1910 and 1970, two major migrations of African Americans from the U.S. South took place. During this period, known in American history as the Great Migration, roughly six million African Americans relocated to states they hoped would provide a better life. While 90 percent of Black Americans lived in the South prior to 1900, by 1970 that number had dropped to under 55 percent.
The first big wave of migration began in the 1910s, as many Black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North, Midwest, and West. Cities like New York and Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago, and San Francisco and Los Angeles saw huge increases in their Black populations. Detroit, for example, had a more than 600 percent increase in its African American population between 1910 and 1920.
The second Great Migration began in the lead up to World War II and continued until about 1970. This wave reflected the same migration patterns as the first.
What Caused the Great Migration?
No single cause prompted the first wave of the Great Migration, as roughly 2 million African Americans moved away from Southern states. Instead, during the 1910s-1930s, a combination of factors motivated them to pursue a new life elsewhere:
- Unjust laws that enforced segregation
- Restricted voting rights
- The threat of racial violence
- Limited job opportunities
Escaping Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws in the South.
Despite gains in rights for Black Americans after the Civil War, racist policies and practices continued to exist across the country. But these were especially harsh in Southern states that were part of the Confederacy, where they were used in attempts to maintain the social and racial hierarchy that had existed prior to Emancipation.
Voting rights: When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southern Black men were subjected to new restrictive laws and regulations that limited their voting rights.
Segregation: Discriminatory de facto laws and Jim Crow policies supported segregation in public places, on public transport, and in public schools. These practices were in direct response to burgeoning African American communities that were increasingly looking to pursue educational and economic opportunities.
Racial violence: Black Americans, especially in the South, were frequently subjected to intimidation and outright violence. These terror tactics were designed to instill fear so that white people could maintain a sense of control.
Given the social and legal climate in the South, many African Americans sought to escape those fear-based practices and to pursue a new life elsewhere.
New Economic Opportunities Outside of the South
The lead up to World War I was also a major contributing factor in the exodus of African Americans from the South. High demand for industrial workers to support the war effort meant that Black Southerners could pursue better wages and working conditions elsewhere. Popular African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender highlighted these new opportunities, motivating people to relocate for economic reasons.
Although African American workers were often paid less than their white counterparts in these northern factory jobs, their salaries were often much more than they would have been if they had remained in the South as sharecroppers or domestic workers.
But African Americans were also disproportionately hired for unsafe work that offered little to no safety precautions. And most unions at that time prohibited African Americans from joining, so there was little recourse to address dangerous working conditions or employers’ inequitable practices.
Black workers who stayed in the South, however, faced Black Codes that taxed African Americans who were engaged in employment outside of farming or domestic service.
Facing Discrimination in the North, Midwest, and West
Though conditions were marginally better outside of the South, African Americans continued to face significant injustices and racial discrimination in their new homes, including restrictive housing covenants and redlining—a practice that restricted African Americans from renting or purchasing homes in certain areas of a city.
Because of redlining, there were often housing shortages, forcing many to live in substandard housing.
In cities across the country, including those in the West known for racial diversity, Blacks were strongly discouraged to be in “sundown towns” after dark. These curfews would be enforced not only by white vigilantes, but also by law enforcement. In sundown towns, Black people were also prevented from owning property and they might not be allowed access to city services.
But despite these restrictive and discriminatory practices, the strong sense of community created in African American neighborhoods gave many a sense of hope, strength, and identity.
The Great Migration’s Impact on American Culture
The movement of millions of Black people from the South to other parts of the country significantly impacted American culture as a whole.
In Chicago, African Americans like Muddy Waters brought the music of the Mississippi Delta with them, sparking a musical revolution in the form of blues music. This distinctly musical style would soon morph into R&B and rock music that swiftly spread around the world.
In New York, large numbers of African Americans arrived in the neighborhood of Harlem. Their community helped birth the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Many well-known African American writers and visual artists—including luminaries such as Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and Beauford Delaney—were part of or inspired by this movement.
Setting the Stage for the Civil Rights Movement
The overall effect of the Great Migration was to move not just African Americans but all of America forward. The new economic, artistic, educational, and other opportunities available during the earlier part of the 20th century showed the Black community that a better life was possible. Still, ongoing racial discrimination throughout the country eventually helped to spark the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Tracing Your Ancestors During the Great Migration
If your Black parents, grandparents, or great grandparents lived in the West, Midwest, or North during the early to mid 1900s, they may have taken part in the Great Migration. But how do you know for sure?
A great starting point to trace your ancestors’ movements is by exploring census records on Ancestry®. You might discover when your family changed location by working your way backwards from more recent census records to earlier ones.
- Residence outside a Southern state in the 1930 U.S. census would align with a Great Migration location change.
- A non-South location in the 1920 U.S. census suggests a pre-WWI movement.
- The 1910 U.S. census could indicate your family’s pre-migration location.
Check for clues like the birth locations of family members. For example, in a 1920 census record for Chicago, you might find parents who were born in North Carolina, but their youngest child was born in Illinois.
To pinpoint further a relocation date, look through city directories. Those publications can provide additional clues, as they were often published on an annual basis.
If you don’t find that location shift between 1910 and 1930, then check the 1940 and 1950 U.S. census records, as your family may have been part of the second Great Migration wave.
Enjoy exploring the many resources on Ancestry® today as you look to uncover your family’s Great Migration story.
“African-American’s Rights.” Special Collections and University Archives, the University of Maryland Libraries. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://exhibitions.lib.umd.edu/unions/social/african-americans-rights.
“Beauford Delaney.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/beauford-delaney-1186.
"Black Codes." History.com. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-codes.
“The Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws.” National Geographic. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/black-codes-and-jim-crow-laws.
"The Great Migration." History.com. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.
“The Great Migration (1910-1970).” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/migrations/great-migration
“Harlem Renaissance.” History.com. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance.
Miller, Rann. “How Racist Ideas Shaped the Era of Reconstruction.” African American Intellectual History Society. August 18, 2020. https://www.aaihs.org/how-racist-ideas-shaped-the-era-of-reconstruction/.
“Lynching in America.”American Experience, WGBH Educational Foundation. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/emmett-lynching-america/.
“Maya Angelou is born.” History.com. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/maya-angelou-is-born.
“Mississippi Delta blues.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/art/Mississippi-Delta-blues.
“Sundown Town.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/sundown-town.
Wills, Mathew. “Racial Violence as Impetus for the Great Migration.” JSTOR Daily. February 6, 2019. https://daily.jstor.org/violence-as-an-impetus-of-the-great-migration/.