In 1950, a major change was taking place across America as more Black families moved from rural areas in the South to larger cities in the North. The first wave (1910-1940) of what was known as “The Great Migration” had already seen over 1 million Black Americans relocate to Northern or Western cities from the South, and the second wave was in full swing. This migration, from 1940 to 1970, was undertaken for a variety of reasons, from seeking new economic and educational opportunities to fleeing the violence and oppression of the Jim Crow era. At the same time, this physical shift of America's Black population would later broaden the geographical scope of family history research for the descendants of those who migrated.
From Agriculture to Industrialization
The 1940s saw important changes to American life that helped hasten the Great Migration's second wave. First, there was rapid industrialization in Northern cities, which led to an explosion of factory work.
Cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and others needed workers—and businesses were less likely to deny jobs to Black people as many employers had done in the Southern states. Companies from these and other industrial cities often sent representatives to recruit workers, while Northern aid organizations, concerned with the conditions faced by Black people in the South, often helped with transportation costs and arrangements.
Though they were often relegated to the most dangerous and undesirable jobs—and paid less than their white counterparts—for many it still seemed like a marked improvement from the conditions and lack of opportunities many Black workers felt at home. Factory jobs in the urban North typically paid up to three times more than what they could expect to make as sharecroppers working the land in the rural South. Ancestors who were engaged in this type of factory work may be found in census records with job titles such as “machinist,” “packer,” or “hemmer,” sometimes with the number of hours they worked in those positions in the previous week. You may even see how much your ancestors earned in these better paying jobs.
Fueling the War Effort
This kind of work only picked up in 1941, when the U.S. joined the fight in WWII. During this time, many factories were converted to support the war effort. With so many able-bodied white men being shipped overseas as soldiers, Black men and women could take positions that had been denied to them before.
In fact, in one of the first active diversity movements, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser began recruiting Black workers for three West Coast shipyards, eventually hiring and promoting some of these workers to skilled positions.
Black Americans also signed up for military service during this time. Over 1.5 million Black men went overseas as soldiers, as well as some 4,000 Black women in the Women’s Army Corps. While in Europe, many of them experienced a very different way of life. For the first time they were seen—and treated—as equals by Europeans, though sadly, not always by their own fellow servicemen. Ancestors who were part of the war effort may be found in military records such as World War II Draft Cards, enlistment lists, Navy cruise books, and more.
When they returned home, many soldiers settled in the North, with the hope that their service and the experiences that they had from abroad would translate to more opportunity and equality at home. However, this was not always the case, as Black servicemen were often targeted for violence, especially while wearing their uniforms.
The G.I. Bill, which propelled many white servicemen into the middle class, was significantly hindered by the Jim Crow laws in place in Southern states, and through restrictive covenants on homes and race-based social norms in Northern states. For many families, the decision to move North was as much about safety as it was about opportunity. Those threatened with racial of violence often made this decision under duress, leaving quickly and with little trace by necessity.
Changing the Northern Cities
During both the first and second wave of the Great Migration, New York and Chicago were the two most popular destinations for Black Americans leaving the South. Detroit was also a popular destination, as the auto boom produced a variety of new factory jobs. By 1950 a majority of the Black population in Detroit had been born somewhere else, usually in the South.
All of these cities were indelibly changed by the growing presence of Black people in the community. Despite the hardships they sometimes found in the city, they brought with them a distinct culture that transformed both the cities they landed in and in some cases American culture as a whole.
The sounds of the blues, brought up with Black Americans from places along the Mississippi, became the basis for the distinctive sounds of soul and rock-and-roll music genres in Detroit and Chicago. While in New York, the artistry and imagination of these newcomers to the city launched what we now call the Harlem Renaissance and ushered in the Black Arts Movement. Records like yearbooks or newspapers may detail your ancestor’s connection to the arts in these cities.
What Can the 1950 Census Reveal About Your Family’s Migration?
Because of the numbers of people moving North during this time, as well as those returning from the war, searching for your Southern roots in the 1950 census might lead you to major Northern and Western cities that were part of the rise in industry and/or part of the war effort of WWII, such as Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Oakland, and Philadelphia.
Conversely, you might fight your Northern ancestors starting their journeys in Southern states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas where they may have resided before they made their way northward or where other family members who did not make the journey might still be found.
And whether your family was part of the Great Migration or not, the 1950 census—especially when compared to the 1940 census—may tell a story of where they lived, whether they moved, who lived (or even traveled) with them, and the jobs they held.
Tracing your ancestors’ movements may help you understand their motivations and bring you closer than ever to the people who came before you. Get started in the 1940 census today—and learn more about the 1950 census on Ancestry®.
“1950 Census of Population Preliminary Counts.” U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census, September 7, 1950. https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1950/pc-02/pc-2-36.pdf.
Clark, Alexis. “Returning From War, Returning to Racism.” The New York Times, July 30, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/magazine/black-soldiers-wwii-racism.html.
Cushing, Lincoln. “Path to Employment: Black Workers in Kaiser Shipyards.” Kaiser Permanente, June 2, 2021. https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/our-story/our-history/path-to-employment-african-american-workers-in-kaiser-shipyards.
“The Great Migration.” History.com, June 28, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.
“History of African Americans in Detroit.” Wikipedia, February 5, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_African_Americans_in_Detroit#.
“Senator Reverend Warnock Introduces Landmark Legislation To Provide Black WWII Veterans, Descendants Full G.I. Bill Benefits.” Reverend Raphael Warnock, U.S. Senator for Georgia, November 11, 2021. https://www.warnock.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sen-warnock-introduces-landmark-legislation-to-provide-black-wwii-veterans-descendants-full-g-i-bill-benefits/.
Wilkerson, Isabel. “The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration.” Smithsonian, September 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/long-lasting-legacy-great-migration-180960118/.
“World War II: The African American Experience.” University of Kansas. Accessed February 7, 2022. https://wwii.lib.ku.edu/background#.