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Roughly six million(1) African Americans fled the southern U.S. for what they hoped would be a better life in the North between the 1910s to a peak around 1970(2). Tired of unjust laws that enforced segregation, restricted voting rights and economic opportunities—and sometimes fleeing the looming threat of violence—they established new communities in Northern cities like Chicago and New York. This is known in the U.S. as the Great Migration.

What Caused the Great Migration?

In the years after emancipation and the Civil War, a series of racist laws and terror tactics directed at African Americans became the norm in the South. Both were used in an attempt to maintain the unjust social and economic hierarchy that had existed during slavery. They were also in direct response to an African American community that was increasingly looking to become more educated and prosperous now that they had their freedom.

But to keep African Americans from amassing wealth or property, discriminatory laws were enacted. These included segregation, vagrancy laws, and the South Carolina law  (3), known as a Black Code, that put a tax on any African American that had a job other than that of farmer or servant. Violence and terror tactics were used to punish anyone who challenged this system. Frustrated and often afraid, many African Americans fled to the North in search of safety and a better life. 

Another factor contributing to the Great Migration was the beginning of World War I. Due to an increased demand for industrial workers to support the war effort, cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York saw their African American population soar during this time. While African American workers were 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. 

During the Great Migration, the African American population in many cities increased rapidly. The trend was most profound in Detroit, which saw a more than 600% increase in its African American population between between 1910 and 1920 (4).

Effects of the Great Migration on African Americans

Though conditions were marginally better in the North, African Americans continued to face significant issues of injustice and racial discrimination in their new homes. These included unfair practices such as biased policing and redlining—a practice that restricted African Americans from renting or purchasing homes in certain areas of the city. Because of redlining, there were often housing shortages, forcing many to live in sub-standard housing or "ghettos." Discrimination also meant that African Americans were more likely to be hired for unsafe work that offered little to no safety precautions.

Even so, the strong sense of community created in these neighborhoods gave many a sense of hope, strength, and identity.

 

Significance of the Great Migration for American Culture

This northward movement had great significance not only for African Americans but for the whole of American culture as well. In Chicago, African Americans fleeing the South brought the music of the Mississippi Delta with them, sparking a musical revolution in the form of blues music. This distinctly African American musical style would soon morph into R&B and rock music that swiftly spread around the world. In New York, where large numbers of African American residents began to arrive in the neighborhood of Harlem in the wake of the Great Migration, the African American community helped birth the artistic and literary movement now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Many of the most 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. Perhaps most importantly these new economic, artistic, and educational opportunities helped to spark the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s by showing the community that a better life was possible. 

Though it began as a response to great suffering and injustice, the overall effect of the Great Migration was to move not just African Americans but all of America forward. And today many people who currently live in major cities in the North and West may find that their family history has strong ties to the South because of this event. 

 

  1. Isabel Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Vintage Books, 2010.
  2. ibid.
  3. History.com Editors. “Black Codes.” HISTORY. June 01, 2010. Accessed January 17, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-codes.
  4. History.com Editors. “The Great Migration.” HISTORY. March 4, 2010. Accessed January 17, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.