The following pages will discuss the reasons for the great migration of the black population to the northern United States, discussing the reasons, risks involved, long-term social and cultural impacts, and the impact on different aspects of American life.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the majority of the African-American population in the United States continued to reside in the South through the early 1900s. The difficulty and the expense of travel left most of the population with little choice but to remain in the region that had just years before sought to keep them enslaved. In 1914, at the onset of World War I, “about 90 percent of African Americans still lived in the South” (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 26). But in 1916, driven in large part by employment opportunities and the efforts of recruiters from the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, “thousands of African-American laborers from the South headed north to work” (p. 26). The years that followed saw a massive migration of the African-American population to the northern states, totaling approximately 1.5 million people in the initial wave, and followed by another 4.5 million in the years that followed. The following paragraphs will seek to discuss the reasons for the northern migration, the risks involved, the social and cultural impacts, and the impact of different aspects of American life.
Identifying the Reasons
More than 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, most African-Americans still lived in the south and still struggled to find reasonable employment and wages. Jim Crow laws established a “system of institutionalized discrimination” throughout the southern states, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan led to consistent and violent harassment and terrorism of African-Americans (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 14). In 1916, however, the employment opportunities provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the exodus of thousands of African-Americans sparked a migration phenomenon never before seen in the United States. The sheer number of people migrating north seemed to inspire other African-Americans to follow in their footsteps, and from “1915 to 1930, approximately 1.25 million African-Americans” relocated to the northern states (p. 72). Sonneborn (2010) explains, “For these people, migration to the North not only promised a better income than they could find in the South. It also held the possibility of a freer and more exciting life,” (p. 24).
The opportunities provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company certainly helped spark the migration, but the impact of World War I was tangible as well. Most of the American manufacturing jobs were located in the northern states, so when the number of European immigrants dropped by approximately 50% from the early 1900s to the start of World War I, industrial factories were left searching for ways to fill open positions (US Census Bureau, 1999, p. 872). Even before the US became directly involved in World War I, American factories were flooded with “more orders than they could fill” for “weapons and other war supplies” for the Allied Forces overseas (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 24). Employers recognized that they could entice African-American workers to work for less money than their white counterparts, and the opportunities were too abundant for many African-American southerners to pass up.
Relocating from the South to the North in the early part of the 20th century was no easy task, and there were many risks involved for the African-American laborers who pursued life and employment in the North. While many African-Americans migrated north to pursue better job opportunities, it should be noted that perhaps a considerable amount of the force around the migration could be attributed to the violence facing black Americans in the southern states. Lynchings, mob violence, harassment, Jim Crow laws, and a disproportional rate of African Americans facing capital punishment contributed to the necessity of the northern movement for much of the southern population. Fleeing the South was supposed to be an escape from an unhealthy, discriminatory environment, and many African Americans migrated north with the hopes of better opportunities and a freer lifestyle. Interestingly, however, NBC reported in February of 2015 that the American Economic Review “found that mortality rates increased at 40 percent for black men and 50 percent for black women who fled the dangers and discrimination of the Jim Crow South in search of better lives. Common causes of death for the migrants included cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and cirrhosis — all linked to bad habits like smoking and drinking,” (n.p.). While smoking and drinking was increasing in popularity among both white and black Americans of the time period, the mortality rate increase and the root causes point to coping mechanisms for displaced southerners in a new environment. "This is the price that they paid for the freedom that they sought," Isabel Wilkerson said. "They were moving to an unknown land with challenges they could not have imagined. Yet, in spite of the risks they had to take, for them, at that time, their actions showed that it was worth the risk in order to live freer than they were at home. They were searching for ways to manage in a world that had not welcomed them where they were met with hostility upon their arrival. I would not find it surprising that their health would suffer as a result." (Whack, 2015, n.p.).
Yet it wasn’t just the long-term effects of the move that provided risk, but the immediate trials facing the migrating black community contained a great amount of risk as well. While northern factories sent recruiters to the South the bring African-American laborers to the North, they “failed to inform many of their black prospects that they were to serve as strikebreakers in the northern factories,” (Baskerville, 2001, n.p.). Often, the southern migrants would be met with hostility for breaking the strike lines, and coupled with increasing racial prejudices, this made for an uncomfortable arrangement for the African-American migrants. Once the labor issues resolved themselves, it also became apparent that “the only work available to African-Americans were the jobs their white counterparts did not want,” leaving the migrant community to once again face the same racial prejudices, and violence, they had hoped to escape in their migration to the North (Baskerville, 2001, n.p.).
Social and Cultural Impacts
One of the most interesting and well-recognized attributes of the Great Migration was the urbanization of the African-American population. Though most African-Americans came from a rural background, the northern movement led to an urbanization that blended the cultures of the northern and southern African-Americans and led to new forms of music and artistic expression. The Harlem Renaissance was born out of this environment, bringing the works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer and more, and “promoting a sense of pride in the black community,” (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 51). Jazz and Blues musical traditions formed in this blend of southern and northern culture, and provided the basis for the social scene in the northern urban areas.
It should be noted as well that the issue of suffrage became a focal point, and the ability of the African-American population to become involved in politics in the North was something they had not been afforded in the South. In 1928, Oscar Stanton DePriest was “elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first black person to serve in Congress since the end of Reconstruction. He was also the first African-American congressman from the North,” (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 60). Politicians were forced to recognize the power of the African-American vote and the size of the demographic in the North. At the same time, the black southern migrants were, for the first time, afforded the opportunity to vote and participate in politics in a way that represented their needs.
Impact of the Great Migration
The impact of the Great Migration encompassed a number of aspects of American life, including: contributions in commerce, religion, and setting the tone for the Civil Rights Movement.
Beyond the discussed musical and literary contributions, the all-black neighborhoods “compelled urban blacks to create new institutions and businesses,” and provided “African Americans more influence over American culture than ever before,” (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 99). African-American entrepreneurs were able to find successful opportunities in all-black neighborhoods like Harlem, because they were without competition from their white counterparts.
In the area of religion, the southern migrants aided the spread of “Protestantism throughout the northern United States,” as the majority of the religious southern migrants were Baptist,” (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 101). Traditional Catholic churches in the north offered far less interaction than the lively Baptist congregations of the south. Sonneborn (2010) notes that the African American involvement in the church helped increase their political power as well, noting, “prominent ministers endorsed candidates and used church services to educate congregations about political issues,” (p. 101).
Lastly, perhaps the greatest legacy of the northern migration is the impact that it had in “inspiring the civil rights movement” of the 1950s and 1960s (Sonneborn, 2010, p. 105). Early-to-mid twentieth century protests included “staged sit-ins in public facilities that banned African Americans,” boycotts against “stores that would not hire black workers,” and protests “against institutional racism,” (p. 105). Publications detailing the actions of the northern equality activists “acted virtually as protest manuals for civil rights workers who later demanded that southern blacks be granted the same freedoms that northern blacks had fought for,” (p. 106). The great migration had already sown the seeds for the Civil Rights movement, and provided the guidelines and protest methodology for the impending protests in the South.
The migration of the black population to the northern United States was one of the most influential periods in American history. The impact of this movement led not only to impressive artistic and musical works, the spread of Protestantism in the North, and to the urbanization of the African American community, but it directly contributed to the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. The reasons, the risks, the social and cultural impacts, and the lasting legacy of the Great Migration serve as testaments to the influence of the pursuit of freedom and equality, and stand in defiance of longstanding traditions of institutional racism.
Baskerville, J. (2001). Heading North: African-American Migration. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from http://www.uni.edu/historyofblackhawkcounty/peopimmigrants/African-AmericanMig/HeadingNorth.htm
Sonneborn, L. (2010). The Great Black Migrations: From the Rural South to the Urban North. New York: Chelsea House.
US Census Bureau. (1999). 20th Century Statistics. Statistical Abstract Of The United States, 867-889. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from https://www.census.gov/prod/99pubs/99statab/sec31.pdf
Whack, E. (2015, February 17). Great Migration Shortened Lives of Blacks Who Fled Jim Crow South - NBC News. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/great-migration-shortened-lives-blacks-who-fled-jim-crow-south-n307711