the great

The 'Great Migration' was the name for the largest internal movement of blacks from one place to another in American history. In the years between 1900 and 1930, nearly 2 million blacks left the Southern states, boarding railroads to the North. These migrants saw in the rising economy of the Northern states the hope of improving their lot, if not the possibility of assimilating into the mainstream of American society. However, though blacks were able to escape the destitution of life in the South, the Great Migration brought them to a place where institutional racism was just as embedded in societal norms. Northern employment practices and housing conditions denied opportunities to advance up the economic ladder, presenting new forms of the same oppression blacks thought they had escaped from.

The South at the turn of the century was undergoing an economic transformation. After its defeat in the Civil War, the South had reverted to dependence on cotton as its major economic resource. With no developed industrial plant, blacks as well as whites were dependent on the one-crop economy for their economic livelihood. As sharecroppers or tenant farmers, blacks often tended the same fields as they worked as slaves fifty years before. This dependence proved to be damaging when a series of floods and boll weevil infestations reduced crop yields to dangerously low levels. With fewer arable fields to harvest and increasing mechanization of field work, the South suddenly found it "had too many people and too few jobs."1 The other lingering effect of the Civil War that remained was the Southern white belief in the lower social status of blacks. Increasingly, it was seen as more preferable to have whites doing menial tasks in farming and services once exclusively performed by blacks. As the Southern economy worsened, black workers were thrown off the land, and replaced with poor whites. With nowhere else to turn, unskilled black farm labor desperately began to look elsewhere to find a means of survival.

Northern capitalists, meanwhile, had harnessed the new technologies in industrial production and greatly expanded their plant capabilities, producing a huge economic expansion. The outbreak of World War II in 1917 produced a severe labor shortage as the pool of European immigrants needed to staff the plants were cut off by the war. Northern capitalists looked to the Southern black worker as an untapped labor pool available to exploit, while maintaining high profits and increased production.

The migration began when Northern factories started to send labor agents South to recruit workers. Former rural farm laborers, sharecroppers and other blacks marginalized by Southern economic changes saw the migration as a great opportunity. Enticed by higher wages and encouraged by family, friends and Northern black newspaper editorials, thousands of blacks sold their possessions to gain fare for the railroad trip North.

Factory jobs in the Northern cities, however, were not as glamorous as advertised. With the emphasis on technology and mechanized production, the skills many black craftsmen had practiced in the South went unwanted. White managers directed blacks into specific jobs, typically the most menial and dangerous tasks. In steel mills, blacks were often relegated to the blast furnace jobs. In automobile factories, metal foundry work. In meat-packing plants, janitorial and cleaning. On the whole, blacks found they were relegated to the 'undesirable jobs, arduous and unpleasant.'2.

The strength of white ethnic unions already participating in factory politics also served to block employment advancement for blacks. Union solidarity boosted only those of similar ethnic origin into supervisory or control positions. Without the political means to rise into these positions, blacks remained at the bottom of the economic ladder. In addition, white factory owners continually exploited black workers' low status and used it to their advantage. Owners often brought in blacks as strikebreakers to counter the power of the ethnic unions.

Though blacks were used as pawns in this class struggle between whites, they were blamed for causing the problems. In East St. Louis, the 1917 riots occurred when immigrant whites, angered at the use of black factory workers, went on a rampage and killed 125 mostly black workers.

Even though riots occurred in the North, one of the other primary reasons for the migration was the pervasive violence blacks endured as a group in the South, without any legal recourse. Lynchings were conducted without fear because of a Southern justice system that still did not recognize in practice the social and legal status of blacks. Court decisions and trials still viewed blacks as fundamentally separate from the dominant society. Jim Crow laws, literacy tests to vote, and the stifling of educational opportunities for blacks were all legally acceptable and enforceable, usually explained away in terms of state's rights and the sanctity of private property and contracts.

Similarly, ways to circumvent the legal status of blacks were also employed in the North. Newspaper editorials favoring limits on migration, property qualifications for voting, and miscegenation laws were just a few of the barriers imposed on blacks in the Northern states. More importantly, public accommodation laws passed to provide separate but equal facilities in fact created a segregated society easily susceptible to abuse and exploitation. The area most indicative of this institutionalized discrimination by custom was in housing. Arriving in Northern cities, most blacks settled in areas near other migrants, to ease the transition to a new life. Harlem in New York, the South Side of Chicago and similar areas of Detroit and Philadelphia all became staging grounds in what was hoped to be the first step toward assimilation into Northern life. The steady increases in the number of people migrating, however, quickly turned the already run-down conditions of the housing into slums. Physical and sanitary conditions quickly deteriorated. Many migrants, having just spent their entire life savings to move North, found themselves trapped in the overcrowded ghettoes.

As the urban black population soared, whites living on the borderlines of the rising ghettoes feared the invasion and transformation of formerly white enclaves. Poor whites, in particular, resented the huge influx of new residents. Probably influenced by Southern methods, they resorted to arson and bomb attacks to strike fear in recent migrants. Police help was often delayed or non-existent for the black victims of violence. In the late teens and early 1920's, race riots, lynchings and other tools of physical intimidation were used increasingly in the North to keep blacks away from white neighborhoods.

The most difficult barriers blocking escape from the ghettoes were restrictive covenants that prevented home sales to blacks by custom and enforced by law. In Chicago and other developing cities of the time, cities annexed and expanded into suburban areas made accessible by trolley, streetcar and commuter railroad. Many of these new areas were developed and controlled by neighborhood improvement associations. These groups considered sales to blacks and other minorities as detrimental to property values. Using deed restrictions and other legal contract techniques these associations effectively locked out for minorities nearly all of the new housing built in the early 1900's. Unable to establish the property roots necessary for economic and political establishment, blacks found themselves trapped in the deteriorating ghetto.

By the 1930's, the Great Migration had ended, a casualty of the widening effects of the Depression on Northern economies. For the three decades at the start of the 20th century, however, the Great Migration gave blacks the hope of attaining what seemed to be 'the Promised Land' - a place where the discrimination they suffered would at long last be changed. Black historians and writers see the Great Migration as a moment in history where blacks were provided with "new visions of opportunity, of social economic freedom, of a spirit to seize, even in the face of extortionate and heavy toll, a chance for the improvement of conditions.3"

This opportunity for freedom as well as economic salvation offered by Northern life brought many to the conclusion that a better life was just a train ride away. It was a dream that embodied full participation of everything America had to offer. However, the real experiences of blacks moving to the North were not as promising. Institutional racism embedded in the collective culture of the North prevented large gains in economic and political power for blacks.

The ultimate significance of the Great Migration was that it was a social revolution transforming a rural population into an urban culture within 30 years. It failed to provide the masses of people the power they desperately were so willing to change their destinies for. In the search for a structure that would allow them to participate, they found the same institutions and cultural views discriminated against them. The tragedy of blacks experienced during the Great Migration is that in the search for the common ideals of the American nation, the American nation believed those ideals did not extend to all.

1 Carole Marks in Alferdteen Harrison's Black Exodus - The Great Migration from the American South, p. 45
2 Benjamin Ringer, We the People and Others p.269
3 Alain Locke quote in E. Marvin Goodwin, Black Migration in America from 1915 to 1960, p. 14

back to fountain
send a comment
december 1999