The Great Migration

Between 1910 and 1930 the African-American population outside the southern United States more than doubled as over a million African-American relocated outside the region. The Great Migration is usually characterized by focus on mass movement beginning in 1910 and amplified by war time economic opportunity during WWI (1916-1919) and continued into the 1920s.  In addition, wartime opportunity during WWII (1940-1945) offered a second wave of African-American migrants.  Despite the emphasis on the 1910-1929 period, African Americans valued mobility immediately after the end of slavery. 

In the period after Reconstruction thousands of African Americans made the decision to relocated to  locations in western states like Kansas and Oklahoma and other points outside the South.  The movement after 1910 stands out for several reasons. First, in contrast to earlier mobility, this period is dominated by rural to urban relocation.  Second, African-Americans are judging the decision to move in the midst of systematic political disenfranchisement throughout the South.  While violence threaten life and property, the introduction of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy, and residency tests stripped African-Americans of political power adding to realization that relocation outside the region was necessary. 

Economic realities played a crucial role in pulling African-American migrants out of the South. African-American economic opportunities were limited by racism and environmental factors.  Sharecroppers (black and white) faced severe economic setbacks in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Depressed crop prices, flooding, and Boll Weevil infestation undermined the agricultural economy for all southerners.   Not surprisingly, this period saw massive rural to urban migration within the region swelling the size of southern cities. For African-Americans facing competition from hostile whites and Jim Crow restrictions leaving the region made social, economic, and political sense. 

African-Americans were drawn by real and imagined opportunities in the North.  Industrial development in northern cities created jobs for African-Americans in factories as white workers left unskilled service sector jobs and moved into higher paying positions.  In addition, the demand for war materials increased labor needs just as the global conflict limited the supply of new immigrants coming to the United States.  With the domestic labor pool impacted by wartime mobilization and demand high, African-American were able to move into labor market in large numbers.  Encourage by the perception of a more open social climate, African-American made a calculated decision to embrace migration between 1910 and 1929.

The growth of the African-American community in major northern cities transform those communities.  Chicago, which served as a major destination for many African-American migrants from the deep South is a perfect example.  Before the migration, the African-Americans population was close to 40,000 residents.  By 1930, the African-American population exceeded 200,000 in the city.  More than a simple increase in population, African Americans in Chicago created a vibrant culture characterized by explosion in arts, institutions, and activism related to the black experience.  The large African-American population stimulated the development of black media, which in turn helped the development of African-American political and social influence in the region. The growth of African-American newspapers was crucial as flag ship publications such as the Chicago Defender helped to drive migration by enticing southern readers.  At the same time, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the National Urban League all championed African-American civil rights and community improvement thorough their own publications.  After WWI, an explosion of African-American literature, theater, and art, commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance, launched the career of seminal musicians, authors, and intellectuals, many of whom were published in these forums.

Not all the changes associated with the Great Migration were beneficial.  The out-migration from the South and sudden expansion of African-American communities in the North heighten racial tension in both regions.  Southerners feared the loss of black labor and white northerners saw African-American migrants as competition in the labor market.  Anti-black violence in the North, like that found in the South was not uncommon. The infamous 1919 Chicago race riot serves as a vivid reminder of the tension that lay beneath the surface of northern cities with new and vibrant African-American populations.  Building new institutions also created schism within the African-American community as differences in approach between African-American leaders became visible.

During this period Marcus Garvey and the UNIA emerged as the leader of a grassroots black nationalist movement in the United States.  Garvey’s UNIA differed in tone and approach to the established group such as NAACP. The UNIA promoted economic and political independence for all people of African ancestry.  Garvey call for a “return to Africa” and broader separatist agenda were criticized by W.E.B Dubois and James Weldon Johnson.  The clash between Garvey and mainstream African-American leaders called into question the social and economic perspective used to shape African-American organizations. In addition, African-American intellectual flourished providing platform for artists and scholars to explore the meaning of blackness in the United States. 

One such voice belong to Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist raised in Eatonville, Florida. Hurston was a star of the Harlem Renaissance and leading academic advocating for greater understanding of African-American culture. Hurston is remembered for her efforts to document African-American life with novels such as Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), Tell My Horse (1937) Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). These works, combined with her non-fiction writing and her autobiography rejected ideas of black victimhood.  Like Garvey, Hurston can be viewed as voice calling for African-American self-realization, apart from the social integration commonly associated with the struggle against racism championed by figures such as W.E.B. Dubois and organization such as the NAACP. 

Dubois’ emphasis on African-American engagement to achieve full political and social equality has long been identified as shaping social and political perspective for many African-Americans in this period. Yet, this interpretation has come under scrutiny as scholars have come to acknowledge the agency of  working-class and rural African-American engaged in resistance to white hegemony.  In the urban North and rural South we can see African Americans struggling against discrimination. These struggles did not necessarily follow the legal and social stratagem championed by Dubois. The gap between elite and versus working-class is increasingly a point of inquiry for scholars examining the period. Indeed, the clash between Dubois and Garvey in the 1920s highlights the tension over concepts of separatism versus integration for people of African descent not just in the United States, but around the world.

The immediate impact of the Great Migration and subsequent communal activism came to an end with the stock market crash in 1929. The economic depression that followed destroyed the work opportunities and urban vibrancy that drove the African-American migration in this period. Nonetheless, the impact of the period set the stage for African-American social, political, and economic life that would continue into the rest of the twentieth century.

The Era of the Great Migration and Its Impact

  1. I.Migration and Emigration

African-American Newspapers played a pivotal role mobilizing African-Americans considering the difficult journey north.  The following resources explore the context of migration using letters and stories related to the African-American perspective.

In the aftermath of Civil War--Reconstruction and Sharecropping

Still Living Under the Bonds of Slavery--Minnie Whitney Describes Sharecropping at Turn of the Century

The Chicago Defender: An Overview

Goin’ to Chicago: The Migration Process (film Clip)

Letters of Negro Migrants Seeking Assistance for Migration (1916-1919)

Letters from Mississippi to the Chicago Defender (1916-1918)

Chicago Defender: Checking Migration (1919)

  1. II. Images of Great Migration

Photos of the Great Migration are rare and those that do exist provide extremely diverse depictions of migrants and their world.  The images here reveal the people, places, and institutions associated with migration and post-migration life.

Images of the Great Migration

Library of Congress, African-American Mosaic--Chicago: Destination for the Great Migration

Racism and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Florida: The collection contains images throughout the twentieth century.

  1. III.  Social and Economic Impact of the Great Migration

The rapid growth of the African-American community in the North created new opportunities and heightened social tension. These resources provide insight into the economic and social landscape created by the Great Migration.

The Crisis Discusses Housing Discrimination in Baltimore, (1910)

The Chicago Defender Offers Tips on Fighting Discrimination (1914)

Occupation of African-American Workers in Pittsburgh, 1916-1917

African-American Newspaper Report on African-American labor struggles during WWI

The Extent of Negro Progress (1922)

Occupation of African-American Women in New York (1922)

The Poetry of the Great Migration

  1. IV. Ideology and Perspective in the Era of the Great Migration

While we are often treated to a unified narrative of the period of the Great Migration and its aftermath, the period is full of conflicting voices.  While anti-black rhetoric and violence from whites are a common focus, within the African-American community, there is ongoing debate about the way forward for African-American progress.

The Tenth Annual Report of the NAACP (1919)

W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Social Equality of Whites and Blacks," The Crisis, XXI (November, 1920), p. 16.

The Negro’s Greatest Enemy By Marcus Garvey

How It Feels To Be Colored Me by Zora Neale Hurston

  1. V. Recommended Readings

My examination of the Great Migration and its impact will be broad, but it will incorporate a close examination of the Florida experience.  The work of Paul Ortiz is a great source to understand this period.  For a broader narrative of the Great Migration, James Grossman has written an excellent study that examines Chicago and the Great Migration.

Paul Ortiz, Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (2006)

James Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989)

George King. “Goin to Chicago and African American ‘Great Migrations’.” Southern Spaces, December 2, 2010,

This page is intended to serve as a resource for participants in the Florida Humanities Council  workshop for Pinellas County History Teachers on the Great War and the Great Migration. As I have been asked to discuss the Great Migration, the information here examines that issue, but in an effort to provide a fuller context, I have framed the discussion in terms of 1910 to 1929 period.