African-American Migration

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John D. Baskerville, Ph.D.

University of Northern Iowa

Spring 2001

    In June of 1916, a young African-American girl from Alexandria, Louisiana, wrote a letter to the Chicago Defender newspaper asking for assistance. In her letter she wrote: "I have a mother and father my father do all he can for me but it is so hard. A child with any respect about her self or his self [sic] wouldn’t like to see there mother and father work so hard and earn nothing I feel my duty to help" (Holt and Brown, 2000). This young girl, like many southern Negroes in the first decades of the twentieth century, had concluded that life in the South was no longer tolerable. She, like hundreds of thousands other African-Americans, decided that a better life and opportunities lay elsewhere, namely the industrialized North and in the West. She was looking to become one of the estimated one million African-Americans who moved from rural areas in the South to urban areas in the North and West between the years 1915 to 1920. This mass exodus has been commonly referred to as the "Great Rural-Urban Migration."

    The mass migration of African-Americans to the North and West during the early decades of the twentieth century not only changed the racial composition of these regions, but also helped to produce great tension within the African-American population. This tension, caused by the racial barriers impeding African-American progress and the realization of the "American Dream," forced African-Americans to look inward and engage in a cultural revitalization movement. This movement aided in the revival and strengthening of central cultural beliefs and values and helped to build strong productive communities.

    The migration of African-Americans that roughly began in the opening decades of the twentieth century was not the first mass movement of African-American in this nation. Shortly after the Civil War, large numbers of newly freed men and women left the plantations where they had served as slaves and moved to new areas, but most remained primarily in the South. According to estimates by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (a.k.a. Freedmen’s Bureau), 91 percent of the five million African-Americans who lived in the United States during this period resided in southern states and constituted 36 percent of the total population of the South (Africana, 1st ed., s.v. "great migration"). Then, in 1879, roughly six thousand African-Americans caught "Kansas Fever" and migrated to Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. This exodus to Kansas and other points in the Midwest can be viewed as a prelude to the massive migration that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century because of the similar stimulus that provoked both groups’ actions.

Push/Pull Factors That Stimulated the Migration

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, most southern Negroes worked in either agriculture (sharecroppers and tenant farmers) or domestic service. Between the years 1913 to 1915, many states in the South were experiencing an economic depression due to the falling price of cotton (which many southern states continued to depend upon even after the Civil War and emancipation). Then, in 1914, the southern cotton industry experienced another catastrophic blow in the form of a tiny insect. The boll weevil emerged from eastern Texas to ravish the cotton crops in other cotton-growing regions throughout the South.

With its protruding snout and stunted wings, the boll weevil looks part beetle, part aardvark, and has no natural enemies in the American South. As it worked its way slowly across the region, ravaging cotton fields, and ruining cotton farmers, it radically changed the economy. It brought a diversification of crops, helped the study of pesticides, and speeded the northward migration of black farm workers (The Economist, 1998).


    In 1915, the agriculture industry in the state of Mississippi received a third strike, and for many a deathblow, in the form of flooding. Similar to the floods that decimated the Midwest during the summer of 1993, the floodwaters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries engulfed the Mississippi Valley, leaving the farmland useless and many African-American families in the region homeless. With very few options readily available and no crops to harvest, thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, as well merchants, headed north to escape ruin and try life in the cities.

    The First World War that began in Europe in 1914 had a "double-edged" effect on the industrialized regions of the United States (primarily located in the northern states). On the one hand, the hostilities among the European nations helped to increase production in the factories of the North; the war also effectively cut off the nation’s supply of cheap immigrant labor. This labor shortage became even more critical when the United States entered the conflict in 1917. In need of affordable labor, northern industrialists began to recruit southerners (black and white) by offering free train tickets to destinations in the North and West. For many of these southerners, especially African-Americans, the North offered a great economic opportunity. Wages in the South at this time ranged from fifty cents to two dollars a day, where in the northern factories some laborers could earn as high as five dollars a day (Africana, 1st ed., s.v. "great migration"). For the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, employment in the factories of the urban North offered a way out of debt slavery that had trapped many of them since the end of Reconstruction as well as a way of improving their social existence.

    Since the end of the Civil War and with the end of slavery, white southerners fought to "keep Nigras in their place." Although the removal of federal troops from the South in 1877 as part of the Hayes Compromise made this much easier, southern whites continued to look for so-called "legal means" of returning African-Americans to their previous inferior status. With the enactment of the "Grandfather Clause" beginning in 1895, which effectively disenfranchised thousands of southern Negroes, and the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized the separation of the races in all aspects of everyday life, white southerners discovered that state constitutions could be used to reinforce their position of superiority. Even with these "legitimate means" at their disposal, southern whites still relied on their most effective means of controlling the African-American population – lynching.

    Between 1900 and 1920, more than eleven hundred African-Americans were lynched in southern and border states, with most being black men unjustly accused of raping white women. Actually, no formal charges were necessary – one could find oneself at the end of a rope for a perceived transgression against any accepted societal practices. Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote:

Just as the lynch-law regime came to a close in the West, a new mob movement started in the South. This was wholly political, its purpose being to suppress the colored vote by intimidation and murder. Thousands of assassins banded together under the names Ku Klux Klans, "Midnight Raiders", "Knights of the Golden Circle", et cetera, et cetera, spread a reign of terror. By beating, shooting and killing colored people by the thousands. In a few years, the purpose was accomplished and the black vote suppressed. But, mob murder continued (Wells-Barnett, 1909).

    African-Americans living in the South reacted to these negative conditions, and hopeful prospects, by leaving for destinations such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Harlem, and St. Louis – increasing the black populations in these cities drastically. Many spoke of this mass movement in biblical terms, equating it with the Israelites leaving Egypt, headed for "The Promised Land."

"Lead Me into the Promised Land?"

    The religious imagery of the North as the "Promised Land" was not new to African-Americans or a creation of the early twentieth century. Since the days of the peculiar institution, African-American men and women in bondage sang coded songs of freedom, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away to Jesus," steeped with biblical imagery.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

My Lord, He calls me,

He calls me by the thunder,

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Green trees a-bending,

Po’ sinner stands a-trembling,

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

    This heavenly image of the North was reinforced by editorials written in northern black newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender, by industrial recruiters, and by family members who left years earlier in search of economic and social betterment. Letters home from family members in the North exposed southern blacks to the possibilities available in the urban centers in the industrialized North.

Julia C. Hunt’s sister, R. V., left Texas and moved to Boston in the 1920s. In letters to her sister, R. V. wrote about meeting black people from Africa, attending concerts with her white friends and earning a degree in music from a white school . . .. Southern African Americans also heard about life in the North from friends and relatives who came back to the South for visits . . .. They came home dressed in their finest clothes. Some drove brand new cars, which were often rented or soon to be repossessed. Others told tall stories. A "great job" at U. S. Steel, for example, actually meant pushing a broom ("The ‘Great Migration’ . . .", 2001).

    Regardless of exaggerations made, many southern African-Americans came to the conclusion that life in the North could not be any worse than life in the South and made arrangements to secure passage to the "Land of Freedom."

"Back to that Same Ol’ Place": The Realities of the Northern Life

    Arriving primarily by train, southern African-Americans poured into urban centers of the North and West. The cheapest and most direct route generally determined migration streams. African-Americans, whose points of origin were located on the East coast, generally migrated to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Those who originated from the states of Georgia and Alabama usually headed for Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Chicago was primarily favored by African-Americans from Mississippi and Louisiana ("The ‘Great Migration’ . . .," 2001). Having arrived, it would not be long before these uninitiated pilgrims, some with soft country ways, would discover that the Promised Land could be a cold-hearted place.

    Many, having come in search of economic betterment, soon found that securing employment in the North was not effortless or necessarily safe. The recruiters who invaded the South, armed with free train passes and promises of fortunes to be made, failed to inform many of their black prospects that they were to serve as strikebreakers in the northern factories. One such scenario transpired in Waterloo, Iowa – a small, yet important, industrialized city within the state.

    In the fall of 1911 the Illinois Central Railroad Corporation witnessed a strike at its maintenance and repair terminal in Waterloo, Iowa. Since the strike had the potential to shutdown operations not only in northern Iowa but also in the entire Midwest, corporate officials attempted to squelch the strike by hiring replacement workers. The Illinois Central hired white non-union workers (locally and nationally) for the skilled, higher paying positions and recruited African-American men in the vicinity of its Watervalley, Mississippi plant for the unskilled positions in the shop. Once arrived in the city, the new recruits faced a hostile reception. According to historian Robert Neymeyer:

Many Waterloo residents supported the strikers’ demands for union recognition, and most were sympathetic to their desire for greater economic security. Understandably, local people looked with hostility at the Southern workers brought into the community by company officials for the express purpose of breaking the strike. Combined with racial prejudice, this enmity made for generally hostile public feelings towards the city’s growing black population . . .. Local journalists argued that the rising black population brought lawlessness to the city, ignoring the fact that white citizens . . . directed most underworld activity on the East Side (Neymeyer, 1980).

    Those migrants who did not find themselves being used as pawns in labor disputes soon discovered that the only work available to African-Americans were the jobs their white counterparts did not want. Even those fortunate enough to have received a college education were steered into menial jobs regardless of their qualifications. Educated African-Americans who attempted to apply for clerical positions were repeatedly told that there was nothing available in "their line of work" – meaning, of course, manual labor.

    Another form of discrimination experienced by the newly arrived migrants arose in the area of housing. Although most public facilities in the North were, in general, integrated at this time, northern African-Americans continued to live in areas segregated from the whites. Because white property owners and Realtors refused to sell or rent African-Americans homes or apartments in so-called white neighborhoods, African-Americans found themselves relegated to specific areas within the cities of the North. These areas were characteristically overcrowded and sometimes unhealthy, primarily due to the sheer number of people forced to reside within a relatively few blocks. White Realtors soon began to capitalize on racial animosities by engaging in the practice of "blockbusting," which caused panic selling among white homeowners and increased racial tensions even further. Those African-Americans courageous enough to buy homes in white neighborhoods soon discovered that whites in the North could be as violent as southern whites when it came to the separation of the races. African-American homeowners were threatened and beaten, while their homes were bombed and burned to force them out of the area. These forms of intimidation were about more than punishing those who attempted to cross racial boundaries; they were designed to serve as warnings to other African-Americans contemplating any similar racial transgressions.

    Many of the African-Americans who traveled North during the Great Migration assumed that leaving the South meant leaving such acts of racial violence behind; of course, this was not the case. Because northern white workers feared the potential economic and political competition posed by the presence of African-Americans, individual and group animosities sometimes escalated into acts of mob violence. For example, in the summer of 1919 (commonly referred to as the "Red Summer") twenty-two race riots occurred in cities throughout the United States, with the worst occurring in Chicago in July of that year (Franklin and Moss, 2000). These riots were usually prompted one of two ways: by 1) white residents angered by some perceived or real encroachment by an individual African-American or group of African-Americans, or by 2) African-American residents retaliating against some act of violence committed by white residents or police officials against another African-American. Beyond the major incidents, northern African-Americans confronted individual racial hostilities and various forms of discrimination on a daily basis, ranging from higher rents and food prices to refusal of service in white-owned establishments.

Looking Inward: Unmet Expectations and Cultural Revitalization

    The optimism that overwhelmed many of the new migrants was part of a more pervasive and growing attitude that was engulfing many in black America at this time. African-Americans everywhere during the early decades of the twentieth century anticipated great changes in their lives – economically, socially, and culturally. Inspired by leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, who were convinced that the road to black advancement could be achieved through hard work, thrift, and a resolute will, a number of African-Americans were convinced that freedom and equality was right around the corner. In addition, African-American men joined the Armed Forces in large numbers, in hopes of proving to white Americans that they were worthy of full citizenship. In the July 1918 edition of Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote:

We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome [of the war with Germany]. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equally, freedom and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.

    The massive wave of optimism that had once swept across black America soon proved to be nothing more than ripples of false promise. While it is undeniable that life in the North offered more opportunities for African-Americans than the South, it was far from being the promised land spoke of in the spirituals. The nation responded to African-American "hard work, thrift and resolute will" by allowing 25,000 Klansmen to parade boldly through the streets of Atlanta to celebrate the opening of D. W. Griffith’s racist epic "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, a film about which President Woodrow Wilson declared, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Finally, the African-American soldiers who volunteered for armed service in order to "prove their patriotism and loyalty to democracy," soon found themselves serving in a segregated Army and that democracy would not be theirs once they were back home – actually risking being lynched if they wore their uniforms in the South.

    African-Americans responded to these indignities and the "demonstrated failure of the American success ethos" in a variety of ways. According to Lawrence W. Levine:

Implicit in all of these reactions was a heightened tendency to look inward, to reach within the community for protection, understanding and sustenance . . .. The impetus it gave to internal development and to searching within Afro-American culture and looking to the black people themselves for those things necessary to survival and the building of a meaningful dream (Levine, 1982).

    Anthropologist Anthony Wallace describes this process of looking inward for strength and support as a revitalization movement: "a deliberate, organized conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture." The ensuing culture is "one that comes closer to their longstanding [sic] dreams and expectations" (Levine, 1982; Wallace, 1966).

    For African-Americans, cultural revitalization has meant the revival of central cultural beliefs and values that have sustained the African-American community since the period of enslavement. Cultural beliefs and values are what Cornel West (1993) describes as "cultural structures of meaning and feeling that created and sustained communities; . . . ways of life and struggle that embodied values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence."

    As early arrivals found employment and housing and began to establish themselves within their respective communities, many sent train tickets and money back home so that others might join them in the North. As families and friends were reunited, African-Americans worked towards becoming socially self-sufficient through building their own communities – essentially enclaves isolated from the larger white community.

    As this current exhibit demonstrates, African-American migrants worked diligently to establish communal networks of support and institutions, in spite of the covert and overt forms racism that confronted them on a daily basis. One of the first institutions established was the church, which served as the foundation of many African-American communities.

    With many originating in storefronts, black churches, besides providing spiritual and moral guidance, engaged in a number of activities designed to make the transition to the North more tolerable. Churches served as multifunctional mutual aid societies to newly arrived migrants -- offering lessons in reading and city living, supplying information on employment opportunities, and by providing clothing, hot meals, and temporary shelter to those who came to the North unprepared. Probably the most important role played by the church was in the area of leadership. Churches served as "important outlets for the expression of black opinion on public issues," while pastors and ministers served as "conduits" to the city governments, voicing the concerns of their black constituents (Neymeyer 1980).

    After establishing churches, African-American continued to establish other institutions that symbolized their desire to be socially self-sufficient. Fraternal orders and benevolent associations were common and numerous in African-American communities throughout the North. Organizations such as Prince Hall Masons, the Knights of Pythias, and the Fraternal Order of Elks offered black men the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills, whereas organizations such as the Order of the Eastern Star and various women’s clubs gave black women the opportunity to contribute to their communities through philanthropy, promote the socialization of young girls, and to socialize with other women outside of the gaze of men. In addition, these organizations offered their members insurance policies against sickness and death, aided widows and orphans of deceased members, and provided members opportunities to make business contacts.

    African-American communities also witnessed a rise in the number of black-owned businesses -- primarily due to the continued influx of new arrivals. Many of these African-American entrepreneurs and professionals previously owned businesses in the South that catered primarily to African-Americans. However, as African-Americans began to leave the South in record numbers, these businessmen and women were forced to follow their clientele to the North. Discrimination by white merchants, close proximity, and providing the right goods and services, as well as racial solidarity, helped black-owned businesses to thrive in the North. Some of these businessmen would eventually become involved in politics and were eventually elected to public office.

    The segregation of African-Americans into enclaves within cities produced an unforeseen consequence to many in the white community. Because of the steady influx of African-Americans into these urban areas throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and the eventual expansion of these areas, African-American communities began to represent entire voting districts. Having access to the franchise in the North, African-American voters were able to elect African-Americans to positions in city governments and eventually to state and federal posts as well. A number white politicians, in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia, found themselves having to solicit African-American voters to ensure their election to office. Having come from the South where they had no political voice, African-American voters took their franchise very seriously, making sure candidates represented their best interests while in office.

    In addition to the progress that occurred in the areas of business and politics, African-American arts were flourishing as well. African-American writers, visual artists, and musicians created works that reflected the revitalized, "inward looking" sentiment of times and drew upon traditional forms of cultural expression. Known under the umbrella phrase "The Harlem Renaissance," African-American creative energy focused on portraying black people as "The New Negro" – one who was proud of his/her race and looked to the African-American and African past for inspiration. African-American musicians and composers revisited the blues, African rhythms, and the spirituals of enslavement; black musical theater brought African-American and African dances to mainstream audiences; black visual artists attempted to capture the beauty and majesty of the black physique; and black writers portrayed black people as multi-dimensional characters, rather than the stereotypical caricatures used in the past.


    The mass migration of African-Americans in the early decades of twentieth century and the continuous flow of African-Americans from the southern United States throughout the middle decades to areas in the North and West has had a major impact on the nation as a whole. "For those who participated in it, and even for their children and grandchildren, the great Migration continues to resonate as one of the most powerful stories of African-American struggle and opportunity" (Africana, 1st ed., s.v. "great migration"). Its impact cannot only be seen in composition of the nation’s cities, but it can also be seen in various components of African-American culture. Its impact can be seen in the face of government, business, and the media.


Du Bois, W. E. B. 1918. "Close Ranks". In Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices, Resistance, and Renewal, ed. Manning Marable and Leith Mullings. 242-243. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. 2000. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, 8th Ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. 1997. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton.

Holt, Thomas C. and Elsa Barkley Brown, eds. 2000. Major Problems in African- American History, Vol. II: From Freedom to "Freedom Now," 1865-1990s. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Jes' a-lookin' for a home: boll-weevil trouble. 1998. The Economist, June 27, 1998 v347 n8074 p29(2).

Levine, Lawrence W. 1982. "Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization". In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, eds. John Hope Franklin and August Meier. 105-138. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Neymeyer, Robert. 1980. "May Harmony Prevail: The Early History of Black
Waterloo". The Palimpsest 61 (3): 80-91.

"The ‘Great Migration’ of African American from the Rural South to the Urban North: From Southern Fields to Northern Factories." National History Day website. Available from History Day/teach98/lesson1/lesson1_text.htm. Internet. Accessed 23 February 2001. 

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1966. Religion: An Anthropological View. New York: Random House. Quoted in Levine, Lawrence W. 1982. "Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization". In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, eds. John Hope Franklin and August Meier. 105-138. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1909. Speech Delivered at the National Negro Conference, 1909. In Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices, Resistance, and Renewal, ed. Manning Marable and Leith Mullings. 209-212. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

West, Cornell. 1993. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press.

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