Exploring the Great Migration

In celebration of Black History Month, Mount Holyoke’s Preston Smith talks about the Great Migration: its causes, repercussions and more.

Black Migrations is the national theme of Black History Month 2019, according to the event’s founding organization, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It presents an opportunity to reflect on a story 400 years in the making, as the first Africans arrived 400 years ago on slave ships in the Virginia colony, in 1619.

One particularly momentous period of migration was the Great Migration, said Preston H. Smith II, the chair of the Africana studies program and politics department and professor of politics. The term refers to the 20th-century flow of Southern black people from largely agrarian communities to Northern industrial cities in the East, Midwest and West. Southern blacks had migrated north during Reconstruction after the Civil War, Smith noted, but the scale of the 20th-century movement that began in 1916 was unparalleled.

“From 1916 to 1970, roughly 7 million black people left the South,” Smith said. “They went to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Boston. Of that number, a half million ended up in Chicago, making Chicago the second-largest black population after New York.”

The flow began with the start of World War I. While it slowed during the Depression, due to the lack of work, the migratory stream turned into a flood through World War II, as the war industry took off.

The era of the Great Migration ultimately resulted in the nationalizing of the country’s black population, Smith noted. No longer largely located in one region, they brought their families, labor, culture and energy to the rest of the nation, changing it in ways that still reverberate to this day.

In honor of the month, Smith spoke with Sasha Nyary of the Office of Communications and Marketing about the Great Migration, including its causes and repercussions.

The Great Migration seems like a fact of life for every African American. How has it escaped white America’s understanding for so long?

Because it’s not taught. And it’s not taught because it’s black history. We don’t teach black history in our schools. I’m sure many black people my age and maybe younger who were in elementary school studying social studies, and the only time black people came up was slavery. But who wants to be known only as a slave or enslaved? Now it’s either slavery or civil rights, Martin Luther King, maybe Rosa Parks. But that means movements like the Great Migration don’t get the kind of attention that they should. That’s why people don’t know about it.

The American people are woefully uneducated in this. And it’s a problem for all Americans. How many African Americans know about the Chinese Exclusions Acts in California? And how many know about the use of Chinese immigrant workers for building the railroads? There’s a broad history of people of color that everybody needs to know. All racial and ethnic groups need to know about their own histories, but we also need to know about how they connect to a broader history in the country.

Preston Smith’s expertise is in urban studies and postwar black politics, with an emphasis on housing and class. In his research he explores inner-city neighborhood revitalization, including economic development, affordable housing, quality public education, and equal and adequate delivery of municipal services.

Smith has been widely published and made numerous presentations. His most recent book is “Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago.” It examines housing debates in Chicago that go beyond black and white politics, showing how class and factional conflicts among African Americans actually helped to reproduce stunning segregation along economic lines. 


So what is that history? What are the push-and-pull factors that caused the Great Migration? 

Economic exploitation, social terror and political disenfranchisement were the push factors. The political push factors being Jim Crow, and in particular, disenfranchisement. Black people lost the ability to vote. The sort of day-to-day racial etiquette that reminded you constantly that you were subordinate to whites was part of Jim Crow. And then of course the terror that if you step out of line, you could be visited by a mob, taken away and never seen again. 

The economic push factor was the exploitation of sharecroppers, which many blacks became after emancipation. The system was rigged against sharecropping, which became a form of neo-slavery. It continued the plantation elites’ quest for having the cheapest agricultural labor they could get, for free or nearly free. 

As for the pull factors, many of the white men were fighting in the First World War, so they were not available to work in the factories. Anti-immigration sentiment was strong, very similar to the period we are in now. Restrictive legislation limited the flow of cheap industrial labor coming from Central and Eastern Europe. African Americans filled in during World War I and then, with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, continued to replace that labor. 

Newspapers like the Chicago Defender, business people, ministers, and politicians welcomed this stream of black people coming from the South. They pushed the idea that Chicago and other cities were the Promised Land, that it was better than the South. You didn’t have to worry about the lynch mob, you could find a job and sometimes the pay was better. 

But it wasn’t the Promised Land and that’s largely because of discrimination and exploitation. The cities were ambivalent about the presence of African Americans in their communities. On one hand, the industrialists needed the labor. But they didn’t prepare cities for this influx of black Southerners. So people were crowded into black areas. In Chicago it’s called the Black Belt, jammed into eight square miles. At one point the population density in the Black Belt rivaled Kolkata, India. 

The boundaries were defined and the whites policed them first with violence, such as bombings, and then through racially restrictive covenants. They wrote private agreements into the deeds of property. These contracts required the owner not to sell or lease to Jews or Asian Americans as well as blacks, and in cases like Chicago, Mexican Americans. 

Did the people who migrated north tend to go to specific cities? 

The migrations throughout this period were geographical. In Chicago, the biggest feeder state was Mississippi — people called Chicago “upper Mississippi.” In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, they came from the Carolinas and Georgia. Alabama was a feeder for Cleveland. 

During World War I, the migration was dependent on the railroad. And so in Chicago it was the IC — the Illinois Central line — which began in New Orleans and went through the Mississippi Delta, stopped in Memphis and then St. Louis, and ended up in Chicago. Later migrants came on roads, usually on Greyhound buses. 

During World War II, a number of ammunition plants and shipyards were created on the West Coast. So what you find there are the first significant black populations, in particular in Seattle and Portland, and then in the Bay Area. I like to point out to my students that of the three leaders of the Black Panther party, Huey Newton’s people came from Louisiana — in fact he was named after Huey P. Long. Bobby Seale came from Texas, and Eldridge Cleaver’s people came from Arkansas. Those were the three states that fed the West coast. 

How has the legacy of the Great Migration affected the black community today? 

First of all, the African-American population became nationalized. Obviously, there were always  black people in the North and in the West, but in tiny, tiny numbers. The bulk of African Americans were in the American South, because of slavery. And so what this accomplished was a kind of redistribution, if you will, of black bodies to other parts of the country. And of course it meant that whites had to confront black people in other parts of the country. 

The Urban League, which was created by both black and white elites, was designed to help black migrants adjust to urban industrial life — and that meant behaviorally at work and home, it meant decorum in public, and it meant race relations. Many people who migrated had already had some experience in industries in the South, so this idea that you’ve taken someone right off the farm was more of a stereotype, and was used to denigrate black Southern migrants for their supposed lack of sophistication and their inability to navigate complex and anonymous social life of large northern industrial cities.

Secondly, would you have had a Harlem Renaissance without the black migration? If all those folks, or their parents, had not migrated from the South, would you have had the flourishing black culture that emerged in many northern cities? Of course the Harlem Renaissance comes in the 1920s, so it’s happening at the same time as the Great Migration, but it also feeds it in terms of the audience and adds to the grandeur and pull of Harlem as the capital of black America. So there was an outpouring of the arts — visual, musical, literary — in New York and also Washington, D.C., Chicago and Paris — a number of noted African Americans emigrated to Africa and Europe. 

Chicago’s Bronzeville rivaled Harlem. There wouldn’t be a Bronzeville without the black migration. Bronzeville was all about black entrepreneurs such as Jesse Binga who created a bank, and Robert Abbott who was the editor of the Chicago Defender. And there wouldn’t be a black metropolis if it hadn’t been for black working class migrants, many of them industrial workers, buying newspapers, putting their deposits in black banks, taking out insurance from black insurance companies. They made it happen. 

And now there’s a reverse migration? 

More black people are going to the South now than coming north. That’s because there are more opportunities often, and more comfort there. You know, people who feel like either they or their parents have property there or family there, or it’s an easier life. So there’s been a return migration since 1970. 

A million black people used to live in Chicago, as of the 2000 census, and now it’s down to 850,000. So 150,000 black people have left. Are they still in the North, still in Illinois, in the suburbs, or did they move South? Did they move to Atlanta? Did they move to Charlotte? That’s a phenomenon.

Where will you go? Schedule a visit.