Great Migration, The


The Great Migration refers to the relocation of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural areas of the South to urban areas in the North during the years between 1915 and 1930. Although many of those who left the rural South migrated to southern urban areas, most migrants moved to cities in the North. It was the largest movement northward and into cities that had occurred among African Americans to that point in history. The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 played an important role in this movement, as the demand for additional labor grew in war-related industries at the same time that white workers were siphoned off to serve in the armed forces. Immigration also slowed dramatically, removing another source of labor for American industry. African American labor was one of the key alternative sources sought by these industries to enable them to respond to the growing demand for war-related goods. Industrial jobs that had not been previously available to African Americans now became accessible in greater quantity and variety. This flood of African American migrants dramatically changed the demography of many cities in both the North and South, as the percentage of African American residents exploded. Cities like New York; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Chicago, Illinois, saw their African American populations grow by 50 percent or more during this period. This population surge placed great pressure on the municipal services and housing supply of these cities. It created growing tension between residents as they competed for places to live and for jobs, particularly after the war ended. As a consequence, the Great Migration pushed issues of race more to the forefront in the North. It also heightened these issues for the South as concern increased about the loss of workers in rural areas and the presence of growing African American populations in some of its cities. The movement added greater impact to a statement made by the African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, who posited in 1903 that one of the critical issues of the twentieth century would be the question of the color line.

Leaving Oppression

For the Sunny South. An Airship with a "Jim Crow" Trailer.

On the eve of World War I, living conditions for African Americans in the South were oppressive. Segregation and discrimination dominated nearly every aspect of their lives. Jim Crow laws and outright intimidation dictated where they went to school, where they sat on public transportation, where they lived, and whether they could assert their right to vote. In Virginia, their political status was clearly impacted by the Virginia Constitution of 1902, which included a poll tax provision and an “understanding” clause—additional layers of screening for citizens who would otherwise qualify to vote. Under these provisions, local registrars were given the authority to charge a fee (a tax) to voters, as well as to ask random questions of potential voters in order to determine their qualification to vote. African Americans rarely passed these “tests,” and therefore were not allowed to register. The Virginia Constitution, consequently, dramatically reduced the number of African Americans who qualified to vote and essentially removed them from the political process.

Other statutes in the state further reinforced the lower status of African Americans. Virginia state law required the separation of riders in railroad cars, on steamboats, and in streetcars. It also barred black and white children from attending the same schools and authorized the creation of “segregation districts” in cities. Under this law city councils were to prepare maps showing the boundaries of the segregated areas and detailing the numbers of white or black persons living within each segregation district. African Americans were not to move into white districts and whites were not to move into African American districts.

In the years leading up to the Great Migration, two-thirds of African Americans in the South lived in rural areas, working in lumber camps, as farm laborers, or as sharecroppers who rented land on which they grew crops to make a living. While cotton was the primary crop in most southern states, it did not dominate in Virginia, which was more agriculturally diversified through the cultivation of tobacco, wheat, and vegetables. This work provided a meager existence for most black laborers, who were fortunate when they earned enough merely to cover expenses for the year. But employment options were limited since access to the better-paying industrial jobs was not available to them.

Lynching of Jesse Washington

The threat of violence also hung over their lives. African Americans were expected to accept their status at the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder humbly and deferentially. Challenges to the system could result in serious consequences ranging from threats to physical beatings to death as a way of reminding African Americans of their “place.” Lynching—an almost ritualized act of torture and murder—was widespread throughout the South between 1890 and 1930. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recorded more than 2,000 lynchings during this period. Virginia had a relatively lower number of these occurrences than did other southern states, but they did take place. Two men, for example, were lynched in 1917 and one in 1918. These incidents stood as a powerful warning to African Americans across the state of the possible consequences of defying their unequal status. This reminder was reinforced through numerous additional non-fatal, but highly intimidating actions directed toward African Americans. For example, in July 1910, black Norfolk citizens who were celebrating the victory of African American boxer Jack Johnson over his white opponent Jim Jeffries were pulled from streetcars and beaten for “being insolent.” This combination of physical intimidation, social control, and economic restriction left African Americans struggling to carve out a productive and relatively safe place for themselves within southern society.

Urban and Northern Realities

At the start of World War I, large numbers of African Americans made the decision to leave the South and to take advantage of new opportunities in the North. It is estimated that between 1910 and 1920 more than four hundred thousand people left, and that between 1920 and 1930 at least another half million people relocated north. A majority of these migrants were residents of Deep South states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where living conditions were particularly harsh. Floods, boll weevil attacks on cotton, lynchings, and segregation were among factors pushing them to leave. These migrants traveled either by boat up the Mississippi River or used the Illinois Central Railroad to go to Saint Louis, Missouri; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Chicago. Residents of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia who made the decision to leave used the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Southern Railway, or boats on the Ohio River for transport to Gary, Indiana; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Detroit, Michigan.

Princess Anne

Residents of the Atlantic seaboard migrating from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, or Maryland also had several options. They could travel by boat using the ports of Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; or Baltimore, Maryland; to go to Philadelphia,; New York; Newark, New Jersey; or Boston, Massachusetts. The Old Dominion Line ran boats twice a week from Virginia to New York, and in the 1920s a family of four could make this trip for about $25. This was not inexpensive, but a family’s commitment to saving for such an important purpose made the trip achievable. They also had the option to travel on the Atlantic Coast or the Southern railroads to Washington, D.C., where they could transfer to the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose lines ran north toward New York or west toward Pittsburgh. Train fare from Virginia to New York was about $7.50. During this twenty-year period, more than two hundred thousand African Americans from Virginia left the state.

The pathway north was not usually a straight journey from southern rural locations to northern cities. Migrants made several stops along the way, often during the course of several months, before they reached their final destination. Most often the first move in this process of “step migration” was to towns and cities within their home state, particularly to places where job opportunities were expanding because of the war. In Virginia, Richmond and Norfolk experienced significant increases in African American residents during this period. Richmond’s population grew by 12 percent and Norfolk’s by more than 70 percent. Richmond was home to one of the largest locomotive plants in the world, a major flour mill, significant tobacco operations, and important iron manufacturing companies. Early in the war Norfolk was selected as one of the key embarkation points for troops and supplies going to Europe. As one of the primary naval bases on the Atlantic Coast, it needed workers. Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock, Texas Oil, and British-American Tobacco, among others, sought dock workers and laborers to help them manufacture and ship materials.

The chance to make more money and improve one’s circumstances was a strong draw. African American workers hoped in the process to gain access to jobs in well-established companies that might stretch out into the future. For some this move met their expectations and they settled into their new lives for the long term, but for others this proved to be only a temporary stop. Whatever those residents found in these cities did not provide enough incentive to stay. A number of issues impacted the decision whether to stay or to go.

Richmond Street Scene

Along with increased wages, migrants hoped to find better living conditions in their new locations. They were frequently disappointed. African American sections of southern cities suffered from poorly maintained roads, dilapidated housing, poor sanitation, and subpar educational facilities. A 1927 report on housing for African Americans in Richmond described conditions as horrible. African American residents of Norfolk also complained to city officials about lack of streetlights, sewers, and paved streets. Parents further complained about a dearth of decent playgrounds for their children. They were frustrated by the modern facilities built in white neighborhoods while their facilities steadily deteriorated.

While some residents chose to protest to city officials, others decided to seek a new life elsewhere. For them the offer of better wages was just one of many factors that drew them north. Better educational opportunities and greater personal freedom also proved enticing. These factors made potential migrants more open to the encouragement of relatives, friends, and others in the North who suggested they relocate.

Recruiting Workers for the Hog Island Shipyard

Individuals who decided to go north got their information about the opportunities there through a variety of sources. Many companies sent labor recruiters south to let workers know about available opportunities. Early in the war the Pennsylvania Railroad sent labor recruiters south to find people to work for them and other companies. Recruiters were often sent to areas where they had family or friends who trusted them and might be ready to relocate. The naval yards on Hog Island in Philadelphia also actively advertised for workers. They offered wages that were significantly higher than black workers could earn in Virginia. The more than three dollars a day available in Philadelphia was a significant improvement over the less than one dollar a day made by the average farm laborer.

African American newspapers also served as sources of encouragement. The Chicago Defender, run by Robert S. Abbott, circulated widely throughout the nation and actively encouraged migration. It offered editorials and stories extolling the virtues of life in the North, and also included advertisements from northern companies highlighting their need for workers and noting the high wages they paid. The Pittsburgh Courier played a similar role in that city. In Virginia the Richmond Planet, operated by John Mitchell, strongly supported migration. Mitchell, who once was threatened with lynching, actively campaigned against it and also led a turn-of-the-century boycott of Richmond’s streetcars. As a staunch opponent of segregation, he counseled African Americans to consider leaving rather than submit to mistreatment.

W. E. B. DuBois’s The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

An even more important source of information was news obtained from family and friends who already lived in the North. Philadelphia, for example, had been a destination for African Americans leaving Virginia for many years. In his book The Philadelphia Negro (1899), W. E. B. Du Bois noted the large number of residents who had migrated there from Virginia by the turn of the century. He also noted how their travels included several stops along the way in smaller towns and cities like Roanoke, Richmond, or Norfolk. These longtime residents of Philadelphia became important contact points of information for later migrants. When they moved to Philadelphia or other northern locations, these earlier travelers did not lose contact with family and friends they left behind. Communication continued on a regular basis.

Letters sent home offered one avenue of updates about jobs, wages, and living conditions. Even better was the direct exchange of information when individuals either traveled to Philadelphia to visit or when visitors came south for special occasions. African American newspapers like the Norfolk Journal and Guide carried regular reports of these travels, illustrating a constant stream of people traveling between Norfolk and various locations in the North. The visits insured a consistent flow of information between southern residents and people they knew living in the North. This connection enabled Virginia residents to make informed decisions about where to go and the best times to leave if they hoped to optimize their chances of finding work.

A Negro Family Just Arrived in Chicago from the Rural South

Consequently, migrants rarely left on a whim or a sudden impulse. Instead the process of leaving often was a meticulously planned event. While some northern companies might provide train tickets to their cities, this was not the norm. Most migrants had to accumulate the capital to afford to move themselves and/or their family members north. This might take weeks or months to accomplish. Men with families frequently traveled north first, obtained a job, and then saved enough to locate housing for their families before bringing them north to live. Knowledge obtained in advance from family and friends in northern cities made this process less random and increased chances of success. Quite often these contacts provided temporary housing or introductions at places of work for people they knew. Indeed, in many cities sizeable enclaves of people from one state or community developed. They became safe and familiar havens for newcomers migrating north. Chicago attracted many migrants from Mississippi and there were groupings of people from specific towns in that state. In Philadelphia the years of migration from Virginia created a strong presence of African Americans from that state who aided their fellow Virginians.

Having family or friends to assist newcomers did not insure the success of the move. Migrants found a very different world in the North. While overall salaries were higher, migrants often were unable to get the higher-paying or more-skilled jobs. They primarily wound up in lower-paying positions as common laborers, stevedores, janitors, or warehousemen. Women most often worked as cooks, maids, and laundresses. Housing frequently was crowded with minimal sanitary conditions and the cost of living often was higher. It was not unusual for a family to live in a one- or two-room apartment or to share living accommodations with others. Predominantly African American enclaves like Harlem in New York, the South Side in Chicago, and the Seventh Ward in Philadelphia emerged as a consequence of the arrival of these waves of migrants.

Photographs from The Negro in Chicago: The Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922)

White residents in these cities did not always welcome the newest arrivals, especially when they sought housing in previously all-white neighborhoods. Riots broke out in several northern cities as white residents expressed their resentment and fears. In July 1918 violent confrontations occurred in Philadelphia as African Americans began to move into white neighborhoods and the residents there fought to keep them out. Four people died in the four days of violence and several hundred people, black and white, were injured. More riots took place the following summer, often referred to as the “Red Summer of 1919,” because so many riots broke out in other northern cities where similar activities sparked major confrontations. The largest took place in Chicago late in July and resulted in the deaths of thirty-eight people, including twenty-three African Americans. More than five hundred people were injured and one thousand families, mostly African American, were left homeless. Challenges like these made survival even more of a struggle for migrants.

Jim Crow Practices in the South

What counterbalanced these challenges was the greater freedom migrants found in the North. Their children had better opportunities to get a high school education. In rural areas in the South, most children did not get past sixth grade as local landowners often encouraged parents to put their children to work as early as possible. And, most important, the living environment was less oppressive. While discrimination existed in the North, it did not demand the daily indignities and subservience synonymous with of life in the South. Integrated schools existed, city-owned facilities like libraries and playgrounds allowed access, and public transportation was not segregated. African Americans also had the opportunity to actively participate in the political system. Their votes were important and sought by local politicians, black and white. Living in the North gave migrants an opportunity to exercise their rights as citizens in ways they could not in the South. This opportunity in itself made the struggle in other parts of their lives more worthwhile. As one Philadelphia minister noted, “There is prejudice here, too, but the color line isn’t drawn in their faces at every turn as it is in the South. It all gets back to a question of manhood.” Northern life was not perfect, but in balance it offered more positives as compared to living in the South.

An African American Family in Chicago

The Great Migration fueled an important shift in the demographic center and the role of African Americans in the United States. This shift to northern cities continued beyond 1930, with a larger surge in the years after World War II (1939–1945). As a result, by 1970 Africans Americans had transformed from a rural and southern population to an urban and northern one. In addition, they adopted a more aggressive stance toward racial discrimination, which fueled growing civil rights activism. As participants in this movement, Virginians relocated to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities mainly on the Atlantic seaboard. They helped transform these cities and, eventually, the way the nation thought about race and equality.

  • Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
APA Citation:
Crew, Spencer. Great Migration, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/great-migration-the.
MLA Citation:
Crew, Spencer. "Great Migration, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 14
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