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The Great Migration: History, Causes and Facts

Between 1910 and 1970, around six million Black Americans moved from the Southern states to the Northern, Midwestern and Western parts of the country. According to experts, it’s one of the largest movements of people in the nation’s history. Why did so many people move? In this article, we’ll explore the history of this phenomenon, which is known as “The Great Migration.” We’ll also examine its causes and the most significant facts about this six-decade period.

The Great Migration refers to the period of 1910-1970 when around six million Black Americans moved from the South to the North, Midwest, and West. This movement was a response to the racial violence, discrimination and limited opportunities of the American South, and while the other parts of the country offered the hope of safety and better jobs, systemic racism remained a problem.

What’s the history of the First Great Migration?

Historians divide the Great Migration into two parts. World War I sparked the First Great Migration, which is believed to have lasted from 1910-1940. As fighting in Europe broke out, white men left to join the military, while immigration from Europe stalled. Factories, especially those in the North and Midwest, needed new workers, but thanks to bans on hiring people of color from other countries, recruiters didn’t have a lot of options. According to information from the National Archives, Black people began to move North in 1910 in search of job opportunities and freedom from the Jim Crow system of the South.

Things weren’t always safer in the North. In 1919, around 500,000 Black Americans had moved to Northern cities, but many of their white neighbors weren’t happy. When Black veterans returned home from WWI, they were often mistreated. Racist sentiments reached their peak during the Red Summer of 1919. Mobs of white people began attacking Black people. Some riots got so violent that President Woodrow Wilson had to send out troops. Washington D.C., Virginia and Chicago saw some of the worst violence, but Black people defended themselves and refused to be driven from their new homes.

What’s the history of the Second Great Migration?

According to the National Archives, the Second Great Migration began at the start of World War II and ended around 1970. Because of the war, the expanded defense industry needed more workers, and once again, many Black Americans from the South took the opportunity this presented. After the war ended, migration steadily continued. Millions of Black Americans moved North, as well as West into cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland

The biggest difference between the First and Second Migration is where people moved. During the First Migration, the vast majority of people moved to Northern and Midwestern cities. During the Second, a lot more people moved West to pursue jobs in the defense industry. California, which had just 50,200 Black Americans living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland in 1930, experienced an increase to over 250,000 in just 20 years.

What caused the Great Migration?

At the dawn of the First Great Migration, life was very difficult for Black Americans living in the South. While the Civil War had ended slavery, the United States faced an uncertain future. According to the Library of Congress, the Reconstruction era (1866-1877) was meant to ease the South back into the Union and define how white and Black people could live together. While many worked to ensure full equality and freedom for the recently freed Black population, many Southerners and even Northern leaders resisted. While they couldn’t enslave Black people again, they searched for other ways to discriminate and erase the handful of gains in voting rights, land ownership and employment. The Jim Crow laws, which have origins as early as 1865, codified a system of racial apartheid that oppressed Black people. Here are some of the effects of the Jim Crow system:

  • Made it much harder to vote thanks to “the grandfather clause,” which stated that men could only vote if their ancestors had been voters before 1867
  • Required more difficult literacy tests only for Black voters
  • Legalized racial discrimination in movie theaters, hotels, restaurants and other public spaces
  • Segregated public schools and underfunded schools for Black students
  • Restricted Black workers to certain professions
  • Banned interracial marriage

Restricted economic opportunities and racial segregation weren’t the only causes of the Great Migration: racial violence was also prevalent. Between 1882 and 1968, the NAACP recorded 4,743 lynchings, although with no formal tracking system, it’s difficult to know just how many people were killed. Most lynchings occurred in Mississippi, while Georgia and Texas had high numbers, as well. While some Black people were lynched based on often false allegations of robbery, murder and other crimes, many weren’t even accused of doing anything illegal. Life in the South could be terrifying, so it only made sense to move North in hopes of a better life.

The Jim Crow system is one of the clearest examples of systemic racism. While these laws no longer exist, systemic racism is still a problem in many places.

What facts should everyone know about the Great Migration?

The Great Migration covers 60 years of history, but here are five critical facts everyone should know:

#1. The North offered better, although still limited, economic opportunities

Many Black Americans left the South to flee racial violence, but they were also hoping for better job opportunities. Before WWI, jobs in the North were few and far between, which was why there wasn’t a larger migration earlier. However, the war changed things, which made the region more appealing. According to a 1987 article in Monthly Labor Review, many Americans who traveled North at this time remembered hearing about job availability from friends and family who’d already moved. The jobs weren’t always ideal as many Black Americans were only offered the jobs white people didn’t want to do. Many Black migrants worked as servants, janitors, cleaners and so on. While the jobs didn’t pay much and many unions didn’t allow Black members, the jobs were still better than what could be found in the Southern states.

People who moved during the Great Migration wanted their civil rights protected and respected. Check out our article on what civil rights are and why they matter.

#2. Finding good housing was a big challenge

While leaving the South gave Black people an escape from Jim Crow laws, the rest of the country wasn’t exactly welcoming. Housing could be especially hard to secure, and while segregation wasn’t the law of the land, many white neighborhoods did not want Black people. Black Americans were often forced to live in the worst parts of a neighborhood despite issues like overcrowding and deteriorating conditions. The practice of redlining, which denies people access to credit based on where they live, began in 1934. The group responsible for redlining, the Federal Housing Administration, decided that home loans couldn’t be “economically sound” if Black people were living in a neighborhood. Their reasoning, which was based on pure racism, was that property values would decline. The Fair Housing in 1968 banned discrimination in mortgage lending and real estate, but the legacy of redlining still reverberates to this day.

#3. The Great Migration changed the political landscape of the US

Millions of Black Americans moved out of the South during the Great Migration. A movement this large always has political ramifications. What were the effects of the Great Migration? The biggest is that while Black Americans were severely restricted from voting in the South, moving to the North gave them more voting rights. According to an article published online by Cambridge University Press, this led politicians to adapt their existing approaches and appeal specifically to Black voters. The article’s author, Keneshia N. Grant, argues that the increased presence of Black migrants made Black voters essential to presidential campaign strategies after WWII. This would mark a huge shift in electoral politics. While once the interests of Black people were ignored or actively fought against, they now had more power.

#4. The Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement are closely linked

Many historians believe the Great Migration helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement, which was an intense period of civil rights activism that ran from 1954-1968. As Black people moved North and gained more rights, their influence on politics and culture on a national scale also expanded. The Harlem Renaissance is a key example. During this era (1918-1937), Harlem, New York became the center of Black culture, creativity and artistry. It was closely linked to civil rights organizations like the NAACP, Black labor unions and prominent activists. The Harlem Renaissance had a major impact on Black literature and thought around the world. While it was hardly the only spark for the Civil Rights movement, it played a key role made possible by the Great Migration.

#5. A new Great Migration is happening now

Something interesting has been happening in the United States. According to data from Brookings and other sources, many Black Americans are moving to the South in a reversed Great Migration. It began in the 1970s right at the end of the Second Great Migration, and increased in the 1990s as more Black people began leaving Northern and Western cities. Areas in Texas and Georgia grew. Why? The North changed. The jobs in industry that had once attracted Black Americans disappeared, while the impact of redlining and underfunded neighborhoods took its toll. The South was recovering, too, which made a return more economically advantageous. According to Pew Research, 56% of Black people lived in the South in 2021, while 17% lived in the Midwest/Northeast and 10% lived in the West. What will be the long-term impacts of the new Great Migration? It remains to be seen.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.