The Great Migration

The Great Migration refers to the phenomenon where an estimated two million African Americans departed the Southern States in favor of the Northern and Western regions of America to escape the brutal conditions of the South, characterized by second class treatment due to the Jim Crow laws which institutionalized racism, a complete lack of social and economic mobility, widespread crop failure that ruined the sharecropping way of life, and poor living conditions. The movement of predominantly family units outwards from the South towards Northern industrial jobs is seen as a shift from the standard African American residency from the rural climes to the urban cities. Previously, around 90% of America's black population resided in the South as a direct result of slavery and the subsequent sharecropping cycle that essentially took its place after its abolition during the Civil War. From 1910 to 1930, the black communities in Northern urban areas geometrically increased as hundreds of thousands of migrant black families wound up in cities such as Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, and New York. A particular example is that of New York's Bronx borough: in 1900 it held about 200,000 people and shot up to six times that number in only thirty years. An immediate consequence of the Great Migration was the creation of large black enclaves within large cities, most notably Harlem in New York which became the de facto cultural center of the black community during the 20th century. The "Harlem Renaissance" during the 1920s and 1930s reflected the efforts by communities such as these to create a unique cultural identity for people of color, and resulted in the works of Langston Hughes and influenced later black writers and artists such as Toni Morrison, whose book Jazz takes place during the Great Migration in Harlem.

The Movement

The void left by young white working men who became soldiers in the latter half of WWI when the
U.S. joined the war opened up numerous jobs in the North that drew an estimated 700,000 to 1 million African Americans from the South. Another 800,000 to 1 million would follow in the 1920s during the prosperous American post-war era. To illustrate the economic disparity between the two regions, wages in the North at the time ranged from $3-$5 per standard 8-hour work day whereas wages ranged from $0.75 in Southern agricultural jobs and at most $2.50 in Southern industrial jobs during the standard 9-hour work day. This newly created massive demand for labor, brought on by desperate war time conditions that necessitated large scale mass production of weapons and textiles, combined with the difference in wages, made it an obvious decision to leave the sharecropping way of life. These conditions in the North spread by word of mouth extremely quickly, with even church leaders comparing to the Moses's Exodus to Israel. The North came to be compared to a "Promised Land" to the African Americans, where they could finally enjoy economic stability and have a disposable income in which to buy luxury goods. Letters that people wrote back to their friends and family who were yet to join them in the North spoke of far better wages, opportunities for advancement, cultural integration, and in general an enjoyable life. As one letter bluntly put it, "a man can finally be a man". Black people helped each other move northward, creating a network of transportation and lodging that maintained constant communication between established Northern workers and those down below who were yet to migrate, as well as pooling their resources to travel this network in large groups. The typical trip north would require moving south to large cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Memphis that were connected to the railroad that led north, usually to Chicago. From there, they would migrate from this far North city south to other urban and suburban areas that had factory jobs.


Despite the promising lures of the Southern African American into the South, there was still a certain degree of racial discrimination in the North, although not as immediately apparent nor as institutionalized as in the South. However, it has been observed by figures such as Du Bois that "it is the density of the Negro population in the main that gives the Negro businessman his best chance". The tendency for racial minorities to cluster together in urban environments actually served as a foundation for numerous black entrepreneurial ventures as the spatial segregation of African Americans was observed to be positively correlated with the number of African American entrepreneurs (Brimmer, 1968:34; Massey and Denton, 1993:115- 116). Although in the short-term, the increase in African American businesses was certainly healthy for the community, the underlying cause of racial segregation in the first place, implicit racial discrimination, would ultimately serve as an impediment to the African community due to the denial of entrepreneurial resources, such as bank loans or housing rights. Black businesses thus lacked upward mobility and were restricted to low-income services such as barbershops or small merchant stores. Furthermore, the African-American business model was heavily reliant on outside sources for sustenance as opposed to an ideally independent and self-sustaining African-American enclave where the producer, wholesaler, and retailer of a community are linked. African-Americans thus entered a climate of heavy economic reliance in the North in a slightly different sense than in the South.

In the short term, this flooding of large cities with a massive influx of black migrants caused unease and tension amongst the predominantly white population; race riots and a general atmosphere of discomfort between the black communities and their new neighbors would linger, even to the present. Part of this can be traced to the lack of economic mobility that blacks experienced in the long term: as the noted in the previous paragraph, black businesses found it incredibly challenging to expand outwards and offer luxury goods or specialized services, lacking the infrastructure for successful economic growth. Because black migrants almost exclusively held relatively low paying, bottom-of-the-ladder factory and menial labor work, the opportunity for advancement in the long run was bleak. A lack of highly educated or specially trained practitioners within the black community exacerbated this problem. It would take decades of slowly building up cultural, charitable, economic, and educational institutions to see a marked change in the social status of urban Northern blacks, as the unrest caused by this lack of economic and cultural mobility would explode in the forms of outspoken advancement efforts such as the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the Black Panthers, the Garvey Movement, and the NAACP.

In Literature

Toni Morrison's Jazz illustrates the conditions behind the Great Migration, particularly in the tale of how the main characters Joe and Violet migrated north from the oppressive Jim Crow South, scraping together enough money to escape the sharecropping cycle and begin anew in various places such as Maryland until finally they settle down for good in Harlem. Joe recalls how his primary motivation was economic independence, which leads to a colorful journey marked by numerous setbacks. He experiences race riots, oppression under the Jim Crow laws which force him to give up land he bought and has to take numerous low paying jobs until he can finally settle down with Violet in Harlem. His train ride north consists of him being shuffled around in various cars to abide by the Jim Crow laws until they are finally able to have breakfast in the breakfast car like everyone else. It is not until living in Harlem that they experience stability, but even upon first arriving they must fight for their survival, even experiencing another race riot that nearly leaves Joe dead. The setting of the novel also mimics the atmosphere of Harlem of the 1920s, describing in detail the community that has coalesced in that part of New York City as a result of the influx of black migrants. Jazz-themed bars and clubs have sprouted up in the neighborhood, performers sing and dance on the sidewalk, and everything a person needs to survive and be entertained is right within their fingertips - Harlem is portrayed as the essential center of the black community, of a cultural center beyond compare. Harlem is personified by the narrators, called The City and treated as a living, evolving, self-sustaining being that an inhabitant must learn to live in cohesion with. Jazz is as much a tale of the conflict and rekindled romance of Joe and Violet as much as it is about the cultural and economic conditions facing a black person newly migrated to the North in the 1920s.


1) Hahn, Steven. A Nation Under Our Feet (2003), The Belknap Press of Harvard University, ISBN 0-674-01765-X
2 )William Trotter Jr., Joe. "The Great Migration" (10/2002), OAH Magazine of History Vol. 17 No. 1 (2002) p.31-33.13 May 2011.
3) Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. "The African American Great Migration Reconsidered." OAH Magazine of History 23.4 (2009): 19-23. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 13 May 2011.
4) Boyd L., Robert. "Residential Segregation by Race and the Black merchants of Northern Cities during the Early Twentieth Century". Sociological FOrum, Vol. 13, No. 4,1998. 13 May 2011.