Great Migration: Starting Over

The Great Migration in the early 20th century north meant Black Americans moving from a predominantly rural and small-town South to the great cities of the North. Starting over was a big adjustment for everyone, for better and, sometimes, worse.

Life in the South and life in the North have always been strikingly different from one another. Whether it be the weather, the food, the accents, or the popular sports, the two regions of the country have always had their own distinct culture.

However, attitudes towards race in these respective regions have had more in common than one may think-- particularly during the time of the Great Migration. Racism was prevalent throughout the United States and migrating to the North did not mean that being a Black American became easier. Not only did they continue to face racism, they also had to adapt to living in the bustling, overcrowded cities that were a completely different world compared to the farms and plantations they had always known.

Although there were more economic opportunities for Blacks in the North, they didn’t come without a price. By 1919, one million African Americans had left the South, and cities were becoming increasingly more crowded. In just three years, the Black population in New York City rose by 66 percent, in Chicago by 148 percent, in Philadelphia by 500 percent, and in Detroit by 611 percent.

By contrast, before the Great Migration began, the relatively sparse number of African Americans residing in the North had lived in small clusters in different neighborhoods throughout the cities. However, as opposition to the increasing number of African Americans continued to intensify, White bankers and realtors began to close the real estate market off from them, resulting in the establishment of ghettos. There was nowhere near enough adequate space available for the hundreds and sometimes thousands of Black families streaming into the cities; as competition for housing intensified, rents rose as well.

The living conditions in these ghettos were horrific--cramped, rancid, and filthy quarters. The spaces were often poorly ventilated, and this factor, plus insufficient rest and lack of proper nutrition, greatly contributed to the horrifyingly high death rates within Black communities. More than a quarter of Black babies died before their first birthday--a mortality rate twice that of Whites.

Racism remained a constant issue that continued to go unresolved. Migrators faced a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity, and racial tensions worsened as White Northerners began to feel that their opportunities for work were now threatened by the vast numbers of African Americans arriving in the cities. Many African Americans were scapegoats to White Northerners, who blamed them for low wages, poor factory conditions, and white unemployment.

A white gang looking for African Americans during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. This and a subsequent picture at The Crisis Magazine 1919, Vol 18 No.6 

Members of labor unions also greatly resented the tens of thousands of black migrants coming to the cities. There was now a surplus in labor, and many large businesses were more than willing to employ Black workers. In 1929, for example, there were nearly 25,000 black automotive workers in the United States-- and nearly half of them worked in Henry Ford’s assembly lines. The surplus in workers meant that labor unions became essentially powerless as the need for workers drastically decreased, and the majority of White union members refused to invite Black workers to join them.