The Great Migration


In the first half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced one of the largest internal migrations in history, as millions of Black Americans moved from the rural south to urban areas in the north and west. Join Active Minds as we explore what drove The Great Migration, what the experience was like for those who undertook it, and how it fundamentally changed American society.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Great Migration was a major demographic and cultural shift that significantly altered the American political landscape. In 1910, approximately 90% of the Black population of the US lived in the South.  By 1970, 6.5 million Black Americans had relocated from the rural South to the urban centers of the North and West.
  • The roots of the Great Migration lie in the post-Civil War era.  With the adoption of amendments to the Constitution granting the rights of citizenship and voting to the former slaves, the legal framework for a more equal society was established, but it was soon derailed.
  • As part of the compromise that settled the 1876 Presidential election, federal authorities were removed from the former Confederate states, opening the door to the Jim Crow era, which effectively reduced Black Americans to second-class status, denying them voting rights and equal treatment in areas like education and public facilities.  The Supreme Court upheld segregation in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision.  And the whole system was enforced through an underlying threat of violence against Blacks who attempted to oppose the system.
  • The first wave of the Great Migration was begun in the 1910s.  While many Black sharecroppers struggled to support their families, foreign immigration plummeted, and Northern factories needed labor, particularly as the United States entered World War I.  The push of conditions in the South and the pull of good jobs triggered a first wave of Northward migration.
  • There was tremendous culture shock as the migrants moved North.  Coming from the rural South, the vast Northern cities were different in practically every way.  And the residents of these cities often viewed the migrants with the same scorn that had greeted earlier immigrants fleeing poverty in Europe and Asia.
  • As the migrant population swelled, one of the most visible impacts was in housing.  Most Northern cities delineated areas where Blacks were expected to live.  Conditions became increasingly crowded and housing costs rose as more and more people tried to fit within these neighborhoods.  And those who tried to leave, whether the migrants or the already established Black middle class, were met with strong resistance, often including violence.
  • At the same time, the sheer number of people led to strong cultural growth, whether the Chicago blues or the Harlem Renaissance.  This led to the prominence of Black American writers, artists, political thinkers, and athletes.  And this certainly formed part of the basis of the Civil Rights movement that would emerge after World War II.
  • The second wave of the Great Migration began in the 1940s, as the United States emerged from the Great Depression and went on a war footing.  As men were joining the military, jobs opened up in defense plants, shipyards, and other factories.  Along with the other established pathways, the West Coast became a prime destination.
  • The roots of the Civil Rights movement, in both the North and the South, can be found in the nationalization of the issue of racial justice that resulted from the Great Migration.
  • In recent decades scholars have identified a reverse migration, with both Black American retirees and young professionals moving from the North to the South, although for the young, they are moving largely to urban areas like Atlanta.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you think the United States would look like if the Great Migration hadn’t occurred?  What would the South and North have looked like without the changes brought by the migration?
  • Are today’s movements like Black Lives Matter rooted in the dynamics that created the Great Migration?
  • How was your community shaped by the Great Migration?

Reflective Questions

  • If you found yourself living the life of a Black sharecropper in the Mississippi delta in 1910 or 1940, would you have left?
  • Where would you have gone?  Why?
  • If you are an immigrant or the descendent of immigrants, how to you think your family experience is the same or different from those of Black American migrants?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Wilkerson, Isabel.  The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Vintage, October, 2011.  The author focuses on the stories of three individuals who migrated from different parts of the South to different Northern stories to illustrate the variety of experience of the migrants, while providing historic and sociological background to capture the full sweep of the Great Migration.
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  • Lemann, Nicholas.  The Promised Land:  The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America.  Vintage, March 1991.  Focusing on the second wave go the Great Migration, Lemann discusses the experience of the migrants in Northern cities, particularly Chicago, as well as some of the governmental policy responses to the social issues that emerged from the vast influx of southern, rural Black Americans to a new home that was alien northern and urban.
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  • Lawrence, Jacob.  The Great Migration: An American Story.  Harper Collins, September 1995, 48 pages.  A book for all ages, Lawrence chronicled the Great Migration in over 60 paintings, giving a visceral feel for the experience.
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