THE GREAT MIGRATION
By Michael Theobald
One of the greatest transfers of populations within a country took place in the United States between 1900 and 1970. In those seven decades, six million black Americans left the rural south for the urban north.
These migrants fled a south of poverty and oppression. Jim Crow laws were at their peak. Lynching was common. Most blacks were sharecroppers, the plantation labor system that replaced pre-Civil War slavery with debt servitude.
In the north, on the other hand, a rapidly expanding industrial base needed vast numbers of unskilled factory workers. Good jobs were waiting and all you had to do was get there.
The pace started slowly. From 1900 to 1910, about 200,000 blacks left for the north. In the following ten years, over a million more joined them. The Great Depression slowed the process for a few years, but World War 2 created even more jobs throughout the United. A million and a half African-Americans left the south in the 1940s, a million more in the 1950s, and another two and a half million more in the 60s.
Newspapers like the Chicago Defender spread stories of black prosperity in Chicago throughout the south. Family networks up north made the transition easier. Railroads like the Illinois Central offered quick routes to the city.
In the south, this loss of labor was met with alarm and carrot and stick methods. On the carrot side, wages rose and living standards were improved. On the stick side, blacks who left home to travel north were often arrested for vagrancy and effectively sold to labor contractors, while in other places attempts were made to physically prevent access to the railroad.
And while discrimination in the north wasn’t as overt as it had been in the south, the new arrivals were felt the effects of prejudice. Blacks found themselves restricted to certain neighborhoods and intrusions into white neighborhoods were frequently met with violence. Housing in these ghettos tended to be substandard, services poor.
The difference was summed up in a well-known saying: “In the south, they don’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too big. In the north, they don’t care how big you get, as long as you don’t get too close.”
The northern form of segregation gave rise to tight, economically mixed communities. A black middle class emerged. Black-owned businesses thrived. Black doctors and lawyers plied their trades. Art, music and literature flourished. Harlem in New York and Chicago’s Bronzeville became the cultural and economic centers of Black America.
Unlike the south, there were few obstacles to black voting in the north, and consolidating them into one area had the effect of concentrating their vote and giving them voice and position in government. It was Chicago that sent the first black United States congressman since Reconstruction to Washington.
In the 1970s, the flow northward stopped. The factory jobs that had once been plentiful disappeared. Across the Rust Belt, steel mills, automobile plants and thousands of other employers began to shut down.
Then a curious thing happened. The flow reversed itself. Blacks began to move south as the southern economy improved and racist barriers fell. African-American college graduates, in particular, led the way. Today, Atlanta, Houston and Miami are as much the social, cultural and economic hubs of Black America as Harlem and Bronzeville were in their heyday.