Background on The Great Migration

The early part of the twentieth century gave birth to some of America’s most significant triumphs and struggles. Two world wars brought America to the forefront of global politics, the Great Depression lead to an overhaul of governmental policies, and the introduction of technologies such as the automobile lead to a more mobile society.

As all of these innovations and changes made headlines, America’s Black community was undergoing a drastic change of their own. Lasting from 1915 to 1970, historians estimate that around 6 million southern Blacks migrated north and west; this sweeping movement is known as The Great Migration.

The causes of this movement cannot be traced back to a singular force. According to the author of “The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations,” Ira Berlin, “During the last decades of the nineteenth century, rights were lost, freedoms shriveled, and opportunities dwindled.” Historians note that both push and pull factors influenced the southern Black communities to settle in the north.

Some reasons for uprooting include the mechanization of the agricultural industry, the Jim Crowe Laws that legalized segregation in the South, and the opportunity for work, especially in the industrial Northern cities.

Though moving to Northern cities such as New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston, helped Blacks escape the struggles and injustices of the South, Blacks faced new challenges as they were forced to quickly adapt to their new lives.

One widespread problem was finding room for the sudden surge of people. Isabel Wilkerson writes in her Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” that northern cities “strained under the weight of millions of black southerners trying to situate themselves.”

In addition, the largely uneducated Blacks were forced to take menial jobs with low wages. Fran Ryan, a labor historian and professor at Temple University, noted that the Black men who came to Philadelphia became day laborers paving streets and working as sanitation workers and women often worked as domestic servants.

The Great Migration’s impact is a lasting one. For the Blacks who settled in New York City, Harlem was their neighborhood and soon a proliferation of art and music emerged from the community known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The Civil Rights Movement stemmed from the Great Migration. The Blacks in the north were exposed to a new kind of equality and tolerance and watching their own community still suffer was not an option.

In her book, Wilkerson tells the story of George Swanson Starling, a Black man who was inspired to fight back as the social injustices of the South danced across his TV set in his New York City apartment. Turning off the TV or turning the page of the newspaper was not enough for George to forget the life left in the South: “…the despair did not leave him. He still had loved ones in the south.”

Starling had left Florida and made a new life for himself, but his extended family remained in the racially divided south. Starling began to collect money to help rebuild Black churches that had been destroyed by White supremacists.

The strife of the South did not end for the Blacks who were part of the Great Migration.


One response to “Background on The Great Migration

  1. Huntly Collins

    Nice work, Emily. I really like how you place the Great Migration in the context other changes underway in the 20th century. Also, very good job of working in a wide array of sources. The photo is terrific. Can you tell us who she is and where?
    Some grammatical gaffs to clean up: It’s “led” not “lead” in several places. And a big dangling modifier in the sentence that begins, “Lasting from….” As written, the clause modifies historians, which is not what you want.
    And Wilkerson’s book hasn’t yet won the Pulitzer; they will be announced next month (April) and I expect she will win for history.

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