Artist Jacob Lawrence, himself the son of migrants from the South, said he wanted to paint “the excitement, the crowds, the tension” of the Great Migration. (Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by African Americans from the South., 1940 and 1941, C
Fifty years after black Americans ended an unprecedented period of movement in the United States, their travels are reverberating across American culture and demographics.
The Great Migration – which took place from 1916 to 1970 – saw 6 million African Americans move from the South to the North and West. It eclipsed the Gold Rush and the Dust Bowl flight in terms of population movement in the United States, according to Stanford University historian Allyson Hobbs. Before that time, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South, and after that, only 53 percent, she says.
Newspapers and other black media touted a better life in the North and West. Factories in the North were short of manpower and there were new opportunities in the West. Black families were attracted by the lure of higher wages, educational opportunities, and greater personal freedom away from Southern segregational practices.
As Richard Wright wrote: “I left the South to throw myself into the unknown…to respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to blossom.
A book titled with this quote – The warmth of other suns by Isabel Wilkerson – tells the stories of three ordinary individuals who uprooted their lives during the Great Migration (as both of Wilkerson’s parents did) to explain this time in America.
Wilkerson links the migrants’ actions to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation decades ago that paved the way for the abolition of slavery in the United States. “By force of will, they were able to make the Emancipation Proclamation live up to its name in their individual lives to the extent that they could,” Wilkerson said in an interview with the TV host. Krista Tippett radio show in 2016.
In the South, black people had been subjected to what was essentially a caste system that left them with no chance of reaching their potential, Wilkerson says.
The Great Migration was “an unleashing of that pent up creativity and genius, in many cases, of people misplaced in that caste system. It’s about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it,” she says.
It was not necessarily easy, explains Marcia Chatelain, professor of history at Georgetown University. For some, there was a disconnect between the fantasy of moving and the way they were treated when they arrived in new places.
Discrimination followed them north, with areas outside the south reacting to the influx with racial wage differentials and prohibitions on where blacks could live. Chatelain’s own book on the subject, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration, examines the impact of relocation on young women. “The girls embodied the emotion – hoping migration would change everything and the reality they still had to deal with racism,” Chatelain said.
But the ties between family members spread between the South and other regions have increased the exchange of ideas between regions of the country. And many Northerners and Westerners sent money to those who remained in the South.
Meanwhile, Southern employers, Chatelain says, faced labor shortages and came to rely more on convicts to perform tasks during the 20th century.
The Legacy of Migration
Descendants of those who made the Great Migration include former first lady Michelle Obama, author Toni Morrison, playwright August Wilson, actor Denzel Washington and jazz musician Miles Davis.
Black people brought their music from the rural South to cities with more black venues, recording studios and consumer markets. “Many of the roots of what we now call popular culture are a direct result of migration,” Chatelain said, citing blues, gospel and R&B music, which still influence hip-hop and rap.
The Great Migration also flourished literature and scholarship – it inspired famous novels like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
Concentrations of black Americans in the North, where they did not face poll taxes, literacy tests, or other voting barriers imposed by Southern states, led to more black elected , long before Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States in 2009.
Chatelain says there are many books on the impacts of South-North/West migration. The writers found that “whatever thread you pull on, you’ll find something new,” she says. “We can all relate to the desire for change, the desire to help our families, and the desire to imagine a better future.”