Great Migration A Push Term Paper Topics


The 1st and 2nd Great Migration are known as the two instances where African-Americans migrated from the South to other regions of the United States. The 1st Great Migration provided an unprecedented opportunity for African-Americans living in the South – the ability to finally escape agrarian employment by obtaining industrial employment from a skyrocketing demand for military products to assist the United States and the Allied forces in World War I (Grossman 1989, 13). Although given this opportunity initially in the 1st Great Migration, between 1910 and 1920, about 430,000 African-Americans left the South (Gregory 2005, 15). A surprisingly low number for a new “lease-on-life.” The 2nd Great Migration, which was fueled by the more technologically advanced World War II, once again provided African-Americans with an opportunity to further the southern diaspora movement. With more economic opportunities as a result of the country still recovering from the after effects of the Great Depression, about 1.45 million African-Americans escaped their suppressive state in the South for a better life in the North and West (Ibid, 13).

Although these massive migrations are seen as major events in African-American history, a new movement has occurred since the 1970s. Labeled as the New Great Migration, African-Americans have begun to migrate to the South since the beginning of the 1970s. As William Frey note, “the region’s economic, amenity, and cultural ‘pull’ factors now outweigh the ‘push’ factors that predominated in past decades” (Frey 2004, 2). The two primary research question presented in this report is: What are the primary explanations that influenced African-Americans to return to the South, an area that is historically tied to the oppression and commoditization of African-Americans? Furthermore, what is the demographic make-up of African-Americans participating in the New Great Migration?

The 1940s

My research begins with 1940 as World War II, although not directly affecting the United States yet, still had an impact on the country and the migration within it. With the collapse and annexation of France to Germany and Great Britain being the remaining European stronghold for the Allied forces, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the United States the “Arsenal of Democracy” (Charles 2013,16). Although FDR requested manufacturing firms to allocate a portion of their resources to the production of military vehicles and weaponry for Great Britain, it took until December 29, 1940 for his wishes to materialize. In a fireside chat, FDR to appealed directly to the American people by asking them to work together and construct military products to “enable [Great Britain] to fight for their liberty and for [America’s] security” (Ibid, 16). With the U.S. government establishing manufacturing plants in the North and West, primarily along the California coast, the 2nd Great Migration began as African-Americans saw more economic opportunities for themselves. Initially, African-Americans could not freely be employed in these manufacturing jobs. However, with the growing pressure from A. Phillip Randolph and his growing March on Washington Movement to protest against racial injustice in industrial employment, FDR passed Executive Order 8802 to “reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin” (Executive Order 8802 – Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry). This officially opened the door for African-Americans to work in manufacturing jobs.

The 1950s & 1960s

With the end of the war effort, a large portion of American society was flourishing, including the South. When it comes to public investments for manufacturing, the percentage of military contracts awarded to the South as a total of all military contracts issued in the country rose from 7.6% in 1951 to 23.5% in 1967 (Schulman 1991, 141). Overall when looking at manufacturing and service sector jobs, from February 1961 to October 1967, non-farm payroll, in 10 southern states were higher than the national average (Nelson 1968). This would appear promising for those African-Americans still living in the South, especially since African-Americans began to have heavy concentrations of employed individuals working in the manufacturing industry (Hunt 2013). However, African-Americans were still ostracized from mainstream society from an economic standpoint. Wage inequality was high between whites and African-Americans as whites were claiming all the new, desirable jobs in the South (Schulman 1991, 178). In 1949 and 1969, on average, African-American males living in the South earned less than white males still living in the South, $1,415 and $5,036 vs. $2,850 and $9,575 respectively for both, (Gregory, 2005, 352-353). Although African-Americans that migrated out of the South were still making less than their white counterparts, whether they were living in the south or non-south, other social and economical factors encourage them to move.

One such economic factor to encourage people to migrate was educational attainment. Overall, educational opportunities, and therefore achievement, for African-Americans were still low, which further intensified the lack to obtain upward mobility. Nevertheless, education attainment was better for African-Americans in the North and West than in the South. In 1960, only 27% of African-Americans between the ages of 25-34 graduated high school in the South. Of the 25-34 year old African-American population, the median number of school years completed was 9.3 (Allen 1986, 291). In the North and West, 41% of African-Americans between the ages of 25-34 graduated high school and the median number of school years completed for the this portion of the population was 11.2. With a greater chance of obtaining a high school degree and meeting the basic requirements of being employable in jobs outside the agrarian industry, African-Americans could not deny the benefits of living outside the South.

A social factor that influenced the continued migration of African-Americans was racial discrimination and terrorization of African-Americans by whites still widely persisted in the South compared to the rest of the United States. The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), found it illegal to continue the separate, but equal doctrine in U.S. society. The North and West, though these regions had their own issues, made progress towards integration within schools and in other social arenas of their communities. The South, however, did not progress as quickly. Additionally, the Civil Rights Movement’s achievement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were faced with pushback from state governments in the South that ultimately required direct federal oversight and protection to be enacted. Finally, African-Americans still faced being attacked or even lynched by whites for trivial incidences or false reports of harassment or attacks. Ultimately, the 1950s saw more than 1.5 million African-Americans leave the South, which was nearly 10% of the total African-American population in the country (Price-Spartlen 2008, 438). About 813,000 African-Americans left the South in the 1960s (Gregory, 2005, 15).

Data and Methods

The data utilized for this project is from the Minnesota Population Center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) hosted at the University of Minnesota. 1% samples were used from 1940, 1990, and 2000.The years 1970 and 1980 used 1% state fm1 and 1% metro data samples respectively. The year 1950 was excluded from my data, as the 5-year migration question (MIGPLAC5) was not available and only the 1-year migration question (MIGPLAC1) was used for the 1950 Census. For 1960, a 5% sample was used, which equates to a 1/5 of the amount of people sampled in a 1% sample, as MIGPLAC5 is not available for the 1% sample. As for defining what states were considered to be apart of the South, I used the region designation created by IPUMS. All data is weighted by PERWT. The sixteen states and areas in the South are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Code to generate the following visualizations is available here.

This project focuses on the African-American population who were living in the South at the time of the census being administered. All data is collected from the African-American population in relation to where they lived five years ago. To represent my data, six visualizations are provided in the results section. Figure 1 is an animated map displaying the birthplace of African-Americans migrating to the South. Figure 2 is a bar graph of the whether an African-American was born in a Southern or non-southern state. Figure 3 is a population pyramid showing only Southern-born African-Americans returning to the South. Figure 4 is a bar graph of the African-American population migrating to the South five years previously as a household. A household is defined by the 1970 definition established by IPUMS. Furthermore, those who were living alone in a household five years ago, they are designated as single, while everyone else is designated as a family. Figure 5 is a further progression of Figure 4, where a bar graph displays the number of households designated as family do or do not have children. A child is defined as an individual that is from 0-18 years old. Figure 6 is a bar graph of the educational attainment of African-Americans migrating to the South. The levels of educational attainment, which were determined by the various labels in the detailed educational attainment variable (EDUCD), are defined as: Less than high school (N/a or no schooling, nursery school/preschool, and grades 1-11), High school diploma or GED (Grade 12, high school graduate/GED, and high school diploma, GED), Some College (Less than 1 year, 1-8 years of college, and Associate Degree), Bachelor Degree, and Advanced Degree (Master’s Degree, Professional degree beyond a bachelor’s degree, and doctoral degree).


Figure 1. The Birthplace of African-Americans Moving to the South, 1940, 1960-2000.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new trend was arising for African-Americans in our society. For the first time, more African-Americans were willingly migrating to the South from the Northern and Western areas of the United States. Figure 1 shows that Southern-born individuals were most likely to return to the South. In 1940 and 1960, people born in the Northern states were migrating to the South at a similar, yet lower, rate than Southern-born individuals. The 1940 Census reported that in 1935, surprisingly, the African-Americans who were returning to the South were primarily Southern-born, however, they totaled no more than 1,000 individuals. For the 1960 Census, Southern-born individuals once again migrated to the South in totals between 1,000 and 4,499 people per state for 1955. Of the 11 states, having at least 1,000 African-Americans migrate, two were Northern states: New York and Pennsylvania. In 1965, six more states had at least 1,000 native-born individuals move to the South: two in the south (Florida and Arkansas) and four non-southern states (California, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois).

By 1970, African-Americans whose birthplace were either in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas were moving disproportionately into the South. In 1980, the birthplace demographics stayed the same; except for New York becoming the leading state with loses for native-born African-Americans. , To provide further context, New York topped the ranking in the 1975-80 period with a lost of 128,143 people (Frey 2004 3). In 1990 and 2000, the Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina were the only southern states to consistently have more than 20,000 native-born people return to the south. Additionally, in 2000, non-southern states (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio) outpaced the southern states in migration into the South. When excluding California, these states experienced intensifying loses of manufacturing in the area now known as the Rust Belt.

Besides the gains from specific states for their native-born African-American population, it is important to analyze the actual loses of African-Americans in each state For example, from the 1965-70 period, Georgia lost 23,363 African-Americans, leading the state to be ranked seventh in the rankings for states with the largest losses of African-Americans (Frey 2004, 3). Surprisingly, during the 1975-80 period, Georgia jumped to fourth in the rankings in states with the largest gains in African-American population by adding 29,616 people (Ibid, 3). South Carolina and North Carolina experienced a similar trend with going from a negative net migration in the 1965-70 period and being in the top ten states losing African-Americans to being in the top ten states experiencing an increase in their African-American population ten years later. In 1980, Illinois, Ohio, and New Jersey joined New York as states that began to lose a disproportional amount of native-born African-Americans. In the 1975-80 period, they were ranked 3rd, 6th, and 10th respectively (Ibid 3). In 2000, only three southern states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) did not have a disproportionate amount of people return to a southern state. This may be due to the fact that Oklahoma borders the Midwestern states and West Virginia and Kentucky border northern states, so their social environment may have not been as oppressive as the “Deep South.” As for non-southern states in 2000, Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan joined the trend to lose large populations of African-Americans.

When analyzing this migration of native-born people, California is an interesting case. In the 1965-70 and 1975-80 period, California was the leading state adding African-Americans to their population with 91,425 and 75,746 people respectively (Ibid 3). From the 1985-90 period, California dropped to sixth in the rankings by adding only 21,636 African-Americans. Though it was inevitable that California was going to begin to see a decline in African-American, surprisingly, California jumped to second for in a declining African-American population in the 1995-2000 period with a loss of 63,180 people. The primary reason cited for the out-migration from California, in general, is the high cost of living in the state (Ibid, 10).

Figure 2. The Number of African-Americans Born in a Southern or Non-Southern State Migrating to the South, 1940, 1960-2000.



Continuing with the birthplace of African-American individuals that were migrating to the South, Figure 2 displays, based on regional terms rather than including subsets information on individual states, that African-Americans born in the south were the majority of African-Americans migrating to the South. In 1970, the main demographic of African-Americans migrating to the South, were southern-born (66%) than non-southern-born (34%) (Larry L. Hunt, Matthew O. Hunt and William W. Falk 2008, 99). This trend continued until 1990 when non-southern-born African-Americans became the primary group migrating to the South (Ibid). The cause for this is the demographic of African-Americans returning to the South were the children of those individuals participating in the 2nd Great Migration (Richardson 2011, 26).

Figure 3. The Population Pyramids for Southern-born African-Americans Migrating Back to the South, 1940, 1960-2000.

As the majority of people initially moving back to the South were the children of migrants in the 2nd Great Migration who were more than likely born in the South them, the average age of migrants would be expected to be younger. This belief holds partially true, as the average age of individuals migrating to the South was 33.5 in 1970 (Larry L. Hunt, Matthew O. Hunt and William W. Falk 2008, 108). From the 1970 Census, those individuals who identified as being born in the South, lived in the North five years ago from the year they reported in that year’s census and resided in the South at before the 1970 Census was administered (SNS), the typical age for migrants was 38 (Ibid, 108). However, for people born in the North, lived in the north five years ago, and currently reside in the South as of 1970 (NNS), their age was even younger at 29 (Ibid, 108). As mentioned before, this may be due to the discrepancy in educational opportunities and quality, which determines overall attainment for children. This assertion will be further discussed in Figure 6. Additionally, it may be due to the fact that young NNS individuals see the South as a region of opportunity just like the older SNS African-American population.

Moreover, what is interesting is that the age of NNS individuals appears to be an anomaly when comparing to white individuals. In 1970, white NNS and SNS individuals were both 38 years old. One would expect white NNS individuals to be a similar age as African-American NNS individuals (Ibid, 108). When looking at the 2000 Census, white NNS and SNS individuals were 43 and 42 years old respectively and African-American SNS individuals were 44 years old. African-American NNS individuals still only had a median age of 34. This brings about question what attracted so many younger, African-American NNS individuals.

Additionally, the proportion of African-Americans coming to the South based upon sex has changed as well. When analyzing each age group, African-American males in the 10-19 and 20-29 age groups outnumbered their African-American women counterparts in from as reported from the 1960-1980 censuses. This can be tied to the drastic change in economic opportunities available in the South becoming apparent at the time. A plurality of African-American men (39%) reported in a survey that they migrated to the South for economic opportunities (Hunt et. al 2013). However in the 1990 Census, the disparity levels between the sexes dropped, especially in the individuals in the 10-19 age range. A potential reason for this is the War on Drugs, which was instituted in 1971 under Richard Nixon. A former Nixon advisor admitted that one of the Nixon’s administration’s biggest enemies was African-Americans. . As he admitted, “By getting the public to associate…blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing [heroin] heavily, we could disrupt those communities…. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did” (Baum 2016). As a result of the enactment of tougher recreational drug laws, African-American males were being arrested at high rates. Nevertheless, as larger African-American populations were being established throughout the South, after 1990, a majority of African-Americans migrating from non-southern states were women. A plurality of women (43%) moved to the South for familial connections.

Figure 4. The Number of African-American Households Migrating to the South as Single or a Family, 1940, 1960-2000.




Figure 5. : The Number of African-Americans Families Moving to the South With or Without Children, 1940, 1960-2000.

Historically, the U.S. has had its migrations characterized by the movement of an entire family unit, which is still applicable to the New Great Migration. As shown in Figure 4, besides, 1940, the New Great Migration has a majority of African-American individuals migrating to the South with family members. Figure 4 is not constrained to only display family units including a husband and wife, but includes any individual migrating and now living with a person they identify as family. Such combinations include a single parent and their child, multiple siblings, and extended relatives living with each other.

When analyzing marriage rates in the African-American community in 1970, the about 49% of African-Americans who were NNS and SNS were married. At the same time, 16% of SNS and 35% of NNS individuals never married (Larry L. Hunt, Matthew O. Hunt and William W. Falk 2008, 108). However, in 2000, the average percent of NNS and SNS individuals being married was about 36%, while the number of people never married was 41% for NNS and 25% for SNS (Ibid, 108). With this being known, it puts into question the information displayed in Figure 5. Although more single individuals are moving to the South, the amount of family units moving with children are not declining as one would expect.

There are multiple reasons for this. Once again, the War on Drugs could be contributing to this decline. Additionally, there has been a shift in societal norms towards marriage with fewer people getting married. Specifically for African-American individuals living in a household, the rate of marriage dropped from 49.4% in 1940 to 35.9% in 1965 (Ruggles 1994, 138). Additionally, society has started a new trend where women have children later in their lives, which has resulted in more family units between couples to not include a child. It is also important to point that African-American families have a differing family structure than their white counterparts. African-Americans households have higher rates of single parents and are more likely to be composed of extended family than white households (Ruggles 1994, 136).

Figure 6. Educational Attainment of African-Americans Moving to the South, 1940, 1960-2000.

The educational attainment of African-Americans migrating to the South has steadily increased as the economic opportunities for individuals with post-secondary education have grown exponentially. As previously mentioned, manufacturing and service jobs were becoming more technical and required prospective employees have a post-secondary educational degree. Figure 6 shows that from 1940 to 1970, the educational attainment for people migrating to the South was low as the majority of migrants only had less than a high school degree. Education improved during the 1980s as more individuals were entering into a more integrated college system as predominantly white institutions (PWIs) were admitting minority students. In 1990, the landscaped changed as college campuses for PWIs had social environments that were permissible enough for African-Americans to attend. This led to a substantial amount of individuals to have the ability to acquire some college. Education. More importantly people with bachelors degree and more advanced degrees appeared in the South. As more investment was put into education and programs were developed for African-American students, high school and GED attainment became a norm for migrant African-Americans. This higher quality of education continues to attract more African-Americans with high school/diplomas GED, bachelor’s degrees, and advanced degrees.


Ultimately, The New Great Migration marks the unprecedented return for African-Americans to the South. With various economic opportunities that were not present before and a desire to be connected to family, African-Americans saw this as a chance to recapture the South and make it their own. African-Americans migrating to the South were younger, less educated, and male in 1960, however in 2000, migrants tended to be older, more educated, and more likely to be female. These factors have helped revitalized the South and to create a community for African-Americans to connect. With their immigration, African-Americans have helped turn the South from the Cotton Belt to the Black Belt. A suppressive area of the nation that once regulated African-Americans to slavery is now called their home as free, prospering individuals.


Work Cited

Allen, Walter. “The Shifting Social and Economic Tides of Black America, 1950-1980.” Annual Review of Sociology 12.1 (1986): 277-306. Annual Review of Sociology. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Curtis, Katherine J. “U.S. Return Migration and the Decline in Southern Black Disadvantage, 1970-2000.” Social Science Computing Cooperative. Working paper no. No. 2011-02. Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin – Madison, 2011. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

DeWaard, Jack, Katherine J. Curtis, and Glenn V. Fuguitt. “The ‘New Great Migration’ of Blacks to the U.S. South” Demographic Research DemRes 34 (2016): 885-98. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

“Executive Order 8802 – Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum – Our Documents. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Frey, William H. “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000.” Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 1 May 2004. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2005. Print.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1989. ACLS Humanities E-Book. 22 Dec. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Hunt, Matthew O., Larry L. Hunt, and William W. Falk. “Twenty-First-Century Trends in Black Migration to the U.S. South: Demographic and Subjective Predictors.” Social Science Quarterly 94.5 (2013): 1398-1413. Wiley Online Library. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

Hunt, Larry L., Matthew O. Hunt, and William W. Falk. “Who Is Headed South? U.S. Migration Trends in Black and White, 1970-2000.” Social Forces 87.1 (2008): 95-119. Jstor. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Hyde, Charles K. Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2013. Project Muse. 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Kalafsky, Ronald. “The Manufacturing Sector in the South: Status and Recent Trends.” Southeastern Geographer 46.2 (2006): 259-77. ProQuest Central. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Nelson, Jack. “South’s Job Growth Outstrips U.S.” Los Angeles Times 2 Jan. 1968: D8. ProQuest. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Price-Spratlen, Townsand. “Urban Destination Selection among African Americans during the 1950s Great Migration.” Social Science History Soc. Sci. Hist. 32.03 (2008): 437-69. Project Muse. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Schulman, Bruce J. From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.

Richardson, Derrick L. Availability of Large, Cheap Housing May Have Driven the Great Migration of African Americans to the South from 1990 to 2000. Diss. Long Island U – Brooklyn, 2011. ProQuest. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.

Ruggles, Steve. “The Origins of African-American Family Structure.” American Sociological Review 59.1 (1994): 136-51. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

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In 1963, the American mathematician Edward Lorenz, taking a measure of the earth’s atmosphere in a laboratory that would seem far removed from the social upheavals of the time, set forth the theory that a single “flap of a sea gull’s wings” could redirect the path of a tornado on another continent, that it could, in fact, be “enough to alter the course of the weather forever,” and that, though the theory was then new and untested, “the most recent evidence would seem to favor the sea gulls.”

At that moment in American history, the country had reached a turning point in a fight for racial justice that had been building for decades. This was the year of the killing of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, of Gov. George Wallace blocking black students at the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama, the year of the March on Washington, of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” By then, millions of African-Americans had already testified with their bodies to the repression they had endured in the Jim Crow South by defecting to the North and West in what came to be known as the Great Migration. They were fleeing a world where they were restricted to the most menial of jobs, underpaid if paid at all, and frequently barred from voting. Between 1880 and 1950, an African-American was lynched more than once a week for some perceived breach of the racial hierarchy.

“They left as though they were fleeing some curse,” wrote the scholar Emmett J. Scott, an observer of the early years of the migration. “They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket and they left with the intention of staying.”

The migration began, like the flap of a sea gull’s wings, as a rivulet of black families escaping Selma, Alabama, in the winter of 1916. Their quiet departure was scarcely noticed except for a single paragraph in the Chicago Defender, to whom they confided that “the treatment doesn’t warrant staying.” The rivulet would become rapids, which grew into a flood of six million people journeying out of the South over the course of six decades. They were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country, not unlike refugees in other parts of the world fleeing famine, war and pestilence.

Until that moment and from the time of their arrival on these shores, the vast majority of African-Americans had been confined to the South, at the bottom of a feudal social order, at the mercy of slaveholders and their descendants and often-violent vigilantes. The Great Migration was the first big step that the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.

“Oftentimes, just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do,” wrote John Dollard, an anthropologist studying the racial caste system of the South in the 1930s, “and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put on.”

The refugees could not know what was in store for them and for their descendants at their destinations or what effect their exodus would have on the country. But by their actions, they would reshape the social and political geography of every city they fled to. When the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation.

Merely by leaving, African-Americans would get to participate in democracy and, by their presence, force the North to pay attention to the injustices in the South and the increasingly organized fight against those injustices. By leaving, they would change the course of their lives and those of their children. They would become Richard Wright the novelist instead of Richard Wright the sharecropper. They would become John Coltrane, jazz musician instead of tailor; Bill Russell, NBA pioneer instead of paper mill worker; Zora Neale Hurston, beloved folklorist instead of maidservant. The children of the Great Migration would reshape professions that, had their families not left, may never have been open to them, from sports and music to literature and art: Miles Davis, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Jacob Lawrence, Diana Ross, Tupac Shakur, Prince, Michael Jackson, Shonda Rhimes, Venus and Serena Williams and countless others. The people who migrated would become the forebears of most African-Americans born in the North and West.

The Great Migration would expose the racial divisions and disparities that in many ways continue to plague the nation and dominate headlines today, from police killings of unarmed African-Americans to mass incarceration to widely documented biases in employment, housing, health care and education. Indeed, two of the most tragically recognizable descendants of the Great Migration are Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy killed in Mississippi in 1955, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot to death by police in 2014 in the city where his ancestors had fled. Their fates are a reminder that the perils the people sought to escape were not confined to the South, nor to the past.

The history of African-Americans is often distilled into two epochs: the 246 years of enslavement ending after the close of the Civil War, and the dramatic era of protest during the civil rights movement. Yet the Civil War-to-civil rights axis tempts us to leap past a century of resistance against subjugation, and to miss the human story of ordinary people, their hopes lifted by Emancipation, dashed at the end of Reconstruction, crushed further by Jim Crow, only to be finally, at long last, revived when they found the courage within themselves to break free.


A little boy boarded a northbound train with his grandmother and extended family, along with their upright piano and the rest of their worldly possessions, stuffed inside wooden crates, to begin their journey out of Mississippi. It was 1935. They were packed into the Jim Crow car, which, by custom, was at the front of the train, the first to absorb the impact in the event of a collision. They would not be permitted into the dining car, so they carried fried chicken and boiled eggs to tide them over for the journey.

The little boy was 4 years old and anxious. He’d overheard the grown-ups talking about leaving their farm in Arkabutla, to start over up north. He heard them say they might leave him with his father’s people, whom he didn’t know. In the end they took him along. The near abandonment haunted him. He missed his mother, who would not be joining them on this journey; she was away trying to make a stable life for herself after the breakup with his father. He did not know when he would see her again.

His grandfather had preceded them north. He was a hardworking, serious man who kept the indignities he suffered under Jim Crow to himself. In Mississippi, he had not dared stand up to some white children who broke the family’s wagon. He told the little boy that as black people, they had no say in that world. “There were things they could do that we couldn’t,” the boy would say of the white children when he was a grown man with gray hair and a son of his own.

The grandfather was so determined to get his family out of the South that he bought a plot of land sight unseen in a place called Michigan. On the trip north, the little boy and his cousins and uncles and aunts (who were children themselves) did not quite know what Michigan was, so they made a ditty out of it and sang it as they waited for the train. “Meatskin! Meatskin! We’re going to Meatskin!”

They landed on freer soil, but between the fears of abandonment and the trauma of being uprooted from his mother, the little boy arrived with a stutter. He began to speak less and less. At Sunday school, the children bellowed with laughter whenever he tried. So instead, he talked to the hogs and cows and chickens on the farm, who, he said years later, “don’t care how you sound.”

The little boy went mute for eight years. He wrote down the answers to questions he was asked, fearing even to introduce himself to strangers, until a high school English teacher coaxed him out of his silence by having him read poetry aloud to the class. That boy was James Earl Jones. He would go on to the University of Michigan, where he abandoned pre-med for theater. Later he would play King Lear in Central Park and Othello on Broadway, win Tony Awards for his performances in Fences and in The Great White Hope and star in films like Dr. Strange­loveRootsField of Dreams and Coming to America.

The voice that fell silent for so long would become among the most iconic of our time—the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars, of Mufasa in The Lion King, the voice of CNN. Jones lost his voice, and found it, because of the Great Migration. “It was responsible for all that I am grateful for in my life,” he told me in a recent interview in New York. “We were reaching for our gold mines, our freedom.”


The desire to be free is, of course, human and universal. In America, enslaved people had tried to escape through the Underground Railroad. Later, once freed on paper, thousands more, known as Exodusters, fled the violent white backlash following Reconstruction in a short-lived migration to Kansas in 1879.

But concentrated in the South as they were, held captive by the virtual slavery of sharecropping and debt peonage and isolated from the rest of the country in the era before airlines and interstates, many African-Americans had no ready means of making a go of it in what were then faraway alien lands.

By the opening of the 20th century, the optimism of the Reconstruction era had long turned into the terror of Jim Crow. In 1902, one black woman in Alabama seemed to speak for the agitated hearts that would ultimately propel the coming migration: “In our homes, in our churches, wherever two or three are gathered together,” she said, “there is a discussion of what is best to do. Must we remain in the South or go elsewhere? Where can we go to feel that security which other people feel? Is it best to go in great numbers or only in several families? These and many other things are discussed over and over.”

The door of escape opened during World War I, when slowing immigration from Europe created a labor shortage in the North. To fill the assembly lines, companies began recruiting black Southerners to work the steel mills, railroads and factories. Resistance in the South to the loss of its cheap black labor meant that recruiters often had to act in secret or face fines and imprisonment. In Macon, Georgia, for example, a recruiter’s license required a $25,000 fee plus the unlikely recommendations of 25 local businessmen, ten ministers and ten manufacturers. But word soon spread among black Southerners that the North had opened up, and people began devising ways to get out on their own.

Southern authorities then tried to keep African-Americans from leaving by arresting them at the railroad platforms on grounds of “vagrancy” or tearing up their tickets in scenes that presaged tragically thwarted escapes from behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. And still they left.

On one of the early trains out of the South was a sharecropper named Mallie Robinson, whose husband had left her to care for their young family under the rule of a harsh plantation owner in Cairo, Georgia. In 1920, she gathered up her five children, including a baby still in diapers, and, with her sister and brother-in-law and their children and three friends, boarded a Jim Crow train, and another, and another, and didn’t get off until they reached California.

They settled in Pasadena. When the family moved into an all-white neighborhood, a cross was burned on their front lawn. But here Mallie’s children would go to integrated schools for the full year instead of segregated classrooms in between laborious hours chopping and picking cotton. The youngest, the one she had carried in her arms on the train out of Georgia, was named Jackie, who would go on to earn four letters in athletics in a single year at UCLA. Later, in 1947, he became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

Had Mallie not persevered in the face of hostility, raising a family of six alone in the new world she had traveled to, we might not have ever known his name. “My mother never lost her composure,” Jackie Robinson once recalled. “As I grew older, I often thought about the courage it took for my mother to break away from the South.”

Mallie was extraordinary in another way. Most people, when they left the South, followed three main tributaries: the first was up the East Coast from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston; the second, up the country’s central spine, from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas to St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and the entire Midwest; the third, from Louisiana and Texas to California and the Western states. But Mallie took one of the farthest routes in the continental U.S. to get to freedom, a westward journey of more than 2,200 miles.

The trains that spirited the people away, and set the course for those who would come by bus or car or foot, acquired names and legends of their own. Perhaps the most celebrated were those that rumbled along the Illinois Central Railroad, for which Abraham Lincoln had worked as a lawyer before his election to the White House, and from which Pullman porters distributed copies of the Chicago Defender in secret to black Southerners hungry for information about the North. The Illinois Central was the main route for those fleeing Mississippi for Chicago, people like Muddy Waters, the blues legend who made the journey in 1943 and whose music helped define the genre and pave the way for rock ’n’ roll, and Richard Wright, a sharecropper’s son from Natchez, Mississippi, who got on a train in 1927 at the age of 19 to feel what he called “the warmth of other suns.”

In Chicago, Wright worked washing dishes and sweeping streets before landing a job at the post office and pursuing his dream as a writer. He began to visit the library: a right and pleasure that would have been unthinkable in his home state of Mississippi. In 1940, having made it to New York, he published Native Son to national acclaim, and, through this and other works, became a kind of poet laureate of the Great Migration. He seemed never to have forgotten the heartbreak of leaving his homeland and the courage he mustered to step into the unknown. “We look up at the high Southern sky,” Wright wrote in 12 Million Black Voices. “We scan the kind, black faces we have looked upon since we first saw the light of day, and, though pain is in our hearts, we are leaving.”

Zora Neale Hurston arrived in the North along the East Coast stream from Florida, although, as was her way, she broke convention in how she got there. She had grown up as the willful younger daughter of an exacting preacher and his long-suffering wife in the all-black town of Eatonville. After her mother died, when she was 13, Hurston bounced between siblings and neighbors until she was hired as a maid with a traveling theater troupe that got her north, dropping her off in Baltimore in 1917. From there, she made her way to Howard University in Washington, where she got her first story published in the literary magazine Stylus while working odd jobs as a waitress, maid and manicurist.

She continued on to New York in 1925 with $1.50 to her name. She would become the first black student known to graduate from Barnard College. There, she majored in English and studied anthropology, but was barred from living in the dormitories. She never complained. In her landmark 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” she mocked the absurdity: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry,” she wrote. “It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

She arrived in New York when the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and cultural flowering in the early years of the Great Migration, was in full bloom. The influx to the New York region would extend well beyond the Harlem Renaissance and draw the parents or grandparents of, among so many others, Denzel Washington (Virginia and Georgia), Ella Fitzgerald (Newport News, Virginia), the artist Romare Bearden (Charlotte, North Carolina), Whitney Houston (Blakeley, Georgia), the rapper Tupac Shakur (Lumberton, North Carolina), Sarah Vaughan (Virginia) and Althea Gibson (Clarendon County, South Carolina), the tennis champion who, in 1957, became the first black player to win at Wimbledon.

From Aiken, South Carolina, and Bladenboro, North Carolina, the migration drew the parents of Diahann Carroll, who would become the first black woman to win a Tony Award for best actress and, in 1968, to star in her own television show in a role other than a domestic. It was in New York that the mother of Jacob Lawrence settled after a winding journey from Virginia to Atlantic City to Philadelphia and then on to Harlem. Once there, to keep teenage Jacob safe from the streets, she enrolled her eldest son in an after-school arts program that would set the course of his life.

Lawrence would go on to create “The Migration Series”—60 painted panels, brightly colored like the throw rugs his mother kept in their tenement apartment. The paintings would become not only the best-known images of the Great Migration but among the most recognizable images of African-Americans in the 20th century.


Yet throughout the migration, wherever black Southerners went, the hostility and hierarchies that fed the Southern caste system seemed to carry over into the receiving stations in the New World, as the cities of the North and West erected barriers to black mobility. There were “sundown towns” throughout the country that banned African-Americans after dark. The constitution of Oregon explicitly prohibited black people from entering the state until 1926; whites-only signs could still be seen in store windows into the 1950s.

Even in the places where they were permitted, blacks were relegated to the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, barred from many unions and, at some companies, hired only as strike breakers, which served to further divide black workers from white. They were confined to the most dilapidated housing in the least desirable sections of the cities to which they fled. In densely populated destinations like Pittsburgh and Harlem, housing was so scarce that some black workers had to share the same single bed in shifts.

When African-Americans sought to move their families to more favorable conditions, they faced a hardening structure of policies and customs designed to maintain racial exclusion. Restrictive covenants, introduced as a response to the influx of black people during the Great Migration, were clauses written into deeds that outlawed African-Americans from buying, leasing or living in properties in white neighborhoods, with the exception, often explicitly spelled out, of servants. By the 1920s, the widespread use of restrictive covenants kept as much as 85 percent of Chicago off-limits to African-Americans.

At the same time, redlining—the federal housing policy of refusing to approve or guarantee mortgages in areas where black people lived—served to deny them access to mortgages in their own neighborhoods. These policies became the pillars of a residential caste system in the North that calcified segregation and wealth inequality over generations, denying African-Americans the chance accorded other Americans to improve their lot.

In the 1930s, a black couple in Chicago named Carl and Nannie Hansberry decided to fight these restrictions to make a better life for themselves and their four young children. They had migrated north during World War I, Carl from Mississippi and Nannie from Tennessee. He was a real estate broker, she was a schoolteacher, and they had managed to save up enough to buy a home.

They found a brick three-flat with bay windows in the all-white neighborhood of Woodlawn. Although other black families moving into white neighborhoods had endured firebombings and mob violence, Carl wanted more space for his family and bought the house in secret with the help of progressive white real estate agents he knew. He moved the family late in the spring of 1937. The couple’s youngest daughter, Lorraine, was 7 years old when they first moved, and she later described the vitriol and violence her family met in what she called a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.” At one point a mob descended on the home to throw bricks and broken concrete, narrowly missing her head.

But not content simply to terrorize the Hansberrys, neighbors then filed a lawsuit, forcing the family to move out, backed by state courts and restrictive covenants. The Hansberrys took the case to the Supreme Court to challenge the restrictive covenants and to return to the house they bought. The case culminated in a 1940 Supreme Court decision that was one of a series of cases that together helped strike a blow against segregation. But the hostility continued.

Lorraine Hansberry later recalled being “spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.”

In 1959, Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family on Chicago’s South Side living in dilapidated housing with few better options and at odds over what to do after the death of the patriarch, became the first play written by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway. The fight by those who migrated and those who marched eventually led to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made such discriminatory practices illegal. Carl Hansberry did not live to see it. He died in 1946 at age 50 while in Mexico City, where, disillusioned with the slow speed of progress in America, he was working on plans to move his family to Mexico.


The Great Migration laid bare tensions in the North and West that were not as far removed from the South as the people who migrated might have hoped. Martin Luther King Jr., who went north to study in Boston, where he met his wife, Coretta Scott, experienced the depth of Northern resistance to black progress when he was campaigning for fair housing in Chicago decades after the Hansberrys’ fight. He was leading a march in Marquette Park, in 1966, amid fuming crowds. One placard said: “King would look good with a knife in his back.” A protester hurled a stone that hit him in the head. Shaken, he fell to one knee. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” he told reporters. “But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

Out of such turmoil arose a political consciousness in a people who had been excluded from civic life for most of their history. The disaffected children of the Great Migration grew more outspoken about the worsening conditions in their places of refuge. Among them was Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to a lay minister who had journeyed north from Georgia, and a mother born in Grenada. Malcolm was 6 years old when his father, who was under continuous attack by white supremacists for his role fighting for civil rights in the North, died a violent, mysterious death that plunged the family into poverty and dislocation.

Despite the upheaval, Malcolm was accomplished in his predominantly white school, but when he shared his dream of becoming a lawyer, a teacher told him that the law was “no realistic goal for a n-----.” He dropped out soon afterward.

He would go on to become known as Detroit Red, Malcolm X and el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, a journey from militancy to humanitarianism, a voice of the dispossessed and a counterweight to Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.

At around the same time, a radical movement was brewing on the West Coast. Huey Newton was the impatient son of a preacher and itinerant laborer who left Louisiana with his family for Oakland, after his father was almost lynched for talking back to a white overseer. Huey was a toddler when they arrived in California. There, he struggled in schools ill-equipped to handle the influx of newcomers from the South. He was pulled to the streets and into juvenile crime. It was only after high school that he truly learned to read, but he would go on to earn a PhD.

In college he read Malcolm X and met classmate Bobby Seale, with whom, in 1966, he founded the Black Panther Party, built on the ideas of political action first laid out by Stokely Carmichael. The Panthers espoused self-determination, quality housing, health care and full employment for African-Americans. They ran schools and fed the poor. But they would become known for their steadfast and militant belief in the right of African-Americans to defend themselves when under attack, as had been their lot for generations in the Jim Crow South and was increasingly in the North and West.

Perhaps few participants of the Great Migration had as deep an impact on activism and social justice without earning the commensurate recognition for her role as Ella Baker. She was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, to devout and ambitious parents and grew up in North Carolina. After graduating from Shaw University, in Raleigh, she left for New York in 1927. There she worked as a waitress, factory worker and editorial assistant before becoming active in the NAACP, where she eventually rose to national director.

Baker became the quiet shepherd of the civil rights movement, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. DuBois. She mentored the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Rosa Parks and helped to create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—the network of college students who risked their lives to integrate buses and register blacks to vote in the most dangerous parts of the South. She helped guide almost every major event in the civil rights era, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the march in Selma to the Freedom Rides and the student sit-ins of the 1960s.

Baker was among those who suggested to King, then still in his 20s, that he take the movement beyond Alabama after the success of the bus boycott and press for racial equality throughout the South. She had a keen understanding that a movement would need Southern origins in order for participants not to be dismissed as “Northern agitators.” King was at first reluctant to push his followers in the aftermath of the taxing 381-day boycott, but she believed that momentum was crucial. The modern civil rights movement had begun.

Baker devoted her life to working at the ground level in the South to organize the nonviolent demonstrations that helped change the region she had left but not forsaken. She directed students and sharecroppers, ministers and intellectuals, but never lost a fervent belief in the power of ordinary people to change their destiny. “Give light,” she once said, “and people will find the way.”


Over time, as the people of the Great Migration embedded themselves in their cities, they aspired to leading roles in civic life. It could not have been imagined in the migration’s early decades that the first black mayors of most major cities in the North and West would not be longtime Northerners, as might have been expected, but rather children of the Great Migration, some having worked the Southern fields themselves.

The man who would become the first black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, was born on a cotton plantation in Calvert, Texas, to sharecroppers Crenner and Lee Thomas Bradley. The family migrated to Los Angeles when he was 7 years old. Once there his father abandoned the family, and his mother supported him and his four siblings working as a maid. Bradley grew up on Central Avenue among the growing colony of black arrivals from the South. He became a track star at UCLA and later joined the Los Angeles police force, rising to lieutenant, the highest rank allowed African-Americans in the 1950s.

Seeing limits on his advancement, he went to law school at night, won a seat on the city council, and was elected mayor in 1973, serving five consecutive terms.

His name would become a part of the political lexicon after he ran for governor of California in 1982. Polls had overestimated support for him due to what was believed to be the reluctance of white voters to be truthful with pollsters about their intention to vote for his white opponent, George Deukmejian. To this day, in an election involving a non-white candidate, the discrepancy between polling numbers and final outcomes due to the misleading poll responses of white voters is known as the “Bradley Effect.” In the 1982 election that Bradley had been favored to win, he lost by a single percentage point.

Still, he would describe Los Angeles, the place that drew his family out of Texas, as “the city of hope and opportunity.” He said, “I am a living example of that.”


The story of African-Americans on this soil cannot be told without the Great Migration. For many of them, the 20th century was largely an era of migrating and marching until freedom, by law and in their hearts, was won. Its mission over, the migration ended in the 1970s, when the South had sufficiently changed so that African-Americans were no longer under pressure to leave and were free to live anywhere they chose. From that time, to the current day, a new narrative took hold in popular thought that has seized primarily on geographical census data, gathered every ten years, showing that since 1975 the South has witnessed a net increase of African-Americans, many drawn (like other Americans) to job opportunities and a lower cost of living, but also to the call of their ancestral homeland, enacting what has come to be called a “reverse migration.”

The phrase and phenomenon have captured the attention of demographers and journalists alike who revisit the trend after each new census. One report went so far as to describe it as “an evacuation” from the Northern cities by African-Americans back to the place their forebears had fled. But the demographics are more complex than the narrative often portrayed. While hundreds of thousands of African-Americans have left Northern cities, they have not made a trail to the farms and hamlets where their ancestors may have picked cotton but to the biggest cities of the South—Atlanta, Houston, Dallas—which are now more cosmopolitan and thus more like their Northern counterparts. Many others have not headed South at all but have fanned out to suburbs or smaller cities in the North and West, places like Las Vegas, Columbus, Ohio, or even Ferguson, Missouri. Indeed, in the 40 years since the migration ended, the proportion of the South that is African-American has remained unchanged at about 20 percent—far from the seismic impact of the Great Migration. And so “reverse migration” seems not only an overstatement but misleading, as if relocating to an employer’s Houston office were equivalent to running for one’s life on the Illinois Central.

Richard Wright relocated several times in his quest for other suns, fleeing Mississippi for Memphis and Memphis for Chicago and Chicago for New York, where, living in Greenwich Village, barbers refused to serve him and some restaurants refused to seat him. In 1946, near the height of the Great Migration, he came to the disheartening recognition that, wherever he went, he faced hostility. So he went to France. Similarly, African-Americans today must navigate the social fault lines exposed by the Great Migration and the country’s reactions to it: white flight, police brutality, systemic ills flowing from government policy restricting fair access to safe housing and good schools. In recent years, the North, which never had to confront its own injustices, has moved toward a crisis that seems to have reached a boiling point in our current day: a catalog of videotaped assaults and killings of unarmed black people, from Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, Eric Garner in New York in 2014, Philando Castile outside St. Paul, Minnesota, this summer, and beyond.

Thus the eternal question is: Where can African-Americans go? It is the same question their ancestors asked and answered, only to discover upon arriving that the racial caste system was not Southern but American.

And so it was in these places of refuge that Black Lives Matter arose, a largely Northern- and Western-born protest movement against persistent racial discrimination in many forms. It is organic and leaderless like the Great Migration itself, bearing witness to attacks on African-Americans in the unfinished quest for equality. The natural next step in this journey has turned out to be not simply moving to another state or geographic region but moving fully into the mainstream of American life, to be seen in one’s full humanity, to be able to breathe free wherever one lives in America.

From this perspective, the Great Migration has no contemporary geographic equivalent because it was not solely about geography. It was about agency for a people who had been denied it, who had geography as the only tool at their disposal. It was an expression of faith, despite the terrors they had survived, that the country whose wealth had been created by their ancestors’ unpaid labor might do right by them.

We can no more reverse the Great Migration than unsee a painting by Jacob Lawrence, unhear Prince or Coltrane, erase The Piano Lesson, remove Mae Jemison from her spacesuit in science textbooks, delete Beloved. In a short span of time—in some cases, over the course of a single generation—the people of the Great Migration proved the worldview of the enslavers a lie, that the people who were forced into the field and whipped for learning to read could do far more than pick cotton, scrub floors. Perhaps, deep down, the enslavers always knew that. Perhaps that is one reason they worked so hard at such a brutal system of subjugation. The Great Migration was thus a Declaration of Independence. It moved those who had long been invisible not just out of the South but into the light. And a tornado triggered by the wings of a sea gull can never be unwound.

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