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The Great Migration

Scott Arthur Family, 1920
Scott Arthur Family, 1920

The Great Migration

The Great Migration was the largest migration — internal or external — in United States history.

“She took the best of what she saw in the North and the South and interwove them in the way she saw fit…Her success was spiritual, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve.”

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

The Great Migration was the largest migration — internal or external — in United States history, with some six million African Americans moving from the South to North.  It was a larger migrant movement than the celebrated immigration of Italians, Irish, and other European groups through Ellis Island.

Relatives of Michele Obama, Emmett Till, Muddy Waters, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Kanye West were among the southern families that took part in the Great Migration.

The Midwest was the destination of most migrants from the Deep South states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.  Migrants rode the Illinois Central Railroad – the “Main Line of Mid-America” – to Chicago.  Many stayed, with others continuing on to Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and other cities.

Nearly 10 percent of all Great Migration migrants – some 500,000 African Americans – moved to Chicago.  In 1910, African Americans constituted 2 percent of Chicago’s population; by 1970, they were 33 percent.  In Detroit, 50,000 African Americans moved to the city Detroit between 1941 and 1943 to work in the defense industries during  World War II.  In 1940, even before the U.S. entered the war, over 10 percent of Ford’s workers were black.

Many African Americans migrated to midsize Midwest cities as well, including Omaha, Des Moines, and Gary, Indiana.

The Great Migration migrants had multiple motives for moving: some to escape the racism and violence in the Jim Crow South, others for jobs and a better life in the Midwest; and many for both reasons.

The new black communities fused southern black and midwestern folkways, resulting in a profoundly dynamic and creative stage for  black culture, politics, and society.  The era produced the Bronzeville Renaissance, and the literature of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorrain Hansberry, as well as jazz, blues guitar, and the rhythm and blues juggernaut Motown.

The Great Migration also created a base for black political power, especially in big cities like Chicago and Detroit.  That demographic power base in Illinois, for instance, was part of the foundation of the political success of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama.

A “Reverse Migration” has emerged in recent decades following deindustrialization, as some African Americans have returned to the South, especially cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. 

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