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What is the Great Migration?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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The Great Migration was an historic event within the United States in which millions of African Americans living in the South region of the country moved to other sections of the nation. Prior to this event, approximately 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the area that allowed slavery prior to the American Civil War. After Reconstruction, these residents faced persecution from ethnic whites as well as limited opportunities for employment. The Great Migration changed the dynamics of African American history and created large sections of black communities in most major cities in the United States. Most historians believe that the diversification of the country helped bring an end to segregation, promote civil rights and stimulated the rise of African Americans to middle and upper class status.

The First Great Migration occurred during the early part of the 20th century from roughly 1910 to 1930. Approximately 1.75 million African Americans traveled north and west to nearly every major American city in the country, most notably Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York. Oftentimes, entire families would simply find the cheapest available train tickets and arrive in the new city without much of a plan. Many found employment in the industrialized cities with the railroads and factories. This created whole sections of cities that were predominantly African American, giving way to a new culture of urban blacks.

When many of the migrants arrived in the new cities, they were faced with new persecutions from other immigrants from Europe. Competition for jobs and housing prompted widespread violence, particularly with ethnic Irish people, who had recently fought for their position in American society as well. The outbreak of World War I created a larger demand for employment in the North, helping to promote further migration. This was followed by the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which essentially halted the majority of immigration from Europe, further stimulating demand for workers.

Other reasons for the Great Migration include major environmental disasters that destroyed much of the industry in the South. Many rural African Americans lost their jobs when the boll weevil infestation hit cotton fields throughout the region in the early 1900s. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were then displaced from their own homes in Mississippi when a large flood destroyed miles of farmland in 1927. This prompted many to move to greener pastures of the Northern cities.

A Second Great Migration occurred from approximately 1940 to 1970, resulting in the movement of roughly five million people. Most of the migrants moved from Alabama and Mississippi to Texas and California. Notably, the defense industry required tens of thousands of workers during World War II for shipbuilding, resulting in a major influx of African Americans to Los Angeles and Oakland in California. By the time the Second Great Migration ended, 80 percent of all African Americans lived in major cities throughout the country.

A third event, known as the New Great Migration, began to take place in the late 20th century. Many of the middle and upper class African Americans began to reverse the trend north and westward by moving back to the South and East. During the last few decades of the century, Texas, Georgia and Maryland became the primary target of black migration. Much of this shift is believed to be caused by the decline in traditional industry in the North and its resurgence in the South.

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