The Great Migration
A New Industrial Landscape
The Great Migration caused a massive increase in the African-American communities in northern cities.
Migrants worked long hours and often held several jobs to achieve their vision of the American Dream, but many of them remained poor. Black skilled craftsmen from the South were barred from such jobs in the North by company policy, union regulations, or white-only traditions within various trades.
Southern migrants often worked for a lower wage than the going rate. Arriving in the North without any savings, they were not in a position to bargain over wages. They needed to take the first available job to cover the high cost of food and housing.
At first employers were reluctant to hire African American workers, but they quickly overlooked their racism in favor of cheap labor. Many Blacks found work in factories, but most families could not survive on a single salary.
White workers blamed the Black migrants for low wages, deteriorating factory conditions, and unemployment. Labor unions refused to accept blacks due to racism.
Migrants were also denied the opportunity for advancement. The foremen gave preferential treatment to white workers in the distribution of work and the opportunity to work overtime.
The low wages paid to black men forced black women to work as well. In Chicago in the 1920s, over 85 percent of African-American women worked, whereas only 31 percent of native-born white women held jobs.
Hard Life in the North
The Great Migration gave rise to service organizations that provided aid and support to the newcomers, such as the National Urban League, founded in 1911 in New York. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and similar organizations provided needed help for incoming migrants.
There was also competition between blacks and whites for living space. Before the Great Migration, African Americans in the North lived in small clusters in various city neighborhoods. As more blacks arrived, whites closed the housing market to newcomers, forcing them into ghettos. Whites also moved out of the areas where black migrants concentrated. City government, banks, and realtors worked together to limit African Americans' housing options.
When the migrants did find housing, the buildings were usually unfit for living. Landlords split larger units into several tiny apartments. Black neighborhoods became seriously overcrowded as a result.
The combination of overcrowding, poverty, and poor access to quality medical treatment led to serious health problems in African-American communities. Long work hours in badly ventilated spaces, crowded housing, insufficient rest, and poor nutrition led to many infectious illnesses among the migrants. African American death rates were significantly higher than those of whites. The mortality rate for black infants was twice that of white babies.
The church was central to the community. The pastors were migrants themselves who worked during the day, and they catered mostly to the newcomers. Established churches also grew rapidly as southerners adjusted to city ways and joined them in great numbers. Other religious movements focusing on racial consciousness and pride developed as well and appealed to the Southerners in search of new identities.
Some newcomers became storeowners, real-estate brokers, funeral directors, or providers of various skilled services. The large numbers of migrants resulted in the formation of new institutions. By the mid-1920s, there were over two hundred black hospitals and twenty-five nursing schools in the United States.
Under the banner of black self-help, several social service organizations were founded to aid migrants and, more generally, uplift the black community. Many northern churches also established recreation centers and welfare agencies to respond to the needs of their members.
A new spirit prevailed in the arts as well. The 1920s saw the emergence of the New Negro Movement, later called the Harlem Renaissance. Writers, poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors took some of their inspiration from the lives and struggles of the newcomers to the North.
The Great Migration was about African Americans starting over and making sacrifices for future generations. As W. E. B. Du Bois concluded, the journey north represented not the end of a struggle but only its beginning.
Source: The Great Migration
© The New York Public Library, 2005.